"This seasonis a great opportunity for us," says Miami Coach Don Shula. "Now thethings that we've accomplished can be even more meaningful. We'd like to winback-to-back Super Bowls, which no one has done since Green Bay, and we'd liketo write some new history as far as winning is concerned."
It is highlyimprobable that the NFL champs will extend their 17-0-0 streak through anotherunbeaten season and postseason. What is totally unlikely is that anyone willstop the Dolphins from winning the division for the third year insuccession.
Miami needs threemore victories to break the NFL record of 17 consecutive regular-seasontriumphs and two more to shatter the standard of 18 straight over regular andpostseason play. The Dolphins, however, meet five of last season's playoffteams, including Oakland away on Sept. 23, and the Raiders have lost but fourhome games since 1967.
"We've beenaround long enough to know you don't win indefinitely," says QuarterbackEarl Morrall, who has been around 17 seasons. "But I don't think any of usare going to crack up mentally when we lose. If we can keep it going, great,but the object of every season is the Super Bowl."
Toward that goalthe Dolphins offer some familiar credentials as well as subtleties you don'tfind in the statistics. Miami was the NFL's No. 1 team both on offense anddefense a year ago, but the Dolphins were also No. 1 in luck.
Of the keypersonnel, only Quarterback Bob Griese, whom Morrall capably replaced,Defensive Tackle Jim Dunaway and Offensive Tackle Wayne Moore were lost formore than four games. Griese may have to stay healthier now; Shula claims theDolphins will throw more than they did last season, when the brunt of theirball control offense was a running game that ravaged defenses for 2,960 netyards, an NFL record. Most notable among Griese's receivers is the incomparablePaul Warfield, whose 29 receptions is the most misleading statistic in all offootball. In addition, there are Marlin Briscoe, Howard Twilley and RonSellers, who was acquired from Dallas for Otto Stowe. Jim Mandich, who cancatch, and Marv Fleming, who can block, will again split time at tight end.
Larry Csonka (seecover), the prime mover on the ground, rushed for 1,117 yards in 1972; MercuryMorris got 1,000 and Jim Kiick picked up 521. The three-back offense willremain an important Miami weapon. So will Placekicker Garo Yepremian, whosebiggest Orange Bowl thrill came last Independence Day when he became a U.S.citizen.
On defense, theNo Names return intact after yielding 171 points last year, lowest in theleague. Mike Kolen and Doug Swift adequately flank 32-year-old Nick Buonicontiat linebacker and the deep secondary, patrolled by Dick Anderson, Jake Scott,Curtis Johnson and Tim Foley, could write a book on how to play the zone.
There was littleevidence last year that the New York Jets had ever read anything about defense,including their own playbooks. They scored 41 touchdowns and only 18 fewerpoints than the Dolphins, but could not stop anybody. Yielding 23.1 points agame, the Jets ranked 22nd in defense in the NFL and dead last against thepass. Coach Weeb Ewbank hopes he has strengthened the defense through tradesand the draft. If he has, the Jets could contend for a wildcard playoffspot.
Dealing a pair ofhigh draft choices to New Orleans, Ewbank acquired Defensive Lineman RichardNeal, who has shown to advantage rushing the passer, and Defensive Back DellesHowell, who may be the find of the year. Howell, a starter at cornerback withEarlie Thomas, has sparkled in exhibition games. Burgess Owens of Miami, theJets' No. 1 draft choice, is expected to move in at one safety spot, the otherbeing filled by Chris Farasopoulos. Like many other teams this season, the Jetswill often use an extra deep defender on obvious passing situations, rushing athree-man line. "We've also got more coverages than we've ever had,"Ewbank says. "Our problem now is to learn them."
The Jets' frontfour could be another problem if they are injured as much as they have been inthe past, but of even greater concern is linebacking. "We need bettercoordination between our rush and our coverage," Ewbank says. "Ourlinebackers must help the secondary and the pass-rush more."
The Jets'offense, directed by Joe Namath, should be devastating again unless thecontract hassles that Ewbank experienced with John Riggins, Emerson Boozer andWinston Hill, among others, have a lingering effect. Riggins, whose response toone Ewbank telegram was, "Need more green before I get mean," missedall of camp before finally reporting. He may need time to regain the form heshowed last season, when he rushed for 944 yards in 12 games. But Ewbank ispleased with 30-year-old Jim Nance, who signed on as a free agent, lost 30pounds and turned in some impressive exhibitions.
The Jets' longsuit, of course, is throwing the football, as Namath demonstrated last seasonwhen he passed for 19 touchdowns, a league-leading 2,816 yards—and 21interceptions. Namath did not have to have his knees aspirated this year.Healthy, Joe makes New York go, complemented as he is by highly talentedreceivers. The best is 6'5" Tight End Rich Caster, who has speed to matchhis size. He averaged 21.4 yards on his 39 catches last year.
The mostintriguing team in the AFC East, or in football, is Baltimore, which retainsbut 12 members from its 1970 Super Bowl manifest. General Manager Joe Thomashas traded 13 veterans since January and, with new Coach HowardSchnellenberger, is building the Colts with players still going through socialintroductions. Perhaps to make that chore easier, one of Schnellenberger'sfirst acts was to eliminate 30% of the playbook.
The Coltquarterback, at least for now, is Marty Domres, who replaced John Unitas andthrew 127 passes before one was intercepted. "Marty did a fantastic jobunder the greatest pressure in the history of the NFL," says Thomas."If he plays in the Super Bowl, it won't be as bad." Baltimore was 4-5with Domres at the helm and Schnellenberger is hoping he'll improve on thatrecord so that Bert Jones, the Colts' top draft choice, won't have to be thrownto the wolves too early.
Baltimore hascompetent running backs and the receivers improved considerably with theaddition of Tight End Raymond Chester, whom Thomas acquired from Oakland forthe disgruntled Bubba Smith. The linebacking unit of Ted Hendricks, Mike Curtisand Ray May is one of the best and the secondary should be better, but bothlines are untested. The offensive line averages four years' experience. Thedefensive front four includes rookie Joe Ehrmann and the man who will try tomake Colt fans forget Bubba—rookie Mike Barnes.
Buffalo could bethe most improved team in the division if Lou Saban can upgrade his rushdefense and keep his offensive line together for the entire season. Almost fromthe opening kickoff, injuries knocked five starting interior linemen out ofaction last year, and the situation was makeshift thereafter. "We had guyscoming in on Thursday and starting on Sunday," says Saban. Even so, theBills beat the 49ers and Washington, tied Detroit and gave Miami its closestgame, 24-23. In O. J. Simpson, the NFL rushing champ, Buffalo has the finestrunning back in the game. Quarterback Dennis Shaw is better than his '72statistics, J. D. Hill is a superb wide receiver but Middle Linebacker JimCheyunski injured his knee and may be out for the season. Once again, the Billsappear to be one year and two good linemen away.
Chuck Fairbanks,whom the New England Patriots lured from Oklahoma, has farther to travel. Heplans to start by making the world safer for Quarterback Jim Plunkett, who hada dismal season (39 sacks, 25 interceptions, last among 27 rated NFL passers)in 1972. But so did all the other Pats, bereft as they were of such niceties ascoaching.
In aid ofPlunkett, New England picked Guard John Hannah, Fullback Sam Cunningham andWide Receiver Darryl Stingley in the first round. "I hope we can developour inside running game," Fairbanks says. "An assaulting type ofrushing attack would give our quarterback protection." Defensively, thePatriots probably have more holes than Fairbanks can plug. As he says, "Weneed a lot of help in a lot of places."