Was The 1972 Undefeated Miami Dolphins Really The NFL’s Best Team?

Last week I wrote an article comparing the 1972 and 1973 Miami Dolphins. I concluded that the 1973 team was even better than the undefeated 1972 team. But in drawing that conclusion, I was in no way trying to diminish the accomplishments of the 1972 team. After all, it’s the only undefeated team in NFL history.

But when I made my comparison, I didn’t make it solely for a reason others advance about the ’72 Dolphins, who contend that the ’72 team succeeded primarily because it played an ‘easy schedule.’ While that may be true, they are not the only team in league history to have had an easy schedule.

How easy was it? To answer that question, let’s look at how another great team performed–the 1974–1976 Minnesota Vikings. I chose the Vikings because they went to two Super Bowls during those three years and compiled an outstanding regular-season record of 33–8–1 over 42 games.

Comparing Great Teams (Vikings vs. Dolphins)

How many of those 42 teams had a winning record? Only eight! And the Vikes’ record against those teams was a mere 4–3–1. How about their three-year post-season record? It was the same, 4–3. That’s an overall 3-year record of 8–6–1 against winning teams. Not that impressive!

How about the ’72 Dolphins? That team played five teams with winning records (regular and post-season combined). The Dolphins won all five games.

Here’s another comparison. The 1974–1976 Vikings were 29–5 against teams that didn’t have a winning record. The 1972 Dolphins did much better–going 12–0 against under-.500 teams. When combined with the 1973 team, the Dolphins went 19–1 against the sub-.500 teams. Impressive!

My point is this: a big part of winning championships is the ability to beat teams that you are supposed to beat.

The Vikings were good in that regard, but they still lost five games to teams they should have beat. Put another way; they were upset by an underdog. The 1972 Dolphins, on the other hand, weren’t upset. They won every single game against lesser foes.

You can learn more about Don Shula and his incredible journey as the winningest coach in NFL history in this biography – Don Shula: A Biography of the Winningest Coach in NFL History.

1972 Undefeated Dolphins: The Bottom Line

The bottom line is this: in the 100 years that the NFL has been in existence, only one team has finished the season with a perfect record–the ’72 Dolphins. Yes, others have come close. The ’76 Raiders went 16–1, the ’84 49ers and ’85 Bears finished 18–1, respectively. The 2007 NE Patriots marched into the Super Bowl with a perfect 18–0 record but then lost to the underdog NY Giants. They also lost a chance for perfection. They failed where the Dolphins succeeded.

While I still believe that the ’72 Miami Dolphins weren’t the greatest team in NFL history, I must give credit where credit is due. They beat every team (good and not-so-good) in that year to achieve something no other team has ever done–win them all. Try as you might, you can’t discredit a team for doing what no one else could do before or since. It’s an accomplishment we may never see again.

Still Not Convinced?

For those still not convinced that the 17–0 record wasn’t merely the result of a weak schedule, let’s compare their performance to some other great teams that also had an easy schedule.

Let’s start by comparing the ’72 Dolphins to the ’75 Vikings. Some analysts feel this was the Vikings’ best team ever. After ten games, Minnesota’s record was 10–0. Some were beginning to compare them to the 72 Dolphins. Could this team go undefeated? It was starting to look like a good possibility.

By The Numbers

Let’s look at the numbers. The combined record of the 72 Dolphins’ first ten opponents was 50–87–3. Granted that is a weak schedule but not nearly as weak as the 75 Vikings schedule. The Vikings’ first ten opponents had a dismal, combined record of 38–102. Their last five opponents (including one playoff game) had a combined 37–33 record, but the Vikings lost three of those final five games, including a first-round playoff game.

The Dolphins, on the other hand, won all five of their last games against teams with a combined record (including playoffs) of 48–25. You can see the point I’m trying to make. Once the 75 Vikings had to start playing good teams, they folded, where the 1972 Dolphins didn’t.

Just so Viking fans don’t think I hate their team, let’s turn to the ’75 LA Rams. (Fellow football historian Stephen Lewellen provided these stats). The Rams finished the season with a 13–3 record (including post-season), but they faced only five teams with winning records. The Rams feasted on weak opponents by going 11–1 against teams with a combined 43–111 record. But they were only 3–2 against teams with winning records, including a humiliating 37–7 loss to the Cowboys in the NFC Championship.

    Another Thing About the 72' Team

    There’s something else about that 72 Miami team that doesn’t get mentioned much. The team clinched the division title with a Week Ten win against the NY Jets. Let’s face it: the Dolphins could have coasted the rest of the way. They didn’t.

    They kept playing hard, outscoring the last four opponents, 107–44. And, oh, by the way, what was their reward for finishing the regular season 14–0? They had to play the AFC Championship game on the road!

    Try as you might, you can’t diminish the Dolphins 17–0 record by saying the team had a weak schedule. I’ve given you just two examples of outstanding teams that had an even easier schedule than the 72 Dolphins. Many others have had similarly weak schedules. None of them were able to do what that 1972 Miami team did.

    Still, there are those who will persist. Some will say their Super Bowl victory was tainted. Their opponents, the Redskins were without their starting quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. But Miami also played most of the season without their starting QB, Bob Griese. As I see it, it’s a testament to how good both teams’ backup QB’s were. Miami had Earl Morral and Washington had Billy Kilmer. If not for them it’s likely neither team would have made it to the Super Bowl.

    But still, they persist. Their Super Bowl win is tainted because they were playing the oldest team in the league. Washington was tagged with the nickname “the over-the-hill gang”. But the Redskins were an outstanding team.

    They had a 13–3 record going into that Super Bowl and had just soundly defeated the defending Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game. They allowed a mere six points in the playoffs. Most fans would agree that the only team in the NFL that was better than those Redskins were the Dolphins.

    Still, some are going to argue that the ’72 Dolphins are overrated no matter what. They’re entitled to their opinion, but one thing can’t be disputed: in the century-long existence of the NFL, the 1972 Miami Dolphins are the only team to have a perfect season.

    We have another article covering the Dolphins’ back-to-back Super Bowl victories (as well as all repeat teams) from Pigskin Past here.

    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.

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