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At home in the fishbowl

The last time a team went undefeated in the NFL, it was a rather quiet affair. The 1972 Dolphins didn't contend with the weekly barrage of questions about their winning streak. But they're proud of their accomplishment, and now their eyes -- and the rest of the NFL's -- are on Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the 2007 Patriots, who are only two games from perfection.

Email|Print| Text size + By Jim McCabe
Globe Staff / December 23, 2007

They are separated now, scattered in various locales across this vast country. That is how life evolves. But so, too, are they together forever. That is how football shapes the spirit.

The fact that seasons upon seasons have been piled onto their most cherished memory doesn't change a thing for the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Of that, Jim Mandich is certain.

"That was one great team, a very special time," said Mandich, his words delivered after a slow, deep breath. Not because he was unsure of what he wanted to say, but because he knows that in this NFL season of 2007, sentiments easily can be misinterpreted. Mandich and his teammates 35 years ago compiled the only undefeated season in NFL history and while they are adamant they'd love to maintain their own page in the history books, he insists there wouldn't be an ounce of resentment if they were joined by the 2007 New England Patriots.

"They have heroes who you can embrace," said the former tight end and current radio commentator for Dolphins games. "I like the Patriots. They have a good work ethic and I see similarities."

Then he sighed, because over the years, Mandich and former teammates have fielded calls whenever a team would go deep into the schedule without a loss. The Bears in 1985. The Broncos in 1998. The Colts in 2005. All of them got into December without a loss, so on came the calls. So many, in fact, that after a while the stories all sounded the same - the Dolphins were proud of what they had accomplished and selfishly didn't want to see it matched.

So after the sigh, Mandich explained these calls are not the easiest to handle. "We get a little twitchy," said Mandich, knowing that some have perceived them as grumpy old men. They claim they are not.

"If [the Patriots] do it, we'll be the first ones to call and congratulate them," said ex-quarterback Earl Morrall.

Unlikely hero

His is not the face of the '72 Dolphins. Not with the coach having been the legendary Don Shula. Not with six team members - quarterback Bob Griese, running back Larry Csonka, wide receiver Paul Warfield, offensive linemen Jim Langer and Larry Little, linebacker Nick Buoniconti - having joined Shula in the Hall of Fame.

Ah, but none of it may ever have happened without Morrall, an ageless wonder in the latter part of a 21-year career. So often a reliable starter with six teams, Morrall is best remembered for his relief work in 1972 when Griese went down with a broken right leg and dislocated right ankle in Week 5.

Just don't expect him to take a bow.

"We just lined up behind them and watched them go," said Morrall in praise of that team's outstanding offensive line. It was anchored at center by Langer, with guards Little and Bob Kuechenberg, and tackles Wayne Moore and Norm Evans - a human wall that enabled the Dolphins to field the first pair of 1,000-yard runners in the same backfield, Csonka (1,117) and Mercury Morris (1,000).

Yet, it is that blue-collar style that almost works against the Dolphins all these years later, for a different era of fan is watching a different style of football (in Super Bowls VI, VII, and VIII, Griese was a combined 26 for 41 for 295 yards, numbers that represent a day's work by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning). Today what sells is flash and glitz, the thought being that nothing from yesteryear compares with what plays out on our wide, flat-screen, plasma televisions.

Nonsense, claims NFL historian Jack Clary, who has heard some of the criticism directed at those '72 Dolphins - that they could only run, that they played only a 14-game schedule, that only two of the games were against teams with winning records, that eight of their wins came against weak East Division teams (New York Jets, 7-7; Baltimore 5-9; Buffalo 4-9-1; New England 3-11). Clary doesn't have a talk-show forum or blog, but he has a commodity in rare supply these days: perspective.

"In 1972, the NFL hadn't evolved into the caretaker that it is today, but if [the Dolphins] had played 16 games, they would have gone 16-0," said Clary, who has written more than 60 sports books and is a former president of the Pro Football Researchers Association. "It was a superb coaching job by Shula, and what made it a little more spectacular [was Morrall]. Could you imagine if [Tom] Brady went down? That is what confronted Shula."

As a footnote, Shula may never have found the answer to his dilemma had Upton Bell had his way. Then the general manager of the floundering Patriots, Bell claimed Morrall on waivers after he had been released by the Colts, only coach John Mazur objected, convinced Brian Dowling was an adequate backup to franchise star Jim Plunkett. Thus was Shula free to be reunited with Morrall to form their second championship partnership. (In the 1968 season, Shula's Colts went to the Super Bowl thanks in large part to Morrall's brilliant work in place of the injured Johnny Unitas.)

"It was a unique situation for a very unique team," said Morrall, who entered that game against San Diego after Griese went down and engineered a 24-10 triumph.

"The 'Old Man,' " his teammates called him.

