17-0. It's one of the most iconic set of numbers in all sports.
On a clear, sunny January afternoon in 1973 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Miami Dolphins defeated the Washington Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl VII to complete the NFL’s only perfect season.
Led by coach Don Shula and future Hall of Fame players Bob Griese, Nick Buoniconti and Larry Csonka, it's a record that no team achieved 40 years previously (playoffs began in 1933) and has not been matched 40 years later.
“It just reminds you how difficult it is to go undefeated the whole season. You have that bull's-eye on your chest,’ says Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, who was a starting defensive back for the Chicago Bears that went 15-1 in the 1985 season and going on to win Super Bowl XX over the New England Patriots. “Should you be fortunate to have no losses come December everyone is pumped up to be the one to knock you off. No matter what their record is that opponent will bring their best game against you."
NBC analyst Hines Ward, a two-time Super Bowl champion receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers, says his team’s 15-1 regular season record in 2004 heightened his respect for what Miami did.
Super Bowl XLVII
But going undefeated in the regular season is not enough, the games get tougher in the playoffs and then there’s the pressure of being one game away — the Super Bowl.
"We knew we were going to be tested. A lot of the teams we played in the playoffs were teams we beat in the regular season. Their motivation was doubly strong," adds Ward. "Miami really should be commended. To continue winning all the way through the Super Bowl, it speaks volumes to the greatness of that team. It is a unique accomplishment."
How did Miami do it? Ironically, it all started with losing, a nasty whipping by the Dallas Cowboys and their Doomsday Defense 24-3 on a cold windy day at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans in Super Bowl VI.
The Cowboys set then-Super Bowl records for rushing yards (252), first downs (23), and points allowed (3). They are still the only team not to allow a Super Bowl touchdown.
"All we wanted to do was recover from the embarrassment of the year before when we lost to Dallas,” said quarterback Bob Griese. "Anything short of winning the Super Bowl would be a disgrace."
Bill Stanfill, Griese’s All-Pro defensive end teammate said, "It is hard to understand sometimes. But we started out in ’72, after the successful ’71 season where we made it to the Super Bowl and then to play so poorly on both sides of the ball, especially defensively to let Dallas run all over us, we became what you might call 'a damned determined bunch.'"
With that attitude pervasive throughout the entire organization, driven by a haunting memory and fueled by Shula’s preseason mantra "Nobody ever remembers who came in second in the Super Bowl," the Dolphins were on a mission to get that Lombardi Trophy.
"That is a tough task to do for a 16-week season and the playoffs. Special teams also contributed forcing mistakes while Garo (Yepremian) made some clutch field goals. When you look at all those factors, looking back it was a remarkable team the Dolphins had."
Talent, chemistry, roster depth, momentum, focus, minimal turnovers and being relatively injury-free were key factors for Miami. But luck, especially regarding injuries, accounted for a part of their success.
Shula's playoff gamble pays off
In Week 5, Griese suffered a broken right leg and dislocated ankle against the San Diego Chargers, but the Miami front office had the foresight to get veteran Earl Morrall. The former Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the Baltimore Colts guided the team to 10 straight regular-season wins.
Miami's ground attack set a regular-season record for yards rushing, with Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris becoming the first teammates to run for 1,000 yards in the same season, and the offense averaged 27.5 points per game.
Morrall, who later was named Comeback Player of the Year, led a victory over the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the playoffs. At halftime of the close AFC title game against the Steelers, Shula replaced Morrall with a now-healthy Griese, who led the Dolphins into the Super Bowl.
B Bennett / Getty Images
Safety Jake Scott of the Miami Dolphins returns an interception during Super Bowl VII against the Washington Redskins on Jan. 14, 1973. He was named the game's MVP.
As the Dolphins carried Shula off the field, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum scoreboard flashed the historic numbers "17-0."
"How important is a healthy, productive starting quarterback for a team’s playoff hopes? Just ask this year’s Philadelphia Eagles, when Michael Vick went down, or the Vikings, when Christian Ponder is unable to play in their first postseason game resulting in a loss," Yepremian says.
Combine that with a solid special teams unit led by the diminutive lefty-kicker Yepremian and a "No-Name Defense" spearheaded by tackle Manny Fernandez, middle linebacker Nick Buoniconti and safeties Dick Anderson and Jake Scott leading the NFL in fewest points and fewest yards allowed and second in turnovers, all the elements of a magical season played out.
The team’s focus on getting to the Super Bowl was so consuming that players recall that talk of going undefeated really wasn’t part of the proceedings within the organization.
