For the Miami Dolphins, the 24-21 victory over Pittsburgh last Sunday may well have been the most significant in their brief history. Not that beating the Steelers was so much of an achievement—although they came to Miami as co-leaders of their division, their record was only 4-4—it was the way Miami went about disassembling them. As a happy Don Shula said after the game, "This was the only really meaningful test we hadn't passed before. It is the first time we have been well behind in a big game and come back to win it. This team today showed poise and confidence and maturity."
The Dolphins needed all those qualities plus a measure of luck to win. But the biggest factor in their victory was a pair of training-camp roommates, Quarterback Bob Griese and Wide Receiver Paul Warfield. Remarkably, there was doubt before the game that Griese would be able to play. On Saturday afternoon a stomach attack had hospitalized him and he was still so weak at game time that Shula started George Mira.
The unfortunate Mira, who had played very little this season, got almost nowhere against the aggressive Steeler defense while Terry Bradshaw was making the Steeler offense sit up and sing. Miami managed a Garo Yepremian field goal, but Bradshaw marched the Steelers 80 yards for one touchdown and threw a 28-yard pass to Ron Shanklin for another. Then, just as the quarter ended, Griese came in to a roar from the crowd.
He promptly fumbled the snap. The ball was recovered by Pittsburgh at its 49. Five plays later Bradshaw passed to Dave Smith for another touchdown and Miami was behind 21-3. But the Dolphins were not about to fold.
"Griese gave the club a big lift when he went in again," Shula said. It was evident at once. Griese completed a 41-yard pass to Howard Twilley, his other wide receiver, for one big gain, then hit Warfield from the Steeler 12-yard line for a touchdown. Warfield faked toward the sideline, cut back sharply between two defenders and took a perfectly thrown pass to score.
The success of the offense animated the defense, so that the Steelers, who had been moving on Bradshaw's sharp, accurate passes, began to stall. Late in the quarter the Griese-Warfield magic worked in earnest.
From his 14, Griese dropped back to pass under a strong rush. He evaded a clump of tacklers descending on him from the right, gave ground, then moved up as if to run. Finally he stopped and fired a long pass to Warfield, who was well behind Mel Blount, the Steeler right cornerback. The play covered 86 yards for the second Miami touchdown.
"During training camp Bob and I discuss just about every situation that can come up," Warfield said later. "When I looked back and saw him scrambling I started to cut to my right in the direction he was running, then I saw him reverse his field and out of the corner of my eye I saw Blount move toward the line to stop a run, so I just turned down field and Bob was looking for the move."
The roommates provided the winning touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. With the ball on the Miami 40 and the wind at his back. Griese sent Warfield deep down the sideline. The Steeler cornerback, expecting more help than he got in covering Warfield, lost a step and Warfield was gone again, catching the ball on the 15 and trotting in.
The Steelers struggled valiantly for the rest of the quarter, but a series of key penalties and, finally, the slippery Poly-Turf, did them in. With just under two minutes to play, they forced the Dolphins to punt from their own 13. Jon Staggers signaled for a fair catch and came over to take the ball, but his feet shot out from under him, the ball caromed off him and the Dolphins took over on their 39. Some bull-like rushes by Larry Csonka used up enough time so that only 13 seconds were left when the Steelers got the ball again and had a hopeless, into-the-wind 52-yard field goal blocked as the game ended.
"There were a lot of fine things on the field today." Shula said. "Csonka hurt his leg in the first half but refused to go out. He got us the rough yardage at the end when we had to have it. The defense played poorly in the first half, letting them break tackles for touchdowns, but then shut them out in the second half. I'm as proud of this bunch as I ever have been of a team."
In many ways the Miami Dolphins are an unlikely group. When the sun shines brightly on the artificial turf in the Orange Bowl the place seems more like a skating rink than a football field, yet their running backs navigate on it so well that one of them, Csonka, leads the American Football Conference in total yards gained and another, Jim Kiick, who was hurt and hardly played Sunday, is fifth. They have one guard who had to melt down from 280 pounds to 265 to reach his full potential and another who turned to football to avoid being shot out of a cannon.
The two big runners are distinguished for a sense of humor almost as much as for their ability to rip through defensive lines. Csonka, the first draft pick for the Dolphins in 1968, was the AFC's No. 2 ground gainer in 1970, picking up 874 yards in 193 carries. He leads now with 617 yards in 113 carries, which averages out to almost 5½ yards a try. Running, opponents have found out, comes naturally to Larry.
"My high school coach in Stow, Ohio had played for Ben Schwartzwalder at Syracuse, so we ran," he said. "We also blocked and caught passes and did everything else you have to do to play football, including going both ways. I went to Syracuse because of him, and under Schwartzwalder it was the same. Of course, I didn't expect to break Jim Brown's records or Floyd Little's, but it happened. I don't take too much credit for it."
Csonka is being overly modest. He is a bigger back than Brown; he took off 13 pounds in 1970 to add to his speed and quickness and that brought him down to 237. Yet at 6'2", his weight is so well distributed that he in fact appears almost slim. He wears a small mustache and in general gives the impression of a man who enjoys himself very much playing football.
Csonka and Kiick exchange asides during a game, and one of the asides came as a result of their being nicknamed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Both of them like Western movies and Western music and once, after Kiick had been buried under a pile of Ram linemen, he climbed to his feet and used a line from the movie. "Who are those guys?" he said to Csonka as they went back to the huddle. "We aren't coming this way again."
