The ’72–73 Miami Dolphins may have had the best two-year run in NFL history (32–2 with two Super Bowl wins). And the two-loss ’73 Dolphins may have been better than the undefeated ’72 team.
The Miami Dolphins’ quest for perfection began on January 16, 1972. Miami suffered a humiliating loss that day, 24–3, to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl Vl. The Dolphins were never in the game, giving up 252 yards rushing while gaining just 80 yards on the ground. But rather than getting down, the Dolphins used that game as a building block.
Don Shula's Leadership
Don Shula’s leadership was the key. Shula took over a Dolphins team that hadn’t experienced success. Miami joined the AFL in 1966 and the Dolphins were 15–39–2 in four seasons before Shula came to town.
Meanwhile, Shula was in Baltimore, where he coached the Colts to an impressive 7-year record of 71–23–4 (regular season). But Shula’s post-season record was different: he was 0 for 3. He lost to the Cleveland Browns in the 1964 NFL Championship and, again, to the Green Bay Packers in a 1965 playoff game. But his worst defeat came in history-making Super Bowl III. The NFL’s Colts lost that game, 16–7, to a heavy underdog–Joe Namath and the AFL’s NY Jets.
Moving to Miami gave Shula a new lease on life. And he took advantage of it. The Dolphins went from 3–10–1 in 1969 to 10–4 and the NFL Playoffs in 1970. The turnaround ended there, though. The Dolphins lost in their first playoff appearance under Shula to the Oakland Raiders, 21–14.
The Dolphins bounced back in 1971. A 10–3–1 record got them back in the Playoffs and they beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 27–24, on Christmas Day in a memorable double-overtime game. Then, the following week, Miami beat the defending Super Bowl Champion, Baltimore Colts, 21–0, to win the AFC Championship.
Shula had accomplished the improbable–taking the 1971 Dolphins to the Super Bowl in only his second season in Miami. But then Miami suffered the humiliating defeat (to Dallas) that I wrote about at the beginning of this article.
Back To The Drawing Board
So it was back to the drawing board once again. This time, though, Shula and his players not only wanted to get back to the Super Bowl, they wanted to win it.
And that’s exactly what they did in 1972. But the big story that year was something else: Miami was the first–and is still the only–team in NFL history to go undefeated.
With such a history-making season, you can understand why so much has been written and discussed about those 1972 Miami Dolphins.
But the greatness of those Miami Dolphins can’t be measured by ’72 alone. When combined with the outcome of the ’73 season the Dolphins may have had the best two-year run in NFL history. In those two years, Miami went a combined 32–2 and won two Super Bowls. The Dolphins outscored opponents 865–382 and had five shutouts.
The problem, though, is that Miami’s excellence in ’73 gets lost in the hoopla about the undefeated ’72 squad. And here’s the kicker: the two-loss ’73 Dolphins may have been better than the 1972 team. I’ve heard Don Shula and several former players say the same.
Just how good was Miami in ’73? Let’s do an analysis. Then I’ll draw a conclusion.
In comparative terms, Miami faced tougher competition in ’73 vis-a-vis ’72. Excluding games that the competition played against the Dolphins, Miami’s regular-season opponents went 89–89 overall in ’73. Miami’s regular-season opponents went 70–108 overall in ’72. What a difference! And during the ’73 regular season, the Dolphins played six teams with winning records with three of those teams making the Playoffs. The 1972 team? Miami played only two teams with winning records and neither team made the Playoffs.
1973 Miami Dolphins
In ’73 the Dolphins didn’t allow a TD in 6 games, two of which were shutouts. Overall (including three playoff games), the Dolphins allowed just 173 points or 10 points a game. The undefeated ’72 Dolphins had three shutouts, but they were all against bottom feeders–two were against the 5–9 Baltimore Colts, the other was against the 3–11 New England Patriots. Opponents’ offenses scored 21 or more points three times against the ’72 Dolphins.
Yes, the ’73 Dolphins lost two games, but each loss was circumstantial. One loss was to the 4–10 Colts in Week 13 after Miami had already clinched a playoff spot. The other loss, 12–7 to the Raiders, came in Week Two. Miami avenged that defeat in the AFC Championship game.
What about post-season comparisons? The 1972 team struggled to beat the Cleveland Browns in its first playoff game. The Dolphins were down 14–13 late in the 4th quarter before Jim Kiick scored a TD to win the game, 20–14.
A week later Miami defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game, but the victory did not come easy. The Dolphins trailed 7-3 in the 2nd quarter before a fake punt set them up for a touchdown. They went on to win 21-17. It was more of the same in the Super Bowl. Miami had a comfortable 14-0 lead when the Redskins ran a blocked field goal attempt in for a touchdown. The Dolphins held on for a 14-7 victory.
The ’73 Dolphins traveled a different path: they breezed through the post-season. It began with a 31–16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals and continued with a 27–10 win over the Raiders. (The Dolphins’ running game was so overpowering against Oakland–266 yards on 53 carries–that Bob Griese threw just six passes the entire game and just one in the second half).
Then the Dolphins dominated the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl, winning 24–7. The Dolphins ran the ball down the throat of the Vikings’ famed “Purple People Eaters,” rushing for 196 yards on 53 carries. Bob Griese threw the ball just seven times.
The bottom line? Both teams were great, but I’d give the edge to the ’73 team.
What do you think?
Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond. He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area. He is also an author of No Nonsense, Old School Weight Training.