"People often ask, 'so, when did you realize you were undefeated?' It was the 13th game of the year when we went to New York to play the Giants," recalls safety Dick Anderson. "The New York press was so much bigger than any other city we played in. And that was the first time anybody ever thought about a team going undefeated because we had won the division by the 10th game."
Adds Yepremian: "The focus that Coach Shula instilled in us was to make sure that we never look beyond our next opponent. Sometimes you come off a tight win then look at say, 'oh next week we got an easy game we won't have any problems.' The Dolphin coaching staff reinforced the point that a comparatively weaker team can surprise you. You’ve seen it time and time again, year after year. Just last year, the undefeated Green Bay Packers, at 15-0, lose to the 5-8 Chiefs. Coach Shula and his staff were very intent on making sure we never had any let down from week to week."
Dolphins defensive lineman Manny Fernandez stops Redskins running back Larry Brown in Super Bowl VII.
Recently, the 2007 Patriots became the first team to finish the regular season 16-0 (the NFL expanded to 16 games in 1978), but they eventually lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Other teams have come close. The 1998 Denver Broncos, the 2005 Indianapolis Colts, the 2009 New Orleans Saints and the 2011 Green Bay Packers all went 13-0 before losing (though both the Broncos and Saints did go on to win the Super Bowl).
The 2009 Indianapolis Colts started 14–0 before losing their final two regular-season games, losses attributed to coach Tony Dungy resting many of his star players — another impediment for teams trying to reach perfection in the age of playoff seeding.
'I don’t think Miami’s record will ever be equaled'
So, besides talent, depth and focus, what will it take for another perfect season to happen again?
"It is a tough game and played at the highest level of competition. There are just a lot of great players in the NFL. So you have to have great players and be strong in all phases of the game," Shula says. "Offense, defense, special teams and we just paid attention to a lot of those.
"Also, the thing I addressed a lot was eliminating errors as we never want to beat ourselves. So we would make it a point in practice if someone jumped offside, a player missed an assignment, we could stop and say 'if this happens at a critical stage it could cost us the ball game.' So, we don’t want it to happen here and certainly not in a game where it could decide the outcome."
Many believe perfection will not happen again for many reasons: the 16-game regular season, the grueling travel, media scrutiny and parity, which has made the "on any given Sunday" saying all the more credence.
"There are a lot of circumstances involved," Ward says. “Also, when you are undefeated going into the latter part of the season, for coaches there is the risk/reward factor of trying to rest your key players or trying to go undefeated with the potential for injury before you reach the playoffs. Additionally there is so much parity in the league today. I don’t think Miami’s record will ever be equaled."
Ward doesn’t discount the importance of luck either.
"It is amazing how close perfection can elude you. It just took one play for New England. When they couldn’t contain Eli Manning in the pocket and Tyree makes a brilliant catch which led to the game-clinching score. Otherwise the Patriots earn just the second perfect season in history. You have to be a little bit lucky. All the stars have to align. New England came within 37 seconds of doing it."
But despite the challenges, who among current NFL teams could do it?
“Great coaches are great coaches. I think Bill Belichick has a tremendous ability to fill needs at any position. Obviously they won’t do it this year, but maybe the Patriots will do it next year,” 1972 Miami safety Anderson says.
Griese concurs: "Belichik and Brady. They are right at the top. If anybody can do it right now it’d be those two."
"Seattle and San Francisco," Stanfill says. "I love Seattle’s defense and quarterback Russell Wilson’s playmaking ability. San Francisco has a great running game, a great defense, a really good coach and special teams. They are built to do it.
But guess what? It is just so hard to do week-in and week-out, especially against someone in your own division. We had close games with the Jets and Bills. They know the roster, the play-calling. Look at the Rams. A sub-.500 team, they defeated and tied the 49ers this year. If they have all season long to prepare including drafting the specific personnel to combat division opponents, it makes it difficult for anybody to make that unbeaten run."
Then there’s Garo’s take.
“Certainly you have to have depth,” says the Hall of Fame nominee. "Shula’s coaching instincts told him that he had to have very qualified people in backup roles in crucial parts of the team. When Griese got hurt, veteran Earl Morrall stepped in and played brilliantly.
"But at the same time, you need a miracle. And yes, miracles do happen. I welcome any other team to come and join us. I’m not closing the door on anybody. I hope it happens. It is lonesome sitting at the top for so many years."
Los Angeles-based writer/producer Randy Williams is the author of the book Sports Cinema: 100 Movies — The Best of Hollywood’s Athletic Heroes, Losers, Myths, and Misfits. He can be followed via Twitter at @sportandcinema and reached at www.sportandcinema.com.
PFT: The Ravens' title after their sloppy finish to the regular season might kill the idea of having to enter the playoffs hot. If anything, the reverse is true.
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