Tuesday, November 06, 2007


It's rich that former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula believes there should be an asterisk put the New England Patriots if they go undefeated, due to Spygate.

Has anyone ever realized the asterisk should go on Shula's 1972 Dolphins? The free pass the '72 Dolphins got is longer than the one any actor ever got for winning an Oscar. No one ever seems to put that 17-0 season up to any kind of analysis, which raises suspicion for someone who wasn't born yet in 1972. Another part of the skepticism is wondering if it was a really that big a deal in its time, or have we just chosen to remember it that way?

The schedule Shula's 1972 Dolphins had is pretty revealing about how great that team might not have been. In the regular season, it didn't beat a single playoff team. It beat only one team which finished above .500, the Kansas City Chiefs, and that came in Week 1. After that season, Kansas City wouldn't finish in the black again until 1986.

The 2007 Patriots play in a crappy division, but only six of their 16 games are vs. AFC East teams. The '72 Dolphins played more than half their schedule, eight out of 14, vs. an equally craptacular AFC East. The four other teams in the division (the Bills, Patriots, Baltimore Colts and New York Jets) were a combined 7-16-1 outside the AFC East.

The Bill Belichick-coached Patriots, playing in a league that has become much tougher to dominate due to the salary cap, have been winning most of their games by blowout scores. Their only close win thus far, of course, was on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion Colts.

The '72 Dolphins played much of the season with backup quarterback Earl Morrall filling in for injured Bob Griese. That does count for something. Consider what would would become of the Patriots if Tom Brady was injured. Actually, Earl Morrall, now 73 years old, would probably do about as well as Brady's backup, Matt Cassell.

Regardless, the narrow escapes the Dolphins had against average teams are impossible to ignore. In Week 3, with a healthy Griese, they needed two late scoring drives to pull out a 16-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings, who finished. .500 in '72.

Later on, they had a one-point win over Buffalo, who won only one game outside the division. was a 28-24 win over the New York Jets, which went 7-7 (including 1-5 outside the division, with the lone win over New Orleans, the league's worst team). The Jets wouldn't see another .500 record until 1978.


The playoffs didn't bring much more dominance. The Dolphins' combined winning margin in three playoff games was 17 points, which, get this, was the smallest of any Super Bowl champion of the 1970s and '80s.

In the Super Bowl, Miami came in as a 2.5-point underdog against the Washington Redskins. If the Dolphins were so all-fired great, wouldn't Vegas have made them favourites for the game, since all the casual bettors would have been trying to get money down on Miami?

The Dolphins didn't make a big sweep of the NFL awards. Don Shula, unmatched coaching feat and all, wasn't coach of the year in 1972. That award went to Dan Devine of the Green Bay Packers (best remembered for, as coach of Notre Dame, being portrayed as an A-hole by the screenwriters of Rudy). If the Dolphins' quest for a perfect season had North America on edge, it must have sailed right past the editors of Sports Illustrated, who didn't put the Dolphins on the cover once during the regular season.

The Dolphins got a cover after the AFC championship and after winning the Super Bowl, but neither referred to a perfect season. By contrast, the 8-0 Patriots have already been on S.I.'s cover twice. That's part of having a much bigger sports media beast to feed (and S.I.'s narrowed priorities), but doesn't that suggest Miami's 17-0 season wasn't a big deal then? So why is it given such credence now?

This might explain why Shula enjoyed a halo effect for the rest of his career, even as the Dolphins failed to win another Super Bowl after repeating in '73. In '93, when he was long past his prime as a coach, S.I., as if to make restitution, made Shula its Sportsman of the Year. (Tellingly, the Dolphins lost their final five games that season to miss the playoffs.)

If the Pats are going undefeated, it might be just. That distinction should belong with a good big-game coach. Belichick's teams have a 3-0 record in Super Bowls. Shula's were 2-4 (plus a 27-0 loss in a NFL championship game in the pre-Super Bowl era).

