When they put it all together, they are really something to see, these uppity Miami Dolphins. To be sure, the Dolphins don't put it together every time they get the football. But they are doing it with increasing frequency. For that and for other reasons that reflect their own immense improvement, and because of some extraordinary events not of their making—a plague of injuries to key people on contending clubs, such as John Unitas and Joe Namath; defections here and there; various crises of the spirit—and because the schedule should work to their advantage, the Dolphins are a Super Bowl contender.
And why not? Joe Thomas, the surest personnel man in the game, has supplied Don Shula, one of its best coaches, with the ingredients. Shula has responded by cooking up the toughest running attack in the AFC, to wit: Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick, with a little Mercury Morris on the side. Morris is not half as hard to bring down as the other two, but is twice as tough to find. He averaged 6.8 yards a rush last year. And when Csonka wasn't running over people (second leading rusher in the AFC with 874 yards) he was knocking them aside for sidekick Kiick. The process is reversible. Kiick plays Sundance to Csonka's Butch Cassidy in the Miami press (they even held out for more money together), and The Kid may just be the best all-round back in football. He runs, he catches, he blocks, and he can smell a goal line in the dark.
Then there is Bob Griese. His four-year passing totals (8,192 yards) far exceed those made by Brodie, Starr, Jurgensen and Gabriel in their first four years (admittedly, only Griese was a starter for the entire period); and last season he led the AFC with a 58% completion figure. Griese is a leader. It comes naturally. "If there's a group of guys standing around," he says, "somebody has to take charge." Griese takes charge. His roommate is Wide Receiver Paul Warfield. They have developed a sensitivity for one another, what Griese calls "a complete anticipation." Warfield averaged 25 yards per reception in 1970.
Assistant Coach Monte Clark has improved the offensive line. Guard Larry Little was voted the best offensive lineman in the AFC by rival players. And although Griese had other fine targets to throw to in addition to Warfield (Howard Twilley, Karl Noonan, Marv Fleming), Thomas gave him an uncut diamond in Otto Stowe of Iowa State.
The Miami defense is tough. It is also deceiving. It does not get to the quarterback often (last in the league in sacks with 18 in 1970), but that is due to the nature of Shula's containing zone. The result: the Dolphins allowed the fewest points in their division. The secondary, from Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti (slightly hampered by a broken wristbone) to Safeties Dick Anderson and Jake Scott, is first-rate.
A psychology test was given to the Dolphins this year. It revealed a "shocking amount of ambition." The psychologists traced it to Shula, who, they said, "is very much attuned to ambitious people." Astrologist Doris Kay said the Dolphins are Sagittarians. She said it is going to be a very good year for Sagittarians.
The prospect of a three-team race in the East is still there, of course. Only the odds have changed. The Colts, you will remember, won the Super Bowl. But, in April, having survived 280-pound tackles, John Unitas fell chasing a two-ounce ball in a game of paddle ball and ruptured the Achilles' tendon of his right foot. Unitas says he is ready to play. He is a Taurus, bull-stubborn, and a quick healer. Earl Morrall, the young fellow (a mere 37) who backs up Johnny U., says Coach Don McCafferty called him after Unitas' fall. "Don't do any skiing, Earl," he said. "How about some fishing, Coach?" "No, you might fall out of the boat and drown."
More, Billy Ray Smith, a 12-year veteran at defensive tackle, hung up his bandages to be a stockbroker. Without Smith, says one Colt, "we don't have the ranting and cursing that arouse a defense." Wide Receiver Jimmy Orr also retired, as did Tackle Sam Ball.
In a personnel match-up with Miami you would have to say the Colts are a close second. Their running game is similar, featuring Tom Matte, Norm Bulaich, Don McCauley, the No. 1 draft pick from North Carolina, and Don Nottingham, the No. 17 pick from Kent State and the 441st and next to last man taken in the entire draft. But these four have two things in common: while they can bloody your nose and bruise your spirit, they can't outrun you.
The Colt receivers are quality, what's left of them. Tight Ends John Mackey and Tom Mitchell are incomparable. Eddie Hinton is a legitimate deep threat. Ray Perkins will play fulltime with the departure of Roy Jefferson to Washington. After these.... Placekicker Jim O'Brien, whose field goal won the Super Bowl, is now the third wide receiver. O'Brien played there in college, but whenever they let him go in he's told, "Don't block anybody, don't make anybody mad and, above all, don't let anybody step on your foot."
