The sun has never shone brighter for the World Champion Miami Dolphins. And as long as it keeps beating down, they will continue to be undefeated—at least on their home Poly-Turf in the Orange Bowl. The Dolphins extended their win streak to 18 games last Sunday, scoring 15 points on the dehydrated San Francisco 49ers in the fourth period for a 21-13 victory. The temperature at game time was a seasonable 86°, but it was more than 100° on the floor of the Orange Bowl and maybe 120° inside the football helmets. The Dolphins are used to it. The 49ers, fresh from the cool climes of Northern California, stood the heat for three quarters, then slowly melted into the plastic sod.
This is not to suggest that the Dolphins are merely warm-weather fiends. They had a passel of problems of their own. Much of their defensive line was injured or sick; Paul Warfield, the best wide receiver in pro football, was favoring a bruised thigh; Jim Kiick was suffering from a bad back; and Howard Twilley, another dandy wide receiver, missed the game with a sore foot.
When Coach Don Shula has his team entirely fit, it is probably a bit better than the one which won Super Bowl VII. Unfortunately, he has seldom been able to field his first choices on offense and defense during the exhausting seven-game exhibition schedule. No less than 26 Dolphins missed one or more games this summer. And Shula's methodical preparation was all loused up.
"The All-Star game disrupts your practice," he said last week. "Normally, I would start the veterans slowly during the preseason, letting them play a quarter in the first couple of games, a couple of quarters after that, then three, and have them ready to go a whole game just before the season starts. This year we had to have them ready to play 60 minutes against the All-Stars in July. We played our first-liners almost the whole way in that game. Then I had to slack off, rest them and try to bring them up again for the opener."
For most of three quarters on Sunday the Dolphin regulars looked as if they were still a game or two away from their peak. The 49ers, a sound, tough and, on this day, particularly determined club, whipsawed the ailing Dolphin defense under the canny direction of veteran Quarterback John Brodie.
With a paucity of defensive linemen, Shula had to use his famous 53 defense much of the time, since in this alignment there are only three linemen. It is a most effective defense against the pass, but leaves a lot to be desired against a strong running attack. Luckily for Shula the San Francisco running attack consists of Vic Washington.
Washington was all the 49ers needed during the first half. He did not exactly run wild, but on occasion he found gaps in Miami's thin aqua line. When the Dolphins shifted to a four-man front, Brodie prospered by going to the air. This combination of brilliant passing and pedestrian running produced a 79-yard drive that put the 49ers ahead 10-6 at the half.
In that march Brodie threw three times to Tight End Ted Kwalick, the last pass bringing the ball to the Miami 15. From there Washington swept left end for five, caught another Brodie pass for seven and plunged over right tackle for the touchdown.
At this point, it appeared that San Francisco had taken control of the game. As the half ended the 49ers were threatening once more, but rookie Henry Stuckey managed to block a 43-yard field goal attempt by Bruce Gossett.
Paradoxically, the 49ers' touchdown drive contributed to their downfall. When they came out for the second half, Brodie was on the bench holding an ice pack to the back of his neck and Steve Spurrier was on the field playing quarterback. Other 49ers who wilted in the intense heat were Running Back Larry Schreiber, John Watson, a reserve tackle who snaps the ball for punts, Guard Woody Peoples, Center Forrest Blue and Safety Mike Simpson. The last two were hospitalized for treatment of heat prostration. "I felt like someone had pulled the plug out when I went into the locker room at the half," Brodie said later. "I was weak and sick and I didn't care about football. I could barely stand up. I thought maybe if I stayed on the sideline and rested a while it would get better, but it didn't."
In the third period, the Dolphin defense sweated out an even more exhausting ordeal. Miami controlled the ball for 10 plays, meaning that the Dolphin defenders spent more than two-thirds of the quarter on the field. The Dolphins were lucky Spurrier was at quarterback.
Miami's tribulations began when Mercury Morris lost a fumble at the Dolphin 22 and threw his helmet for a 35-yard incompletion. The Miami defense plus two major penalties forced San Francisco to punt from near midfield, but Stuckey ran into the kicker, giving the 49ers a first down—and back came the defense.
San Francisco drove to the 23, where a holding penalty and a Manny Fernandez sack forced another punt. On the Dolphins' first play from scrimmage, Quarterback Bob Griese was intercepted by Safety Mel Phillips, who returned the ball to the Miami 21. Defense in. The 49ers finally settled for a 30-yard field goal, which put them ahead 13-6.
In the fourth period, the Dolphin defense rested and the Dolphin offense, which had been getting a great deal of unwanted rest, scored a touchdown and two field goals. The touchdown came on a 10-yard Griese-to-Warfield pass, which was set up by Larry Csonka's thumping runs. Following Garo Yepremian's 45-yard field goal, Miami got a safety when the woozy Watson centered the ball from the San Francisco 33 over the head of Punter Tom Wittum, who chased it into the end zone where he was downed. After the free kick, Yepremian hit his fourth field goal in four tries.
"Five players were seriously dehydrated during the game," Dr. Lloyd Milburn, the 49er physician, said later. "Unfortunately, there is no way you can re-hydrate a player quickly. I tried to keep them full of liquids, but it was too hot."
Asked if the game might have had a different outcome if it had been cooler, Brodie lifted his head from his hands and turned a haggard face to his questioner. He was drawn and gray and looked years older than his 38. "They are a good football team," he said. "I just don't know."
Fernandez, who plays over the center most of the time in the 53 defense and spent much of the day double-teamed by San Francisco, was pouring water over his head in the Dolphin dressing room and smiling. "The heat gets to everyone," he said. "I thought I'd die out there in the third period. But you just have to gut it out. We knew if we hung in the offense would start to roll, and it did. We have confidence in them and they have confidence in us."
The confidence may well be justified. Despite a relatively unproductive first half, Csonka got 104 yards in 22 carries. Kiick added 58 in eight (and caught three passes for 34 more yards) to underline the fact that the Dolphin running game is as good as ever. Griese was subpar but remained unruffled and the offensive line, although not impressive, opened holes in the fourth period. "We knew we had to do it," said All-Pro Guard Larry Little. "After last year we know when we got to crank it up, we can."
The defense sagged, understandably. Shula was hard put to find enough bodies to man the trenches. Bill Stanfill, the best pass rusher among Miami's defensive ends, left a hospital bed where he was recovering from a stomach disorder to suit up. He played only in spots, but he played well.
Nor should it be forgotten that the Dolphins were meeting a keyed-up San Francisco team. "We found out during the preseason that it will be different this year," Shula had said before the game. "When the Vikings beat us in Minnesota, you would have thought they had just won the Super Bowl. The players were dancing, the fans were hollering and Bud Grant was tipping his hat to the crowd. That told us something. Nobody will have a down day against us."
In other words, the heat will be on Miami all year long. But as they proved against the 49ers, they can take it better than anyone.