Look, it's understandable why Shula is so protective of the legend of 1972, but Spygate doesn't rate an asterisk, since what the Pats did is probably commonplace in the NFL. His record is going down, and besides, there have been 14-2 and 15-1 teams which were probably betters. So when it comes to the '72 Dolphins, be like Veronica Corningstone in Anchorman being nonresponsive when Ron Burgundy says, "I'm kind of big deal."

No, the '72 Dolphins are not that big of a deal. They probably never were. Memory plays funny tricks on people.

I guess the Fins are worried about their undefeated record after all (Footballguys)

That's all for now. Send your thoughts to neatesager@yahoo.ca.


GoGades said...

Neate, how about we meet halfway and say that BOTH teams deserve asterisks ?

I'm no fan of those old Dolphin coots - their trash talking 35 years after the fact always bugged me - but I feel the way Belichik has run his program is most definitely valid cause for questioning their performance.

Anonymous said...

wow neate, this was an excellent piece, well written, researched, entertaining etc. good argument. you convinced me! but, jesus man, you are a great sportswriter.


Dennis Prouse said...

I am no fan of The Hoodie and the way he runs the Patriots, but your article is spot on. The way the '72 Dolphins have gravy-trained off that undefeated season has become really grating. For Shula to pop off about it like this was particularly small and petty.

The Bill Walsh type coaches, those who recognize the accomplishments of all, are unfortunately few and far between. As a coach myself, I can tell you that most highly competitive, highly successful coaches also have a dark side like the one Shula just showed everyone. The same ego drive that made them successful also makes them not very nice people at times.

Flax said...

I don't disagree - the Dolphins' undefeated season is not exactly terribly impressive, and it's easy to argue that there are 14-2 and 15-1 teams who have had much better years - but you can only play the schedule you're given, no? Shula's point, while it quite obviously sounds bitter and petty given the source, is not wholly without merit - if we're willing to roll our eyes at the NFL when players can be suspended for steroid use and make the Pro Bowl in the same season, what's so wrong with suggesting that a team's undefeated season might be slightly tarnished by the fact that said team was punished for cheating during the year it happened? I know it was just the start of the year and it's not even clear how much advantage, if any, they were getting from whatever they were doing. But it's still something that happened and the timing is unfortunate as far as subsequently trying to have a historic year. Patriots fans can be in denial all they want but it's just not going to be the same as an undefeated season that didn't have such a controversy anywhere in it.

That said, if the Patriots do in fact go undefeated, I don't think, ultimately, that too many people will care about Spygate. So whatever. Get your whining out now.

Priapism Pickem Party said...

Really well written, sir, just an enjoyable read. My own comments on this whole issue seem less relevant than how impressed I am with your writing. I might renew a subscription to SI or ESPN the Mag if they'd employ you. Well stated, you examined both sides, you made your point without seeming to have a pushy agenda, and I feel like I just read something smart.


As for my opinion on Shula and the Pats, Shula is old and bitter, but he's right regarding the timing and the tarnishment. However, we can't put an asterisk on the undefeated record the Pats (won't) get because the league didn't make them vacate any wins. If Shula's '72 weak-sauce schedule is worthy of reverence because they beat everyone and no one else ever has, then Belichippy's '07 will be worthy of reverence for the exact same reasons.


sager said...

Wow, thanks for the positive feedback, everyone...

the argument here was speaking less to the merits of what Shula of saying and more to the privileged position he was making his statement from... he's able to say that kind of stuff since people have always taken the '72 Dolphins for granted... obviously, any sports feat is contestible.

Anonymous said...

You didn't exactly give a compelling reason why the '72 Dolphins deserve an asterisk. Beating inferior opponents based on a formula-derived NFL schedule and remarks about the cover of SI and the SB underdog bit just speaks to more of a less than dominating perfect season, not an asterisk.

sager said...

Well, you're contradicting yourself. If it's "formula derived," that proves the point that what the Dolphins did was more a product of time and place than one of bona fide greatness.

And in their own time, there seems to have been little ado made about the Dolphins, which suggests it wasn't such a big deal then. So why have we blown it up into such a great feat all these years later? Hence the asterisk.

Anonymous said...