Even without Billy Ray, the Baltimore defense is topnotch. It is led by Mike (Intimidate! Destroy!) Curtis, the middle linebacker who says he won't even let his marriage mellow him. He'd get a divorce first. Curtis characterizes the Colts well: "We do what we have to do." Doing it with him principally are: End Bubba Smith and Linebacker Ted (Mad Stork) Hendricks, 6'7" and 215 and always around the ball making weird tackles.
Meanwhile, Morrall says he's getting that oldtime feeling. He is holstered up and talking like Jimmy Stewart in the last reel: "We're just two old quarterbacks, John and me, but...." It is enough to make a rival pause.
Just when Mr. Namath was convincing the world (or at least The New York Times) that beneath that egomaniacal exterior beat the heart of a really good Joe, a Detroit linebacker leaned on his left knee. His replacement is Al Woodall. When the Jets beat the Giants in an exhibition, they did it by letting Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer run the ball. It is a good running game, abetted by No. 1 draftee John Riggins.
Not only is Namath gone, but so is his best receiver, George Sauer Jr., a sensitive young man who quit when he finally realized pro football wasn't Albert Schweitzer working with lepers. The other distinguished deep threat, Don Maynard, is 34 years old and didn't score a touchdown in 1970. Richard Caster, 6'5" and quick, better help. It would help if he held onto the ball.
The offensive line is good enough (All-Pro Winston Hill is plenty good enough), but half the defensive line defected. Tackle Verlon Biggs never liked it much in New York and is now with Washington. Tackle Steve Thompson quit to pursue a more Christian life. Still, there's All-Pro Tackle John Elliott and at end a healthier Gerry Philbin. The linebacking is good, too, as is the secondary.
The fact remains, as one admiring rival points out, that Coach Weeb Ewbank's teams "are never flat. They come to play." The difficulty this year is that they play their first three games at Baltimore, at St. Louis and at Miami. They may be 0-3 before the doctors chip off that famous cast.
What the Jets used to be is what the Buffalo Bills are fast becoming. Fool around, struggle for a yard, eke out a first down, then wham! Did anyone get the license number? The culprits have been well publicized: O. J. Simpson; Marlin Briscoe, No. 1 AFC receiver last year; Quarterback Dennis Shaw, Rookie of the Year; and now, Extra Special Added Attraction J. D. Hill, the wide receiver from Arizona State. The other night in Atlanta, wearing pretty red shoes, Hill caught touchdown passes of 60 and 65 yards. Alas, it looks like Hill will be out for the season following knee surgery.
Harvey Johnson, their new coach, has the Bills fired up. O.J. is happy; J.D. is still gung-ho. There were five fights on the practice field one week. Asked what he needed to make them real contenders, Johnson said, "More players with initials instead of first names."
Did the Boston Patriots, those lovable old patsies, really cause a traffic jam? Well, not exactly. The New England Patriots (same team, new name) did, in Foxboro, Mass. around their new 61,000-seat—or, more exactly, backless, aluminum bench—stadium, which is unique in that, for a time, it appeared to be both access and egress proof. Furthermore, none of the 600 toilets could be flushed. In a subsequent experiment, 350 toilets were flushed at once, radically lowering the water pressure.
On the credit side, the Pats sold 50,000 season tickets and signed a new coach, John Mazur, and Jim Plunkett, who is destined to be their quarterback.
On the debit side, Joe Kapp, who was supposed to help Plunkett, is sulking somewhere with his unsigned contract. Tackle Phil Olsen, the team's 1970 No. 1 draft choice, slipped through a loophole in his contract and wound up with the Rams, where he tore ligaments in his knee and is out for the season. And Carl Garrett was traded to Dallas for Duane Thomas, which turned out to be a busted play. When Mazur told Thomas to get down in a three-point stance, Thomas got down in a two-point stance. See Mazur burn. Hear Mazur scream. See the deal fall through.
Garrett celebrated his return by running for 110 yards against the Giants. With a healthy Jim Nance, they make a good pair. But the Pats had the worst offense in the NFL in 1970. Attempting to improve it, Mazur has traded for Tackle Rich Moore of Green Bay, giving up linebacker John Bramlett, the team's MVP in 1970, but in the doghouse over a tavern brawl.
There is every reason to doubt that the Pats can keep the 50,000 regulars glued to their backless aluminum benches Sunday after Sunday, but, with more than 150 players having passed through the camp to date, the fans should be occupied studying their programs. At least Mazur has established himself. And his message is out: "If your work is not fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm."