In the American Football Conference there are four divisions—the Eastern Division, the Western Division, the Central Division and the long division between Miami and the rest of the conference. This week, even before the Christmas shopping season officially began, the Dolphins sewed up a place in the playoffs by whipping the New York Jets 28-24 in front of thousands of rude people waving handkerchiefs in the Orange Bowl.
The Jets and all the other contenders in the AFC have won-loss records that would not qualify them for the Fiesta Bowl, while Miami is fast becoming a statistical legend in its own time. As the figures listed here show, Miami is only the second club in the last decade to win its first 10 games, and it has a chance to be the first team in National Football League history to win all 14 regular-season games. The Dolphins' remaining schedule presents almost no difficulties—unless they start giving up points to ennui and overconfidence.
Against the Jets, Miami did in fact play almost nonchalantly, limiting itself to exactly one touchdown a quarter and making a number of inexcusable mistakes. Time and again the Dolphins had to be bailed out by their defense, which leads the league in a lot of things, anonymity included.
Consider. In the first series of the game, Joe Namath—returning to the scene of his Super Bowl triumph of 1969—dropped back to pass from his 15. Split End Don Maynard put a good move on the Dolphin strong safety, who recovered quickly and intercepted the ball, setting the Dolphins up in business on the Jet 33. From there, seven plays later, Earl Morrall—rushed into the breach six weeks ago to replace the injured Bob Griese—threw to slow-but-tricky Howard Twilley for 7-0, a touchdown that could be chalked up to the No-Name Defense.
The Dolphins sagged a little then. Nick Buoniconti, the middle linebacker who leads the defense and has its only name—he got it at Notre Dame and in the old AFL—appeared to be overly concerned with the Jet running game. Seizing on this, Namath put a beautiful 80-yard drive together to tie the score, and after that the Jets were very much in the contest the rest of the way, mostly because of the Miami offense's habit of coughing up the ball with untypical regularity.
As it turned out, however, the issue was really settled at a point before half-time when New York, leading 14-7, intercepted a Morrall pass and had first down on the Miami nine. Here the No-Names rose to the occasion. "We have had a big-play defense all year and it made the big plays today just when we needed them," Dolphin Coach Don Shula said afterward.
On first down, Emerson Boozer was dropped for a yard loss on an attempted sweep. Then, after an offensive pass-interference penalty, Boozer lost another yard trying to go off tackle, and a third-down pass went wildly incomplete. The Jets happily settled for a field goal to lead 17-7, and although the Dolphin offense was seldom at its stunning best thereafter, it supplied just enough punch to keep the whole team undefeated.
The biggest star on the attack was not the venerable Morrall or the diligent Twilley or even Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick—it was Mercury Morris, who now splits a running-back assignment with Kiick. Morris ran for 107 yards in 23 carries, mostly because of his remarkable talent for moving sideways at full speed. Only Morrall, of all people, managed to top Morris by running 31 yards for a touchdown on a broken pass play. "That's one of the longest runs I ever made," Morrall said afterwards. "I guess it's just fate."
Destiny notwithstanding, the Dolphins have achieved their success not so much with their offense as with their ability to take the ball away from opposing clubs. When you go over the evidence, you have to listen to the attorney for the defense. That would be Buoniconti, who intercepted Namath once to save a sure Jet score. He is a short, square man with half a hairy chest. The reason it is not a whole hairy chest is that the other half was shaved away to accommodate adhesive bandages used to relieve a shoulder injury.
Buoniconti really is an attorney, although he has never, in fact, stood for the defense. While he was playing for the Boston Patriots he spent the off-season as an assistant prosecuting attorney. After moving to Miami in 1969 he worked in litigation for one law firm, and now handles business law for another.
Buoniconti has a great deal to do with arranging the rather complex defense for the Dolphins. While the well-publicized runners and receivers have been putting points on the board, Buoniconti and the rest of the No-Names have been denying opponents points even more efficiently. One reason they have no name is because no one has been able to come up with something like the Los Angeles Rams' Fearsome Foursome, the Minnesota Vikings' Purple People Eaters or the Dallas Cowboys' Doomsday Defense. Many fans, even in Miami, could not name the front four of the Dolphins and would be hard put to identify anyone on the defense, with the exception of Buoniconti, who is flanked by outside linebackers Nos. 57 and 59.
"We don't have any superstars playing defense," Buoniconti said last Saturday. "It's a crashing cliché to say this, but it's true. Since we don't have the great individuals, we do it on teamwork. We come up with the big plays."
