It is unreasonable to expect that the Miami Dolphins again will enjoy the kind of success that, apart from mid-January, they experienced last season. Oh, Don Shula's club should make the playoffs for a third consecutive year, but for the team to prevail as before—without suffering one injury serious enough to revise a three-deep list—begs much of logic and more of fate.
Such was the uncommon good health of the AFC champions in 1971 that one can only suppose they have been living on borrowed Blue Cross. The Dolphins themselves, faced with what could be the most competitive race in the NFL, have that eerie feeling. "If we stay injury-free," says Nick Buoniconti, the seasoned middle linebacker, "there's no reason we shouldn't repeat."
The Dolphins have defied all that seems logical ever since Shula arrived on the scene in 1970, developed a remarkable ball-control offense and unreasonably proceeded to turn a 10-game loser into a 10-game winner. Logic says that teams that possess the football as long as Bob Griese and his tenacious playmates do will afford a study in inexorable boredom except when they are fumbling the ball away or throwing it into enemy hands. Yet few teams in memory have generated more thrills from their art than the Dolphins, whose limit of regular-season turnovers last year stood at 23, lowest in the division.
The heart of the offense is the NFL's best rushing attack, led by Larry Csonka and his all-purpose buddy, Jim Kiick, who combined for 1,789 yards, 10 touchdowns and a single fumble in 357 carries. Breakaway Back Mercury Morris, who led the AFC in kickoff returns, did not get into the act often enough to suit his pride and has hectored Shula for more work.
But the man who makes Miami move is Griese, a quarterback who brings more cool detachment to the game than his 27 years normally acquire. Sure-handed, intelligent and a scrambler when the need arises, Griese was the NFL's second-ranking passer in '71 with 2,089 yards, 19 touchdowns and but nine interceptions. Now he plans to improve.
What should help Griese is a third season of familiarity with Paul Warfield, who led the league with 11 touchdown receptions, and an introductory one with Marlin Briscoe, who played out his option at Buffalo. Griese's other options are Marv Fleming, Howard Twilley and Jim Mandich.
Until the Super Bowl, when Dallas ran over the Dolphins with alarming impunity, Miami's defense appeared sound in holding regular-season rivals to 174 points. After that, however, no one was more alarmed than Shula, who promptly acquired Jim Dunaway (6'4", 277) in a trade with the accommodating Bills and made Notre Dame's Mike Kadish (6'5", 265) his first draft choice, hoping to combat the rush with more size. Dunaway already has won a starting job in the front four, where Manny Fernandez and Bill Stanfill are accomplished pass rushers. Against the pass, the Dolphins again will utilize a swarming zone blessed by the moxie of Jake Scott and Dick Anderson at safeties, with Tim Foley and Curtis Johnson starting their third year at the corners. For Miami the season may come up like thunder, since the Dolphins face a predictably dramatic opener at Kansas City and road games at Minnesota and Shea Stadium during the first four weeks.
Defense, for sure, is the primary reason that the Colts again should battle Miami to the wire, ready to usurp the title they missed by one half game. Baltimore in '71 was audacious at crushing ballcarriers, sacking quarterbacks and stealing passes. Only five field goals were kicked against the team, which blocked seven other attempts along with three punts and a conversion try to set a club record low yield of 140 points.
Yet, if the team is to succeed, improvement must come from a passing attack that produced only 10 touchdowns, partly because of increased emphasis on the running game, partly because a lot of receivers came up stone-fingered. Johnny Unitas, who unemotionally turns 40 next May, once again has sound ankles inside his high-top shoes, however, and that's a plus, since a ruptured Achilles' tendon kept him from starting the first nine games last season. But a preseason quest to find Unitas' possible fill-in filled Coach Don McCafferty with foreboding. Karl Douglas was dismal enough to cause the Colts to trade a No. 1 draft choice for Marty Domres from San Diego.
While Unitas is not the Unitas of old, Baltimore's running game is such that he doesn't have to be. Norm (Boo) Bulaich, who missed 4½ games—when you add up the quarters—still gained 741 yards on his way to eight touchdowns; Tom Matte, possibly in his final season, picked up 607 yards; and Don Nottingham, the low-drafted bowling ball from Kent State, added another 388. Don McCaulcy, due for increased duty, and rookie Lydell Mitchell add to Baltimore's excess of running backs.
