It was not always easy, and far less dramatic than it might have been, but the Miami Dolphins finally demonstrated rather conclusively that they are the biggest fish in the pro football pond. In the seventh Super Bowl they defeated the Washington Redskins 14-7 before 81,706 sweltering and smog-beset fans in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. This meant that the Dolphins went an entire season without a loss, 17 straight. No other NFL team has ever gone undefeated for a season, and no other club is likely to do it again soon, either. On the record, then, Miami is the best club in pro football history.
The Dolphins won the game with a nearly impeccable first half; with an extraordinarily accurate passer in Quarterback Bob Griese (see cover); with a rhino of a runner, Larry Csonka; and, above all, with a defense that may have been No Names, but was plenty of adjectives. Try tough, tight, dashing and daring for starters. The special stars were Tackle Manny Fernandez, who keyed the line; Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti, who intercepted one pass; and Free Safety Jake Scott, who intercepted two passes and was named the most valuable player in the game. As an extra fillip, the Dolphins produced the most valuable Redskin when a Garo Yepremian field-goal attempt turned into the most hilarious play yet seen in a Super Bowl and gave Washington its touchdown.
In fact, had it not been for Yepremian, the Dolphin defenders would have pitched a shutout at the Redskins. When Washington did score it came with only 2:07 left in the game. Yepremian, the tiny placekicker from Cyprus, was attempting a 42-yard field goal as a kind of icing on the Dolphin cake—when the kick was blocked. The ball bounced back toward him and Yepremian made the mistake of picking it up, apparently deciding that he was the designated pinch passer. The ball slipped from his hand as he drew back to throw and bobbled about his shoulders until he batted it into the air where Redskin Mike Bass snatched it and took off. Running almost unhampered, he went 49 yards for Washington's only score.
When the Redskins got the ball back, on their own 30 after a Dolphin punt, there were only 74 seconds left to try for a tying touchdown, and they could not advance so much as a yard. The end came, symbolically, with the Dolphin defense swarming over Quarterback Bill Kilmer. For its last fling, Washington did not even get off a desperation pass.
Yepremian's aberration was one of the few consequential Dolphin errors. The Redskins, on the other hand, proved adept at coming up with the big misplay every time they appeared in a position to enter the contest. And it took them quite some time to enter.
As it usually does, Washington opened with a conservative, probing offense featuring the running of Larry Brown. Only Brown never did run very far on Sunday. One of the plays is a drive in which Brown reads his tackle's block on the defensive end; another is a play in which Brown fakes the drive, then comes back, hopefully, against the flow of the defense. But for this second play to work, the first has to be effective.
Since the first play did not work, the second was not effective. And neither was Kilmer's passing. A sharpshooter in the first two playoff games, Kilmer was 14 for 28 against the Dolphins, but there were three interceptions and his longest pass gain all day was for 15 yards. "I wasn't throwing well," Kilmer admitted afterward. "I tried to force the ball a couple of times and it killed us."
Griese, on the other hand, was throwing very well, if infrequently. He completed eight of his 11 passes, including one of 28 yards to Howard Twilley for the first Dolphin touchdown. Twilley is one of only four players who came to the Dolphins in their first season and a broken jaw and a broken left elbow have cost him considerable playing time. But when Griese wanted to go to someone for a touchdown in the first quarter, he used the incomparable Paul Warfield as a decoy and Twilley as a primary target.
An 18-yard Griese-to-Warfield pass had played a big part in getting the Dolphins within range. It was third and four and the Redskins doubled up on Warfield. He was knocked down coming off the line of scrimmage and eliminated from the pass pattern. Twilley, on the other side, came off free. Pat Fischer was covering him. "I had to sell Pat on the pattern," Twilley said after the game. "We have had a lot of success on quick down-and-in routes and I figured Pat thought I would go that way. When I fake that and go out, I usually give the cornerback a little head fake, then break to the outside."
This time, instead of the head fake, he ran a quick three-step turn in on Fischer, and Pat bought it. Twilley cut back to the outside, and Griese's perfect pass hit him at about the five-yard line. Fischer cut over to intercept him, but Twilley fought his way into the end zone for the first touchdown of the game.
The Dolphins apparently scored again on a 47-yard pass from Griese to War-field, but that play was nullified by a procedural violation, so Washington, a fine second-half team, had a good shot to come out of a bad first half down only 7-0, or perhaps even less. The Redskins had the ball on the Dolphin 48, their first time across midfield, and they were moving. Kilmer had brought the team from the 17 in six plays, calling more sophisticated maneuvers than previously. He threw wide to Roy Jefferson for eight yards and then handed the ball to Charley Harraway, who burst up the middle for eight more. A well-executed end-around by Charley Taylor gained another eight yards.
Four plays later, with third and three on the Miami 48, Kilmer lost a battle of wits. Figuring that Miami would be looking for either Brown or Harraway in a short-yardage burst, he decided to pass instead. The Dolphins had a surprise of their own. Head Defensive Coach Bill Arnsparger called a variation of the weak zone which the Redskins were not expecting. Arnsparger went with a deployment that the Redskins know as the Weak Zone Buck, but in their study of Dolphin films they had noticed that Miami had not used the Weak Zone Buck since midseason.
