Coach Don Shula of the Dolphins is a decent sort of guy. He is kind to animals, polite to strangers, does not yell at his wife and kids and pulls his team off the practice field on those autumn afternoons when the Miami sky begins blinking on and off as if a giant fluorescent tube has gone haywire above the dark clouds. Shula does not particularly care for electrical storms; not only do they scare him, but they remind him of the shocking number of Dolphins who have been zapped by injuries almost as if they had been struck by lightning. Those bolts from the gray have hit with particularly disheartening accuracy at his No-Name Defense. And worst of all for Shula, it was the defense that was supposed to keep the Dolphins solid while he tried to figure out how to replace WFL defectors Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield on the offensive unit.
But before Shula was even able to take a good look at his new offense—Zot!—All-AFC Defensive End Bill Stanfill was hit on the head in Miami's first exhibition game when he and the Dolphins' other defensive end, Vern Den Herder, tried to tackle a runner who was not there anymore and ended up butting helmets. Stanfill missed the rest of the exhibition season with a pinched nerve in his neck. It loosened up enough for him to play in Miami's first two regular-season games—a tough 31-21 loss to Oakland and an uneasy 22-14 win over hapless New England—but on the morning before the team left for last week's game at Green Bay, he woke up to find his neck about as limber as a redwood. He watched the Dolphins' lopsided 31-7 victory on television from a hospital room.
Zap! In a later exhibition, All-NFL Free Safety Jake Scott suffered a shoulder separation and aggravated an old knee injury. He too missed the rest of the exhibition season, and although he started at Green Bay, there is some doubt as to how strong his knee actually is.
Then—Zak!—Strong Safety Dick Anderson also injured a knee and was sidelined for the season. Zonk! Defensive Captain Nick Buoniconti was hit on the thumb in seven different places. (He has big thumbs.) He is out for the season. Zop! Tackle Manny Fernandez, the spiritual leader of the defensive line, sustained a sprained ankle in the final exhibition game and will not play for a few more weeks. Zam! In the same game, the other defensive tackle, Bob Heinz, was hit on a knee. He is finished for the year.
In sum, those injuries meant that Shula had to begin the season without five veteran defensive starters. Suddenly, Miami's defense, not its offense, was his primary concern. The Dolphins could depend on good quarterbacking by Bob Griese and they had three runners, Mercury Morris, Don Nottingham and Norm Bulaich, who looked as if they would make the departures of Csonka and Kiick less painful than first anticipated. In fact, only the search for a wide receiver to replace Warfield has not gone well. One candidate, Mel Baker, suddenly turned up with fingers that seemed to be coated with STP, and Shula promptly traded him. Another, Rookie Morris Owens, hurt a thigh in practice last week and was put on the injured reserve list. That left only semifit Nat Moore (bruised big toe), Howard Twilley (mending hamstring) and Rookie Fred Solomon, a speedy former college quarterback at Tampa. Even though he hauled in a 58-yard pass for a touchdown against the Packers, Solomon still might be more comfortable throwing the ball than catching it.
With its lack of good receivers and with Griese in an uncharacteristic slump (he threw seven interceptions in the Dolphins' first two games), Miami was forced to rely on its familiar game plan of three yards and a cloud of Poly-Turf. But even without Csonka, those old tactics were working well enough, particularly when Nottingham ran for 120 yards in 16 carries against the Patriots.
It was on defense that changes had become imperative. In effect, the Dolphin defensive unit had come full circle, with the famous No-Names being replaced by some genuine no-names. The only 1974 starter currently on the line is Den Herder.
"We're strapped," he admits. "It's taking more work than I thought it would, at least before all these injuries happened. But we've got the effort; all it will take now is more verbal communication with these new linemen."
These new linemen are two second-year men, Tackles Randy Crowder and Don Reese, and a former WFLer, End John Andrews. Crowder has been looking stronger each week, which means he is likely to play a lot even after Fernandez returns. Reese, who replaced Heinz at right tackle, comes from a family of 11 children. In order to feed all those mouths, his father owns three businesses in Mobile, Ala.: a funeral parlor, a burial vault manufacturing company and a septic tank company. "He really cleans up," says Don, who might be doing the same, but he isn't completely healthy either; he hurt a knee in the Dolphins' opener when Crowder fell on him. And Andrews was nearly cut by Shula. He was spared at the last minute when Heinz and Fernandez were injured, and overnight improvement has made him a valuable part of the line.
Opponents have been not able to take undue advantage of the Dolphins' youthful defensive line, partly because the line-backing, despite the absence of Buoniconti, has remained tough. Bob Matheson, Doug Swift and Mike Kolen, who has moved into Buoniconti's middle spot after years as an outside linebacker in Miami's famed 53 Defense, are all skilled and experienced.
"We don't have any dumb football players on this team," adds Charlie Babb, who intercepted three passes against Oakland as Anderson's replacement at strong safety. "We're all heady players. It will take a while to get coordinated, but my perception of the situation is that although we always may be no-names, we'll soon be as good as ever."
The Dolphins' six most recent quarters indicate that Babb's "soon" may be right now. Miami followed its loss to Oakland with a dismal first half against the Patriots. Trailing 14-0 at the start of the third period, the Dolphins abruptly turned the game around, shutting New England out in the second half while scoring two touchdowns and three field goals.
That pattern continued at Green Bay. On Miami's first series, Nottingham, who had three TDs and 102 yards, scored from the 11-yard line. After the ensuing kickoff, the Packers began a march of their own, pushing into Miami territory as Quarterback John Hadl completed three consecutive passes against the Dolphins' seemingly confused defense. Then, despite an off-sides penalty that allowed the Packer drive to continue just when Miami seemed to have it stopped, the Dolphins stiffened and forced Green Bay to attempt a field goal that missed. The Packers did not threaten again until they put together a meaningless fourth-quarter drive for their touchdown.
By that time the Dolphins had the game firmly in hand. Morris, who rolled up 125 yards rushing, joined Nottingham in giving Miami a balanced running attack, and Griese broke out of his slump with a 7 for 13, 133-yard passing performance. Two of his completions allowed the Dolphins to break the game open in the second quarter. His 23-yard toss to Moore set up a one-yard touchdown run by Nottingham. Then he threw the ball 44 yards to Solomon, who gathered it in and raced the remaining 14 to the end zone.
Miami's offense amassed 414 yards and its defense held Green Bay to 227. Those are the sort of figures that the No-Name, pre-WFL Dolphins used to thrive on. To be sure, last week's good numbers were attained against a poor Packer team, but they were accumulated in such impressive fashion that the old Dolphin lightning could soon be electrifying Miami again.