At 31, Buoniconti is by almost five years the oldest man on the mobile young crew. A free-roaming, free-lancing kind of linebacker for seven years with the Patriots—and for his first season with the Dolphins as well—he had a difficult time adjusting to a new defensive philosophy after Shula took over the team in 1970. "We blitzed about half the time in Boston. I mean, I was more or less on my own. I was always trying to play my position and a part of another position. Then when Shula came here, he put in a very disciplined defense. You have a primary responsibility, and you take care of that. If you can do that with time left over to do something else, then you can help out. But the first thing you do is protect your territory."
For the first half of his first season under Shula, Buoniconti regularly overcommitted, left his position and in general did almost all the things that Shula felt a defender should never do. "I was really discouraged," Buoniconti recalls. "I'd had a pretty good career in the AFL and now it looked like I couldn't do anything right. I guess it was after our seventh or eighth game that year that I came into the dressing room really down. Don asked me to come into his room and told me that he knew how I felt. 'It takes maybe eight or 10 games to learn this defense,' he said to me. 'You're doing a real good job. Just quit worrying. You're going to make it.' "
Obviously, Buoniconti did make it. Now he operates the sophisticated Miami system with aplomb. He does not call the defensive plays; those come from the sideline. But he makes all the adjustments to any unexpected changes. "I have complete freedom," he says. "The plays come in, but I call all the automatics and I make the little changes in spacing and so on. It's a challenge and a pleasure. I like it."
At 5'11" and 220, Buoniconti is a midget among middle linebackers. When he finished his college career at Notre Dame, he was the 13th draft choice of the Patriots but when the NFL and the AFL merged he was chosen as the all-time AFL middle linebacker. He has not diminished in talent since then.
"His two great qualities are quickness and intelligence," says Shula. "He's really not tall enough to play middle linebacker, but his anticipation is so good that he's always in the right place. And he's quick as a cat."
Certainly, Buoniconti does not constitute the whole Miami defense by himself. All season long the other No-Names have made memorable contributions. One of the many defensive formations the Dolphins use is The Fifty-Three, in which they employ only three defensive linemen along with various combinations of linebackers and defensive backs. This is a strong defense against the pass, and it places an unconscionable burden on the middle man in the three-man line, No. 75, a big, cheerful citizen who wears a Fu Manchu mustache.
"He plays under tremendous pressure and does a fine job," says Defensive Line Coach Mike Scarry, of No. 75. "He's always got two people blocking him—a guard and the center—and lots of times a back stays in to pick him up if he splits the double block. That means he doesn't get in on the quarterback very often, but we don't expect him to. What he does is bust in there and force things to happen."
No. 84, a defensive end, performs a similar vital function for the No-Names. "Maybe these guys don't get the tackle," Scarry says, "but they put the quarterback or the runner in position for someone else to make it. That's why we insist on our people playing their positions. Pursuit is fine, but it's not a bunch of people running around haphazardly after the ball. You pursue only after you are sure you know where the ball is going."
Ironically, this fashionable style of methodical, patterned defensive play, based on zones of responsibility, has in some respects cut down the Dolphins as a striking power. Although helping the runners on all teams, zones have diminished the superstar wide receivers, among them Paul Warfield, whom many experts consider the finest deep threat in football.
Warfield, who sat out the Jet game with a sprained ankle and a sore arch, is philosophical about it. "I spent a lot of time learning moves," he says. "When just about everyone played man-to-man pass defense, I used to study the defensive back who would be on me before every game. I rehearsed my patterns until they were perfect to the inch. Now, with zone coverage, it doesn't make any difference. I can put all the moves I want to on a back or a linebacker; they don't pay any attention to me. When I leave them, someone else will take me. So you have great athletes who spend an afternoon patrolling nothing more than about 10 square yards of ground. The duels are gone and the long passes are gone and I think that's what excited people."
Of course, winning excites people, too, and most fans do not really care how you manage it. If you can do it with Warfield outmaneuvering a defensive back man-on-man, fine. If you do it with runners such as Csonka and Morris and Kiick, fine. And if you have to do it with defense, they will take that, too. Just ask the Dolphins' attorney for the defense about his No-Names.
P.S. They do have names.
THE FRONT FOUR: Manny Fernandez (75), Vein Den Herder (83), Bill Stanfill (84), Bob Heinz (72).
THE LINEBACKERS: Buoniconti, Doug Swift (59), Mike Kolen (57).
THE CORNERBACKS: Tim Foley (25), Curtis Johnson (45).
THE SAFETIES: Dick Anderson (40), Jake Scott (13).
The No-Name Defense got the ball, and well-knowns like Mercury Morris made the points.
The attorney for the defense, Nick Buoniconti (85) rushes in to help his lesser-known teammates, 40 (left) and 84, bring down John Riggins.