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Original Issue

A Season in Hell

While the Patriots chase perfection, the last perfect team watches its legacy turn to ashes

CHARLIE BABBlooked like he'd just swallowed a stale nacho. "Oh, my God, that'sawful," he said, sitting in the alumni suite at Dolphin Stadium on Sundayafternoon. "It's horrible. I don't know if I can even think about it rightnow. You're asking how I would feel if the Patriots go undefeated and theDolphins go winless?"

Babb, a defensiveback for Miami in 1972, paused, looked at his feet and swallowed hard. "Thething is, if the Dolphins go winless, they can still get the No. 1 pick, comeback next season, maybe even win the Super Bowl," he said. "If thePatriots go undefeated, it will never be the same again."

The '72 Dolphins,renowned for their celestial season, have entered their season from hell. Notonly is New England 9--0 and threatening their Olympian turf, but Miami is 0--9and threatening to ruin their legacy. As the Patriots chase the 17--0 Dolphinsof '72, the only NFL team to finish a season undefeated and untied, this year'sDolphins sink toward the '76 Buccaneers, the NFL's only winless team. It'stough to tell right now who's a safer bet to make history, but the Dolphinshave the harder schedule. In the next two weeks they play at Philadelphia andPittsburgh. And there's another little road test looming: Dec. 23 at NewEngland. "I think Bill Belichick is going to want to obliterate theDolphins," says Jim Mandich, a tight end on the '72 team. "And he's gotthe arsenal this season to obliterate anybody."

The veterans of'72 take exception to the notion that they all pop the bubbly when the lastundefeated team loses each season. But they are proud of their record, andthere would be little joy in a Patriots loss if the Dolphins did not even haveone measly win. "I don't even drink champagne," says Jim Kiick, a '72running back, "but I might take some Jack Daniels."

The grizzledDolphins could have used something stiff on Sunday after watching anotherexercise in self-immolation. Miami blew an eight-point lead late and lost tothe Blls 13--10 on a last-minute field goal. Even more excruciating, thepreviously winless Rams beat New Orleans, leaving the Dolphins as the NFL'slast 0-fer. No matter that they were coming off a bye, playing at home againsta middling opponent. "We felt like this was our day," Miami nosetackleKeith Traylor said.

If the Lions orthe Cardinals were 0--9, it would be one thing, but 35 years ago Don Shula andhis gang turned Miami into a marquee NFL franchise, one that monopolizesattention in South Florida regardless of its record. When players retire, theyrarely leave the area. And on Sundays they watch games from an alumni suiteloaded with hot dogs and stocked with overhead televisions.

The '72 Dolphinsfollow the organization as though it were their alma mater. They know exactlywhy the team has not been to the playoffs in six years or to the conferencechampionship in 14 seasons: Too many big-name coaches--Jimmy Johnson, DaveWannstedt, Nick Saban--were given too much power. Not one Miami draft pick from1998 through 2003 is on the active roster, and since '99 only one Dolphin hasmade the Pro Bowl: receiver Chris Chambers, who was traded this season to SanDiego. The team is loaded with the young and the old but has few players whoare anywhere near their prime.

The newestfirst-round choice, rookie wideout Ted Ginn, momentarily sent a jolt throughthe half-empty stadium on Sunday with an 86-yard kickoff return. But in keepingwith the theme of this season, the run was nullified by a holding penalty.Vonnie Holliday, the Miami defensive tackle, felt a familiar dark cloudhovering over the Dolphins' sideline. He was reminded of a character in anotherrecurring comic: "We're like Pigpen."


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