"The perfect backup for the perfect team," said Shula, whose Dolphins stared into the eyes of defeat just twice that season. In Week 3, the Vikings held a 14-9 lead when Griese's 3-yard touchdown pass to Mandich with 1:28 left completed a 16-14 comeback. In Week 10 before 78,166 at the Orange Bowl, the Joe Namath-led Jets had leads of 17-7 and 24-21, only to succumb to Morrall's magic. Then 38, the man with the famous flat-top haircut dodged in and out of traffic for a 31-yard second-half touchdown run to spark a 28-24 victory. But if there was any hype building across the country, Morrall missed it. In days leading up to that Jets game, "all I remember was talk about how if the Jets [then 6-3] could win four of their last five, they could catch us," said Morrall, laughing. "We hadn't lost a game and people were talking about us losing a few."

Certainly, the media scrutiny was far less intense 35 years ago, but if you reach back, you'd recognize what Shula said, because it sounds very familiar to what today's Patriots have been saying during their undefeated run. "The only way we can make up for losing the Super Bowl [at the end of the 1971 season] is to win the Super Bowl [this year]. Winning 'X' number of games won't make up for it," he said.

Here's another one: "We're happy with our record, but right now it's all one-week seasons." Another Shula quote from 1972? Sounds like it, only it was New England coach Bill Belichick after his Patriots improved to 14-0 with last week's win over the Jets.

Little hooplaThere's no question New England has played in a fishbowl all season. Belichick started getting his first questions about an undefeated season back in Week 3, but not so the '72 Dolphins.

"There was no hoopla," said Morrall. "I seem to remember us thinking [before the Colts game] that if we're going to lose a game, this is the one we should lose. We didn't treat [the unbeaten] thing like you do a no-hitter in baseball."

The national media attention wasn't exactly overwhelming the Dolphins. So easy was the atmosphere that Shula gave his blessing to a photo opportunity that never would stand up in today's NFL landscape, especially within the borders of Gillette Stadium. Donning Lone Ranger-like masks, key members of the so-called "No Name" defense stood for the cameras, and newspapers went big with it.

Morrall applauded the notoriety of the defense. "Our defense played tremendous all year, especially at the end."

With Buoniconti a terror at linebacker and heralded safeties Dick Anderson and Jake Scott anchoring a magnificent secondary, Shula employed the "53 defense." It was so named because that was the number worn by linebacker Bob Matheson, who in some schemes would replace a defensive lineman. At other times, the Dolphins would insert Charlie Babb and play with five in the secondary.

"Shula unveiled the 3-4 defense, which was a residue of a defense Bear Bryant had used at Kentucky to beat Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma team [in 1950]," said Clary. "Shula coached [in 1959] under Blanton Collier at Kentucky, who used parts of it."

Shula's interpretation of that defense was at the heart of the '72 Dolphins. While they were the No. 1-ranked offense behind a heralded and ferocious running game (Csonka "attacks the earth," Griese once said), the Dolphins were also No. 1 in defense, yielding just 235.5 yards per game. They might have been at their best in Week 14, a 16-0 win over the Colts that completed just the third undefeated regular season in NFL history. But unlike the 1934 and 1942 Bears, teams that went 13-0 and 11-0, respectively, only to falter in the postseason, Shula's Dolphins maintained perfection to the very end.

They did it in the postseason against the iron, and working within guidelines that would make Patriots fans cry in their cereal if they were still in place. Sluggish at home, the Dolphins rallied to beat Cleveland, 20-14, but then had to go to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship. That's right, the Steelers at 11-3 had the home field over the 14-0 Dolphins because that is how the league did things back then.

No worries, because "all we did was beat everyone who we had to play," said Morrall.

The AFC title game at Three Rivers Stadium finished at 21-17, a game that officially ended Morrall's magical run. Struggling for the first time since he replaced Griese weeks earlier, the veteran gave way midway through the game to Shula's No. 1 quarterback. Though not 100 percent, Griese orchestrated the win, then was given the start in the Super Bowl against Washington.

The record books will show a 14-7 result, but Morrall felt his teammates were always in control. The defense allowed the Redskins beyond the 50-yard line just once in the first half, five times in all, and intercepted three Billy Kilmer passes. Scott had two picks, returning one 55 yards to set up the second touchdown, and Washington's lone score came courtesy of the infamous botched field goal on which Garo Yepremian's desperate pass attempt resulted in a fumble recovery touchdown by Mike Bass.

"Garo keeps reminding us that if he hadn't botched the pass, it would be just another Super Bowl. He made it unique," said Morrall. But that's unlikely.

No, Super Bowl VII stands alone not because of the Yepremian faux pas, but because it put an exclamation point on a season of perfection, the only one in 87 seasons of NFL play. And if the authors of that page of NFL history are asked to slide over a bit and share it in this, Season No. 88, expect them to do so - perhaps begrudgingly. Not because they are grumpy, but because they are proud.

There's a difference.

"Sure, we'd like to see our record stand [alone]," said Morrall. "But at the same time, we've never thought that someone else can't do it. We're proud of what we did, but give credit to New England. They're doing a great job."

A perfect job, so far.

Jim McCabe can be reached at jmccabe@globe.com.

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