Didn't the Dolphins get fined for tampering when they signed Shula? This guy is a petty old man. He's obviously poisoning the water in preperation for a Patriots run at the "perfect" season. He just happens to come out of the woodwork to talk about this? Hasn't he had enough success in his life that he can let go on this one thing?

Please remember, Shula used to boast about what a big bastard he was. "I dont' get ulcers, I give 'em." Now reporters are putting him up as a grand old man of sport against Belichick. A lot of these talking heads weren't around in the Seventies.

sager said...

According to Wikipedia,

"After the 1969 season, Joe Robbie, owner of the Miami Dolphins, signed Shula to a contract to become Miami's second head coach. As a result of Shula's signing the team was charged with tampering by the NFL, which forced the Dolphins to give their first round pick to the Colts. The decision was controversial because Shula and Robbie's negotiations and signing were conducted before and after the official NFL/AFL merger, respectively. Had the negotiations been concluded before the merger, while the NFL and AFL were rivals, the NFL's anti-tampering rules could not have been applied."

When Shula was made Sportsman of the Year, Paul (Dr. Z) Zimmerman wrote the article and related a couple tense moments he'd had with Shula in interviews over the years.

Once he went to ask him a light question about how he felt about the Dolphins being a pass-whacky team with Marino when they had been a running team in the '70s. Shula snapped, "What would you have me do? Have Marino hand it off 40 times a game?"

It was a matter-of-fact answer, but a lot of coaches would have just taken it in the spirit it was intended and laughed.

Dr. Z also claimed that he once called the young Marino a "pusher" in reference to a hitch he had a throwing motion.... two years later, when Marino was ripping up the league, Shula calls him on it: "What do you think of my pusher now?"

I'm not saying he was a bad guy, just that he and Belichick had a lot in common. Very proud men who didn't go in for a lot of the pieties you're supposed to observe in sports.

Anonymous said...

Your 'theory' that the '72 Fins deserve an asterisk makes no sense. First of all - no one has suggested they were the most dominant team of all time just that they're the only team to go undefeated. Period.

To bring-up margin of victory or Vegas odds is completely off-base. The bottomline is they beat every team the NFL scheduled for them that year and they won the Super Bowl. That's it. To say they were underdogs, or that the perfect season didn't make the cover of SI is bordering on stupidity. Finally, what does Shula losing 5 games 20 years later have to do with the perfect season (which supposedly was your original point)? It's completely unrelated. No offense but you really may want to pick-up a journalism class or two when you get some time.

sager said...

So do you want a refund for what you paid to read this blog? Oh, wait.

Rev. Joshua said...

(In the interests of full disclosure, I'm a Dolphins' fan. I also don't like what Shula said because I don't agree and because the Patriots will probably hang half a hundred on us in retaliation.)

Due to the evolution of the sport, you can really only compare a team against their contemporaries and this article omits a lot of easily accessible information that puts the performance of the 1972 Dolphins team in proper perspective.

In 1972: Miami had a pro-bowl selection at every position aside from QB and TE (9 total; two RBs, two OLs, two DBs). The Dolphins led the NFL in points scored, points given, total yards gained, total yards given. And they beat a young Pittsburgh dynasty team to win the AFC Championship.

Let's take a more specific look at the performance of the 1972 playoff teams.
Miami actually played two teams (Chiefs and Giants), two games, with winning records (teams above .500) ; 15.2 point margin of victory in regular season.
Pittburgh (11-3) played five teams, seven games; 16.2 point MOV.
Cleveland (10-4) played three teams, six games; 10.6 point MOV.
Oakland (10-3-1) played two teams, five games; 14.3 point MOV.
Washington (11-3) played three teams, five games; 10.3 point MOV.
Dallas (10-4) played six teams, eight games; 12.9 point MOV.
San Francisco (8-5-1) played three teams, three games; 18.9 point MOV.
Green Bay (10-4) played six teams, seven games; 10.4 point MOV.

The average number of games against teams with winning records among playoff teams was 5.4. Only Dallas, Green Bay and Pittsburgh played more than half their schedule against teams with winning records. Miami, Oakland, Washington, and San Francisco played less than the average.

