The Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins would both like to win the Super Bowl very much—so you can write off the favorite intangible most coaches use to explain victory or defeat. Desire is equal.
Both clubs have extraordinarily talented individuals, capable of what is usually called The Big Play although, as often as not, it is The Fortuitous Play.
Both teams have bright coaches and good scouting staffs, and both will go into the Super Bowl with precise and detailed information on offense, defense, special teams and how long it takes the opposing punter or placekicker to get the ball in the air.
A great deal of the pregame publicity will be concerned with matchups—a cornerback on a wide receiver, an offensive guard on a defensive tackle, a defensive end on an offensive tackle, a center on a middle linebacker—and the judgments arrived at from evaluating these will be valid, up to a point.
Both teams are strong and skilled, and if the matchups seem a shade in favor of Dallas, matchups do not really mean that much anymore. Professional football, at the level at which Dallas and Miami will be playing in New Orleans, is not really a game of individuals.
It is, and has been for some time, a game of carefully fitted and meticulously coached units. The basic confrontation in the line next weekend will not be All-Pro Tackle Bob Lilly versus Miami Guard Bob Kuechenberg, or Cowboy Guard Blaine Nye versus Miami Tackle Manny Fernandez. These matchups will undoubtedly occur now and then, but, given the variety of offense and defense that both teams will use, the odds are that they will not very often have a clear-cut and definitive effect on the outcome of the game.
What will decide the winner of this game—and it should be Dallas by something over two touchdowns—will be the efficiency shown by the units of both teams. And efficiency within a unit—offensive line, defensive line, linebackers. defensive backs or whatever—derives from experience and, more important, the experience of the unit as a whole, not of the individuals who make it up.
Paul Wiggin, one of the San Francisco coaches, analyzed it properly after the Cowboys beat the 49ers for the NFC title. "The Vikings have the reputation for defense, mostly because of their line," he said, "but the Cowboys are probably the best defensive team in the league because of how well they coordinate all they have."
Well, coordination is not an individual thing; in the long run (no pun intended) it comes from a group of people doing the same thing together for a long time. Within the structure of modern pro football there are quite a few groups, and the groups on the Dallas team have played together, under stress, longer than those on the Dolphins.
Let's run down the matchups, group by group. The operative blocking section of the Cowboys is made up of Tony Liscio at left tackle (eight-year veteran), John Niland at left guard (six years), Dave Manders at center (seven years), Nye at right guard (four years), Ray-field Wright at right tackle (five years) and either Mike Ditka (11 years) or Billy Truax (eight years) at tight end. True, both ends joined Dallas recently, but they are veterans who fit into a new style quickly and easily.
The Miami unit they face—and remember, the matchups between the units vary from play to play as blocking and defensive assignments change, so that the efficacy of a unit depends on its ability as a whole, not on the ability of its individuals—reads like this: Jim Riley, left end (five years), Fernandez, left tackle (four years), Bob Heinz, right tackle (three years), and Bill Stanfill, right end (three years). When you match Manders with Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti, you get a plus for the Dolphins, since Nick has been playing pro ball 10 years, if only three on the defensive unit of the the Dolphins.
However, the key to the superiority of the interior of the Cowboy offensive line over the Dolphin defense lies in the fact that, for the most part, the Cowboys have played together under the same system for a minimum of four years, whereas the Dolphin defenders have been playing under Coach Don Shula's system only two years and for about the same time as a coherent unit.
Heinz is a starter for the first time, the other three have played together only three years. For Dallas, Nye is the newest addition to the offensive line, the others having belonged to the same unit for a minimum of five years. Typical of how a veteran offensive line can coordinate with quick, strong running backs was the 13-yard touchdown run Duane Thomas made in the divisional playoffs off Niland's block on Minnesota's All-Pro defensive tackle, Alan Page.
The same disparity in unit experience exists elsewhere, but most glaringly in the two secondaries. The four Cowboy starters have a total of 31 years experience, the four Dolphins only 10.
