- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

Don Shula stalked into his shower stall at the Miami Dolphins’ practice facility in Los Angeles — and raced out twice as fast, “streaking past my secretary,” as he later put it.

It was a few days before Super Bowl VII, and the Dolphins figured their legendarily rock-rumped coach was too tense. Accordingly, running back Larry Csonka and tackle Manny Fernandez put a four-foot baby alligator in Shula’s shower and awaited inevitable developments.

It was the perfect gag by, appropriately, the perfect team. On Jan.14, 1973, at the L.A. Coliseum, the Dolphins beat George Allen’s Washington Redskins 14-7 and became the only modern NFL team to complete an undefeated (17-0) season. Thirty-two years later, that distinction remains.

Oddly, these Dolphins were no juggernaut like the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s or the San Francisco 49ers of the ‘80s. Six of their 17 victories were by seven or fewer points. Quarterback Earl Morrall, the team’s MVP, didn’t even start the Super Bowl. Their defenders were so devoid of superstars they were known as the “No-Name Defense.” And they had lost three preseason games.

Somehow, though, the 1972 Dolphins met every challenge after that. Yet they were the Rodney Dangerfields of the NFL when it came to gaining respect. The AFC was considered inferior to the NFC then, and disbelievers noted that none of Miami’s 14 regular-season victims made the playoffs. When the 11-3 Redskins trotted onto the Coliseum turf for VII, they were two-point favorites.

One reason was that Shula — who would end his career in 1995 as the NFL’s winningest coach with 347 victories, had an unfair reputation for not being able to win the big ones. In Super Bowl III, his heavily favored Baltimore Colts had been stunned by Joe Namath’s New York Jets 16-7. And in VI, his Dolphins had played abysmally in a 24-3 rout by the Dallas Cowboys.

Shula, a master psychologist, knew how to tweak his men. After the loss to the Cowboys, he told his players, “Remember the sick, awful feeling you have now and make sure it doesn’t happen again next year.” And when the Dolphins opened training camp at Biscayne College in July 1972, their coach already was harping on the need to avenge that loss.

In Washington, however, not many fans cared about the Dolphins. After years as an NFL doormat, the Redskins had earned their first playoff berth in 26 years in 1971, Allen’s first season. Then they started the ‘72 season by winning 11 of their first 12 games, losing the meaningless final two. In the playoffs, they defeated Green Bay 16-3 and then sent the nation’s capital into collective ecstasy by routing the hated Cowboys 26-3 in the NFC Championship at RFK Stadium on New Year’s Eve.

The next day The Washington Post and The Washington Star had the same headline atop the front page: Happy New Year: We’re Champs at Last! Meanwhile, the Dolphins had won two typically close playoff games, 20-14 against Cleveland and 21-17 against Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship at Three Rivers Stadium.

The opposing coaches in the Super Bowl seemed totally dissimilar except for their intensity. Shula was a decent sort who that season greeted a reporter from Washington by saying, “C’mon in [to my office] and have a beer. Who do you need to talk to? OK, let me get him for you.”

By contrast, Allen’s behavior redefined the parameters of coaching paranoia. He festooned his locker room with corny slogans, constantly ingested milk and ice cream to pacify his ulcer and sent a wizened security man named Ed “Double-O” Boynton skulking around Redskin Park looking for enemy spies behind trees. But he also was a defensive genius who hated untested young players and whose “Over the Hill Gang” had restored the Redskins’ long-lagging fortunes almost overnight.

Oddly perhaps, the two coaches were friends, even to the point of awakening each other with mock 3a.m. phone calls to discuss “urgent” deals.

“It was fun to coach against your father,” Shula once told Jennifer Allen, George’s daughter. “We had great respect for each other.”

Late in the 1972 season, however, the two men were equally uptight. Congratulated after the Dolphins won their final regular-season game, Shula snapped, “I won’t celebrate until we win the Super Bowl.”

The Dolphins came into the game with a psychological edge because of their unbeaten status and memories of the dreary finale a year earlier. Said Shula: “Some people tried to tell me it was just a game. Well, to us it was never just a game — it was our life.”

For the Redskins, though, the Super Bowl was something of an anticlimax after beating the Cowboys. They played it that way, too, generating just 228 yards (although they ran 16 more plays than Miami) in one of the dullest Roman Numeral games ever.

Shula faced a pregame dilemma whether to start Morrall, who had led the Dolphins to 11 straight victories, or Bob Griese, who was healthy again after breaking an ankle in Week5. He selected Griese, feeling Morrall would be better coming off the bench, but it didn’t matter. Even with 1,000-yard rushers Csonka and Mercury Morris pounding away, the Dolphins had just 253 yards of offense. Nonetheless, they were in control throughout, with another apparent touchdown being nullified by a penalty.

Miami did score two touchdowns that counted on Griese’s 28-yard pass to Howard Twilley in the first quarter and Jim Kiick’s 1-yard run in the second. That was more than enough as the Dolphins’ No-Names held Redskins All-Pro running back Larry Brown to 72 yards on 22 carries, and allowed quarterback Billy Kilmer just 104 yards on 14 completions and intercepted him three times.

Many in the crowd of 90,182 (there were 8,472 no-shows) were headed for the parking lots when the only memorable play in Super Bowl VII occurred. With the Dolphins trying a final-fillip 42-yard field goal that would have let their victory margin match their record, diminutive Garo Yepremian’s kick was blocked by lineman Bill Brundige. Instead of falling on the bouncing ball, Yepremian picked it up and tried a weak pass that was intercepted and returned 49 yards for a touchdown by Redskins cornerback Mike Bass with 2:07 left.

It meant nothing, of course, but the Dolphins’ 14-7 victory a few moments later meant everything.

“This is the greatest team I’ve ever been associated with,” Shula said. “Before there always was the feeling of not having accomplished the ultimate. This is the ultimate.”

And when he met his pal George Allen at midfield after the final gun, Shula found it easy to sympathize. “I know just how you feel, George,” he said. “I know just how you feel.”

President Richard Nixon, an avowed Redskins fan who sometimes suggested plays to Allen, never invited the Dolphins to the White House — a political ploy that would become standard for championship teams. But he did send Shula a postgame telegram describing the victory as “a smashing climax to a truly perfect season.”

Truly perfect indeed — and we may never see its like again.

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