As for receivers, the Colts had hoped to prosper from the infighting between Tight Ends Tom Mitchell and John Mackey, both of whom were considered good but neither of whom caught a scoring pass last year. Mitchell was the team's leader with 33 receptions and continued to perform well in this summer's exhibition games. Informed that Mitchell would start, Mackey said, "Play me, trade me or I'll retire." Monday he retired. Eddie Hinton is hoping to return to happier days, but the Colts' receiving remains worrisome enough for Kicker Jim O'Brien to devote time to practicing curl patterns as well as field goals.
Most of the lads who compiled those impressive defensive statistics are ready to have at it again, although Bubba Smith, leader of the front four, is now gone. First, Bubba struck out against new General Manager Joe Thomas in an attempt to have his contract renegotiated and spent much of his training-camp time in brooding, seething anger. Then he broke an ankle against Pittsburgh and will miss the entire season. Baltimore's linebacking trio of Ted Hendricks, Mike Curtis and Ray May just may be the best in football and the secondary is similarly solid. "We've got a defense," McCafferty says, "and that's where football begins."
The Jets passed a prerequisite test when Phil Iselin and Weeb Ewbank got Joe Namath's signature on a contract—reputedly for $500,000 over the next two seasons. Since Joe Willie has missed 19 of the team's last 28 games—the knees, you know—that kind of money could be quite a gamble, but if he stays pinned together New York should be a factor in the race. "We've felt for the last three years that we had as good material as anyone," Ewbank says.
Should Namath endure, opposing defenses will discover again that the Jets' offensive line blocks with fanatic zeal for their friable field general. Targets for Namath's passes, however, may be a problem. Ewbank traded away Pete Lammons after switching 6'5" Rich Caster to tight end, which needed more speed and size, but then Caster got injured and missed the last five preseason games. Don Maynard, at 35, is back for his 14th season, but Shea Stadium's biggest cheers may go to Eddie Bell, the smallest Jet ever at 5'10" and 160 pounds. Bell comes with great hands and goes at 4.5 speed, a deep threat if he doesn't run into anyone bigger than Gloria Steinem. One who could make a difference is Jerome Barkum, the club's No. 1 draft choice who reported late but showed great potential in exhibitions.
The Jets' strength includes a running attack led by Emerson Boozer and John Riggins, who combined for 1,387 yards, and a defense that was the AFC's best two seasons ago before it was cut down by 20 different injuries. "If we can stay in one piece," says Larry Grantham, who has been with the team since its Titan days, "we can win it all."
That kind of confidence may soon spread to the Patriots, counting on better things in Jim Plunkett's second season and remembering that, in his first one, they beat every division foe at least once. The AFC Rookie of the Year threw 19 touchdown passes, played every offensive down and should be better for both experiences. The offensive line, however, will have to do more in the way of protection. Plunkett was sacked 36 times, a sorry tendency that continued through early exhibition games. Plunkett can be expected to connect regularly with Randy Vataha, his old Stanford buddy who caught 51 passes in his rookie year, Reggie Rucker, and Tom Reynolds, the Pats' top draftee.
General Manager Upton Bell, who has found numerous football players out of the dregs of the waiver wire, unloaded an oversized Jim Nance on the Eagles. His new running game—with Carl Garrett, Jack Maitland, Bob Gladieux or rookie Josh Ashton—should complement Plunkett.
The Patriot defense, though, was the fourth worst in the AFC and an obvious concern to Coach John Mazur, who also is worried about keeping his job. He will continue to worry.
As for the Buffalo Bills, who brought home one victory for their entire year's work, the word is, "Lou's back," and that may mean considerable improvement. Lou Saban guided the Bills to two championships in the mid-'60s before he went off to a frustrating existence in Denver, and one of the Bills happiest about his return is O. J. Simpson, who may now enjoy the workhorse rushing duty he has been pining for ever since he left USC. Saban also has the nucleus of an explosive passing attack in Quarterback Dennis Shaw, who completed 51% of his passes last season, and in such fine receivers as J. D. Hill, Haven Moses and Jan White.
Buffalo's first draft choice, and No. 1 in the NFL, was Walt Patulski, whom Saban hoped would help plug a porous defense, but the Notre Dame All-America was injured at the College All-Star camp which has slowed his progress. Defensive End Al Cowlings should enjoy a good season, though, and in Corner-back Robert James, Saban has one of the league's finest.
"Last year we blew at least six games on mental mistakes," O. J. says, "so I'm looking for improvement from a 7-7 record, not 1-13. We're going to surprise a lot of people."
There is no good place to hide on a gridiron, especially from the East's thundering lines.