They did, however, come that way again. They came often enough to beat the Rams 20-14.
Kiick led the conference in touchdowns scored by running in 1969, with nine, and added six more in 1970, but he didn't score this season until a game against the Patriots. The Dolphins built up a wide lead and Kiick took the ball in from the one-yard line.
"I was supposed to be leading the play," said Guard Larry Little, the man who shed 15 pounds to make the club. "I had never scored a touchdown in all the time I had been playing ball and I'm out there behind Jim with no one to block, so I hollered 'Lateral to me.' He just looked back and said 'Next time' and went on in with it."
"Kiick is all-round," says Shula. "He reminds me a little of Tom Matte. He runs real well, with good moves, and he blocks and he can catch the ball. He is a really fine football player."
Kiick, the Butch Cassidy of the pair, is three inches shorter than Csonka, 22 pounds lighter and wears a Fu Manchu mustache. He played college football at Wyoming, far from his native New Jersey, and is frank in explaining how a New Jersey high school boy winds up in the wild West.
"My grades and college boards were not very good," he says. "I wanted to go to Penn State, or really anywhere in the East, but I didn't get that many offers. So I took Wyoming. Never had been there before and when I got off the plane, wow, it was just like the movies. You expected to see a shoot-out in the street."
He didn't regret the long trip. In his three years at Wyoming Kiick was an All-Western Athletic Conference tailback three times and took the Cowboys to the Sugar Bowl in 1968, the year Csonka was a rookie pro. He believes he experienced a greater change in moving from college to pro than did Csonka, but it was a pleasant one.
"At Wyoming I was bigger than some of our offensive linemen," he says. "When you're a back and you can see over your blockers, you're in trouble. When I run a sweep here, behind Little or Kuechenberg, the defensive players can't see me. It makes a difference."
Bob Kuechenberg is the other Dolphin guard. At 6'2" and 247, he is not as big as Little, but he blocks well on sweeps. If he had been of the caliber of his father, he would probably be in the circus today instead of playing professional football.
"My dad was in a circus act when I was a kid," he says. "He got shot out of a cannon. One time he landed in the net wrong and broke his neck and while he was recovering my uncle took over, but he overshot the net and got hurt. I had a choice of going to college or into the cannon. I went to college."
He played at Notre Dame and was drafted fourth by the Eagles in 1969, then was waived to Atlanta and wound up the year playing with a minor league team in Chicago. Picked up as a free agent by the Dolphins, Kuechenberg has been a starting guard since halfway through the 1970 season.
"When I look at the defensive tackles in this league," he said ruefully before the Pittsburgh game, "I sometimes figure I would have been better off in the cannon."
Little was named the outstanding offensive lineman in the American Conference last year by the NFL Players Association, an honor he richly deserved, says Shula. "He has everything," the coach says. "Size, quickness, strength. He's a great blocker straight ahead or on traps or sweeps. He is going to be one of the really fine offensive linemen in the league."
Squarely built with tremendous chest, biceps and thighs, Little says he would rather block for the run than for the pass. "It gives you a chance to hit back. You block on the pass, you're dropping back, getting hit all the time, you got no chance to lay it on anyone."
Little, who played college ball at Bethune-Cookman, was with San Diego before he came to the Dolphins in 1969 for Defensive Back Mack Lamb.
"I talked to Sid Gillman two or three times about him," says Joe Thomas, Miami's director of player personnel. "I knew he wanted Lamb, but he offered me three or four different players and every time I said, 'Sid, I want Little.' Finally, I told him not to call me unless he would say just one word. Little. And he did."
Another deal made by Thomas that helped change the Dolphins from a 3-10-1 team in 1969 to 10-4 in 1970 and a strong contender again in 1971 was the trade for Warfield, who had played for Cleveland throughout his pro career. The Browns were desperate for a first draft choice early enough in the draw to assure them a quality quarterback. Thomas had a quarterback—Griese—and a high draft choice.
"I was thinking in terms of Lance Alworth or a prime receiver like him," Thomas says. "I had talked to Art Modell, but we hadn't come close to a deal. One day he called me and when he said 'Paul Warfield' I took the phone away from my ear and couldn't talk for a minute. Then I made the deal and went home."
The trade has been as good as Thomas thought it would be; Warfield added a very important dimension to the Dolphin attack with his deep receptions and also, surprisingly—he is only 180 pounds and six feet tall—with his blocking.
"He's the only man I ever saw putting on moves when he's just walking," Mira once said.
"I guess he got that from training camp," Warfield says, smiling. "Sometimes when I'm walking along I think about the kind of moves I'm going to make, and I try them unconsciously."
Warfield was not exactly enchanted when he learned he had been traded to Miami, "but it has worked out very well for me," he says now. "This surface required some adjustments. When I make a sideline cut, which is the toughest pattern to run, I like to cut at a very sharp angle, but I've been rounding the cut a little here. I'll have to work on it more."
But more than individual players or any trades, it is Shula who has orchestrated the success of the Dolphins. Last week Marv Fleming, the big tight end who played most of his pro career with the Green Bay Packers during their years of glory, extended to his coach the ultimate compliment of an ex-Packer. "He's just like Vince Lombardi," he said. "You pay the price, but you get what you pay for." In Miami Sunday everybody but the Steelers got what he paid for.