Larry Brown looped out of the back-field as a pass receiver. Normally, the Redskins would expect Buoniconti to roll to the weak side and then Brown would take off and try to outrun the weak-side linebacker. But in the Miami version of the Weak Zone Buck, Buoniconti fixes himself in the middle of a shallow zone. Ironically, Brown would run a pattern that would take him right to where Buoniconti lay in wait. The Redskins ambushed themselves.
Meanwhile, Harraway also ran a pass route, leaving Kilmer without any back-field protection. Walter Rock, the Redskin left tackle, dropped back to take the first Dolphin through, while John Wilbur, Washington's fine right guard, fell back to take the second man. Wilbur expected that to be Bob Matheson, the Dolphins' extra linebacker, No. 53, who is inserted into the game at points such as this to key a defense that now bears his number—the 53 Defense.
As Wilbur eyed Matheson, Doug Swift, the left linebacker, crashed on a blitz. He zeroed in on Kilmer at just about the same instant as Brown reached Buoniconti. "It was either get sacked or get the ball right out to Larry," Kilmer explained later, "and I forced it."
The ball flew directly into Buoniconti's hands at the Miami 41, and he cut to his right and hustled it all the way back to the Redskin 27. Griese, who was starting his first game since he went out with a broken leg and dislocated ankle on Oct. 15, came on the field then and, cool and sharp, marshaled his attack. There were only two minutes left in the half, but Griese calmly called for running plays by Jim Kiick and Csonka.
Then, on third and four from the 21, he befuddled the Redskins by throwing to a tight end, Jim Mandich. Mandich faked a block, cut at an angle to his right, and made a lovely diving catch at the two-yard line. Two plays after Mandich's catch, Kiick rode Csonka's coat tails over right guard for the touchdown that put the Dolphins ahead 14-0. Washington was shaken but not shattered by this turn of events, and came back strong with two long drives in the second half. When the first bogged down, Curt Knight missed a 32-yard field-goal try. The second ended when Scott intercepted in the end zone. Washington did not threaten again till Yepremian turned quarterback. As for the Dolphins, they had one abortive drive in the second half, triggered by Csonka's 49-yard rumble through the Redskins to the Washington 16. But Griese, attempting to float a short pass into the end zone, was intercepted.
Neither team cares to gamble much, and they both performed predictably. For all the hoopla, most Super Bowls have turned out, like this one, to be pretty stodgy affairs. Nevertheless, the television audience was supposed to reach 75 million, which would make it the largest number ever to witness a sporting event in America. Presumably included in the TV totals were 8,476 fans who paid $15 a seat at the sold-out Coliseum, but then opted to stay away.
The unseasonably warm weather may have kept down the crowd, but it seemed to have no effect on the outcome. Neither team voiced any serious doubt as to which was the better this day. "We wanted to take away their short, inside passing," said Miami Coach Don Shula, "and we wanted to whip them up front, which takes away the run. There's no doubt we won there."
"They're like swarming bees," said Wilbur, the Redskin guard who played opposite Fernandez in certain defenses. "You think you've blocked them well, and you only get two, three, four yards before they're all over you."
Fernandez played the biggest part in the Dolphins' line victory. A free agent from Utah, he is not overpowering, but he is strong and quick and indefatigable, too. "I think we outplayed them, out-executed them," he said after the game. "We've got superior personnel. The few times they did burn us, it was because we were overaggressive."
The Miami aggressiveness was seldom out of hand, however, while by contrast Washington appeared to play too cautiously—especially in the first half. "We were not waiting for the other team to lose," said Shula. "We were doing things to win. We've got confidence in our ability to execute. It helped to have been here last year, too."
Washington Coach George Allen seemed to be most discombobulated of all the principals by the attendant pressures. He never stopped complaining about the "distractions" common to a Super Bowl, and he regularly let the press hordes get under his skin. Allen works tirelessly and devotes himself altogether to the task of victory—"To win this game, I'd let you stick a knife in me and draw all my blood," he declared a couple days before the game—and he expects the same of his players.
But for a game like the Super Bowl, it is probably better to take it easy. At least it now seems so. Shula was relaxed and amiable throughout, and was almost elfin in the interminable interviews that are a league requirement for Super Bowl coaches.
Allen, on the other hand, only grew more querulous as the week wore on. In his last press session he snapped: "This is the first time in 23 years as a head coach I have missed a meeting with my team. I hope you fellows don't ask me the same questions today that you've been asking me all week." He also blamed the press for ruining his team's practice Thursday, and when he was not bemoaning the fourth estate he took after his players' wives. "If we could arrange for the wives to be in Chicago, I'd be happy," he announced, only half in jest. The players were hardly in agreement; The Washington Post reported that on Tuesday night before all the wives had arrived the Redskins placed "a league record" 236 long-distance phone calls from their motel.
What time he had, Allen devoted to the most meticulous preparation. He even sent an associate to the Coliseum to scout the sun for a couple of hours. The man brought back a detailed solar chart.
How did Allen's intensity affect the team? One player, who understandably must remain anonymous, said: "We should have left him in Washington."
No such controversy swirled about the happy Dolphins, although Shula did bridle when his old Baltimore boss, Carroll Rosenbloom, who now owns the Los Angeles Rams, offered some bitter comments to the effect that Shula could not win the big one. He has now, and so have his Dolphins.
As Super Bowl VII sank slowly in the West, the only sad Dolphin was little Yepremian, whose faux pas could have cost a lot more than embarrassment. "That championship ring will hang heavy on my hand," he said, shaking his mournful face.
The empty fingers of the Redskins will hang heavier still.