Linebackers? The Cowboy trio of Lee Roy Jordan, Chuck Howley and Dave Edwards has a total of 31 years experience, at least six as a unit; the Dolphins have a total of 14, most of that provided by Buoniconti, and they have played together as a unit only two years.
There are wide-eyed, emotional Miami fans who believe the Dolphins will wreak yet another miracle in the Super Bowl, powered by the magic of Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul War-field. Well, let's see how the Dolphin stars match their counterparts on the Cowboys.
First, Griese against Roger Staubach, the mobile, hard-running Cowboy quarterback. The Miami fanatics will tell you that here is one place where the Dolphins enjoy a big edge, but consider. Griese, during 1971, threw 263 passes, completed 145 (55.1%) for 2,089 yards and 19 touchdowns and had nine interceptions. The Miami record under Griese was 10-3-1. The losses were to the crippled 6-8 Jets, the 6-8 Patriots by a whopping 34-13 and to Baltimore. The Dolphins were tied by 4-9-1 Denver. Staubach became the Cowboys' regular quarterback in the eighth game. Since then he has won nine in a row; actually, the Cowboys have won all 12 games Staubach started. Statistically, he also has the edge on Griese. He threw 211 passes, completed 126 (59.7%) for 1,882 yards and 15 touchdowns and had only four interceptions. Staubach has been accused of losing too much yardage when he is trapped on a scramble, but while he was sacked 23 times and lost 175 yards, Griese lost 248 yards on the same number of dumps. And Staubach gained 343 yards running to Griese's 82 on only 15 more carries.
So much for the quarterbacks. Csonka and Kiick are certainly fine running backs but only about the same size as Calvin Hill and Thomas, and the Cowboy duo is considerably faster. Csonka and Kiick will probably grind out a few yards but not many against the best rushing defense in the NFC. Hill and Thomas, backed up by Walt Garrison, who is as good a short-yardage runner as either Csonka or Kiick, should find the going much easier.
That leaves the great Warfield, and certainly he ranks among the top five wide receivers in football. No one would claim that honor for the other Miami wide receiver, although Howard Twilley is dedicated and competent. The Cowboys have two wide receivers who rate on a par with Warfield in Bob Hayes and Lance Alworth. Hayes caught 35 passes for 840 yards and eight touchdowns during 1971; Warfield caught 43 for 996 and 11 touchdowns. Hayes averaged 24 yards per catch, Warfield 23.2. Alworth had 34 catches for 487, Twilley 23 for 349. The third of the top three receivers for both teams was a back—Kiick for Miami with 40 for 338, Garrison for Dallas with 40 for 396. But again, you must remember that the Cowboy receivers will be probing a relatively young Miami defense unit, the Dolphin receivers a veteran group.
Well, enough of dry statistics. The game, the Miami faithful feel, will be won on the spirit and mystique of their club. The Cowboys, they say, have been to the well so often only to spill the water that they will, again, lose The Big Game. They lost twice in the NFL finals to Green Bay, both games being decided in the final seconds of play. Both could as easily have been Dallas wins. They lost again to Baltimore in the Super Bowl last year, again in the closing seconds. They did not get into those games by losing the big ones, and they certainly will not lose to Miami this time.
How will they do it? By shutting off the Miami running game as they did San Francisco's and Minnesota's. By dumping Griese for losses or forcing him to pass in a hurry as they did to John Brodie. By covering Warfield tenaciously as they did both the 49ers' Gene Washington and the Vikings' Gene Washington, and by stretching the Miami zone defense to the breaking point with Alworth, Hayes and either Ditka or Truax. Their own running backs, behind a superior offensive line, should stagger the Dolphin short defense, making it even easier for Staubach to throw.
And, of course, if he can't throw, Staubach might beat the Dolphins all by himself by running. As slick as Griese is, could he do that?