Only Pittsburgh and SF had a higher MOV than Miami, although all 14 games contributed to Miami's MOV, whereas Pittsburgh and SF had 11 and 8 games respectively.

Only Pittsburgh and Dallas can claim all of their losses again winning teams.

So a tougher schedule might have cost the Dolphins their perfect season, but not definitively.

Later on, they had a one-point win over Buffalo, whose only win outside the division came against New Orleans, the league's worst team.

Buffalo also beat two NFC division winners: Washington and SF.

...they needed two late scoring drives to pull out a 16-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings, who finished. .500 in '72.

Minnesota had the fourth best pass defense and third best total defense in '72.

If the Dolphins were so all-fired great, wouldn't Vegas have made them favourites for the game, since all the casual bettors would have been trying to get money down on Miami?...it must have sailed right past the editors of Sports Illustrated, who didn't put the Dolphins on the cover once during the regular season.

Vegas spreads aren't a perfect predictor of future results, or no one would bet. And one of the SI covers during the playoffs showed Billie Jean King and John Wooden. Other covers displayed college basketball players. Obviously SI had a more balanced view of the sports world at that time.

Don Shula, unmatched coaching feat and all, wasn't coach of the year in 1972. That award went to Dan Devine of the Green Bay Packers.

Packers' 1971 record: 4 - 8 - 2
Packers' 1972 record: 10 - 4 - 0

Dolphins' 1971 record: 10 - 3 - 1
Dolphins' 1972 record: 14 - 0 - 0

That's a pretty clear explanation for why Devine won the award over Shula.

So, no asterisk for either team, but New England still has to finish the season to qualify.

sager said...

Rev. Joshua,

Good points, but when was the question ever about who was the best team in 1972?

It's all in a historical context. If you want to talk average margin of victory, well, the Dolphins' 15.3 points is slightly less than that of the 1984 49ers (15.5) and 1985 Bears (16.1). Yes, Miami, is the only team to ever go unbeaten in the modern NFL, but to put them head-and-shoulders above every other team that's ever played the game, or never subject that 17-0 to the harsh light of serious analysis, is silly.

As for the betting line, if a lot of people were so fired up about those Dolphins, Vegas would have moved the line to get people to lay money on the Redskins. The fact Washington was favoured is highly pertinent to what people at the time were thinking of the Dolphins.

Rev. Joshua said...

You asked if the 72 season deserves an asterisk for not being as valuable as we have been lead to believe and close by dismissing their accomplishment. That's your thesis and conclusion: The schedule Shula's 1972 Dolphins had is pretty revealing about how great that team might not have been...No, the '72 Dolphins are not that big of a deal. They probably never were.

The only way to determine the value of going 17-0 in the 1972 season is to compare the Dolphins' performance with that of the rest of the league in 1972. Yes, they had a comparatively weak schedule, but not tremendously weak schedule as evidenced by the schedules of other playoff teams from that season. Points you made about games against Buffalo and Minnesota are offset by Buffalo's victories over Washington and SF (also, Buffalo didn't play New Orleans that season, so I don't know where you got that from) and Minnesota's defensive performance that season. Shula didn't win coach of the year because Devine completely turned the Packers around from 4 losses to 10 wins and a playoff appearance. The Dolphins' had nine pro bowlers and led the league in points and yards (in both directions). The team was clearly as great as the 17-0 record reflects.

Another issue here is that you tossed a few arguments in about your secondary line of thought, which was how people felt about the accomplishment at the time, but added little concrete and mainly focused on the objective value of their perfect season. SI's sports covers aren't a definitive example of contemporary coverage and feelings about the 1972 Dolphins, and the Vegas line only tells us that bookies though Washington would win the game, but it doesn't give any specific reasons as to why. Maybe SI felt their readership was too broad to inundate with NFL coverage and maybe Vegas bookies had inside information (or even bad information) that didn't effect the outcome. How people felt about it at the time isn't covered by these two examples and really doesn't effect the objective value of the accomplishment.

sager said...

Fair enough... but you should know that on this end, there is no such thing as "objective."

Everything is subjective, from the line of reasoning one takes, to the tools used to build an argument.

To use your example, what do number of Pro Bowl selections matter? Plenty of teams have had 9 Pro Bowlers.

sager said...

You're right... the Jets' only non-division win came over New Orleans, who went 2-11-1.... and the Jets were 6-2 in the division...

Rev. Joshua said...

I don't know why I used "objective" there. My mistake.

Assuming that being a pro bowl selection is a reasonable measure of performance relative to contemporary players at that position, having nine pro bowlers in one season would speak to the quality of players on the roster. That would be another aspect of the body of work that one might find if they were to shine the harsh light of serious analysis '72 Dolphins' perfect season.

If only.

sager said...

Fair enough... but knowledge isn't neutral among the players (who voted for the Pro Bowl).

Not to boast, but between having people leave multiple comments and getting 3,000 views in an afternoon, this has been treated as somewhat serious analysis.

jeff said...

didn't the 70 dolphins lose a first round draft pick for breaking a rule.... and what was that rule?

"Shula's signing the team was charged with tampering by the NFL, which forced the Dolphins to give their first round pick to the Colts"

he should have a giant * next to his entire career as coach of the Dolphins if you use his old man logic

Anonymous said...

Not to belabor the point here but "formula derived" implies a level playing field for every team year after year. Sometimes divisions suck. Sometimes 8-8 teams make the playoffs, sometimes 10-6 teams don't. I don't have a problem with questioning the "greatness" of that '72 team but an asterisk almost always implies that something out of the ordinary happened that didn't make a game or a season fair (cheating, strike-shortened seasons, etc...) and you offered nothing in the way of defending that asterisk label with something that didn't legitimize the Dolphins fairly winning every game they played that season.

To the other point of "little ado" in their day at the time. Since then there have been some better teams but no team has done it since, so yes the legend grows, rightly or wrongly. Your point should have included the disparity of the 16-game season nowadays. Bottom line they won every game on their schedule that year.

Anonymous said...

Good points, and I have a question for Shula-
Try beating a possible playoff team 52-7, and then talk.

Priapism Pickem Party said...

I'd like to add some fuel to this fire.

NO WAY the 07 Pats whip the 72 Phins, but it's not about talent. And anyone saying "try whipping a playoff team 52-7" yada yada is being really shortsighted.

There have been a LOT of rules changes in the last 35 years that have favored the offense. Tom Brady would be a puddle if he had to face defenses under the rules from back then. WRs, O-Linemen, and QBs all have it easy now compared to in the 70s' NFL.

I'm not bagging on the Pats of today, but offensive skill players have a lot more freedom now, and defensive players have had a lot taken away (horse collar tackles, clotheslines, etc.) since '72.

Anonymous said...

Priapism pickem party:

You must be joking if you believe the 07 patriots would not beat the 72 Phins
Players are Bigger faster and Stronger today.
The 72 Phins wouldn't even make a decent scout team for a Division II college team.

Priapism Pickem Party said...


Players of today are also more fragile and a lot more protected, and less tough than players of yesterday.

Dennis Prouse said...

You are right -- today's players aren't very tough at all.

Yours sincerely,

Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, Shawne Merriman, Tedy Bruschi, John Lynch, and Sean Taylor

PPP said...

Nice of you to do the legwork for The Star Neate:


IronBallsMcGinty said...

I think neither team deserves an asterisk. The Dolphins beat everyone they played that year. That was a tremendous accomplishment.

The Patriots are doing the same, with one hand tied behind their back, thanks to the salary cap.

Shula as "sportsman" is a funny thought. He was the biggest crybaby in the league when he coached. He still isn't over the "snowplow" game. He actually thinks the Dolphins would have won that game even though they were built for warm weather and had not shown a thing to that point.

He's just a grumpy old man.

sager said...

Too funny.... I was re-reading a bio of Joe Namath last night and the chapter on Super Bowl III touched upon how one sportswriter likened Shula to a "regional sales manager."

Somehow, it was probably a lot less funny that any version of The Office.

Nate said...

Mercury Morris needs to shut his god damn mouth.