It bodes well for the Miami Dolphins' assault on pro football history that Larry Csonka, a sensitive soul who could moonlight as a trucking-company safe, is a better power runner than a power prognosticator. Were the reverse true, the Dolphins would not now be ready to repeat as Super Bowl champions in Houston, where, with all the frenzy that a man exhibits over the prospect of his morning shave, they will participate in the game for the third time in three years.
As expected, Miami qualified to meet Minnesota with a 27-10 win over the Oakland Raiders last Sunday in the Orange Bowl. Before 75,105 hanky-wavers, the Dolphins inexorably won their third straight AFC championship in a way Csonka said wouldn't happen—with telling, early muscle that never weakened. Csonka himself loused up his prediction by scoring three touchdowns and rushing for 117 yards over the infamous PolyTurf, teammate Larry Little and various Raider rib cages.
"I believe that no matter how this game starts, even if the opening kickoff is returned for a touchdown, it won't be a factor in the game," Csonka said two days beforehand. "The score at the end of the first quarter could change around before the half. Both teams are experienced and can dig in and grind it out. If that sort of thing happened to a new team it would tend to be deflated, but that won't happen Sunday. Both of us can come back."
The reality was that the Dolphins took the kickoff and rammed the ball into the strength of the Oakland defense for nine plays, Csonka lumbering the final 11 yards for a touchdown, and Oakland never really came back. During the drive the Raiders suffered a defensive holding penalty—the sort of mistake, like the pass Fred Biletnikoff dropped on the Miami 10—that hurt the Western Division champions all afternoon. But the Raiders were stung worse when Quarterback Bob Griese, in peril of being sacked, scrambled for 27 yards to set up Csonka's touchdown.
January 6, 1974
Oakland, which had scored a 12-7 victory over Miami when the teams met during the regular season at Berkeley, had played for the conference title four times before its most recent try, and on every occasion but one it demonstrated a perverse tendency to beat itself. Against the Dolphins, however, the Raiders were a team committing suicide by pestilence, with Csonka the lethal carrier who snuffed them out. The predisposing cause was Miami's explosive offensive-line charge led by the awesome blocking of Little, an All-Pro guard. Thus Griese sent Csonka straight ahead, wide, delaying and slanting back against the flow of the play for huge yardage or, for a change of pace, went to Mercury Morris, who darted for 86 yards. The Dolphins rolled up 266 yards on the ground, so Griese had to throw but six times—he completed three—a record low. In the entire second half he passed only once.
"I'm not at all happy with myself," said Raider Defensive Tackle Otis Sistrunk, whose fate it was to line up across from Little. "I didn't think they could do that to us. Csonka is just a hard man to run down. Sometimes they were double-teaming and other times they were running the draw, but they just kept running at us all day."
"They were a different ball club out there," said Oakland Linebacker Phil Villapiano. "In the first game they were nonchalant. They didn't seem to want it. Maybe we were lulled to sleep by that first game. I knew they were going to be tough, but geezus, I didn't think they'd be able to do that to us. We don't get beat that way. No one runs on us like that."
Miami's ground game also consumed time the Raiders could ill afford to lose. The Dolphins' second scoring march, which closed with Csonka banging in from the two-yard line behind Little 17 seconds before the first half ended, used up almost eight full minutes. Csonka scored a playoff-record-breaking third touchdown on another two-yard burst in the fourth quarter, and Garo Yepremian did his bit by kicking field goals of 42 and 26 yards.
While the Raiders might have made a game of it if their defense had buckled down, Coach John Madden had no need to apologize for his offense, only for the limited time it had to operate. Quarterback Ken Stabler comported himself with the Pride and Poise that is his club's slogan, belying the fact that it was his first starting appearance in a championship game. With Stabler winging his darts under the Miami zone and to receivers curling back at him, the Raiders pulled to within 17-10 by dominating the third quarter. Oakland's only touchdown came at the end of a crisp 11-play, 79-yard drive, Stabler passing 25 yards to Mike Siani, who was all by his lonesome in the end zone as a result of a mix-up in the Dolphin secondary. All told, Stabler completed 15 of 23 passes for 129 yards, but to no avail. While Griese is in Houston, Stabler will be taking out his aggressions on the waterways of Foley, Ala. in a 16-foot speedboat that has a dashboard plate reading, GET IN, SIT DOWN, SHUT UP and HOLD ON. "Four or five of my friends have the same kind of boat," he says affectionately. "We terrorize those lakes and rivers back home."
Miami's victory Sunday was its 24th straight in the Orange Bowl, and even Shula, who can afford the feeling, may agree that the home-field advantage is too big a factor when teams are playing for high stakes. This season the top seven clubs in the NFL (excluding the Raiders, who lost twice in the Oakland Coliseum) won 47 of 49 games at home, a fact that should argue in favor of neutral sites for the postseason. Against this is an equally powerful argument that fans should be allowed to see their team at home as often as they can.
Madden, however, made no excuses. "Everything they said about the Dolphins is true," he admitted. "They have an awful lot of poise and class. They really executed and we didn't. One problem was that it seemed we didn't have the ball enough. When we had the ball it seemed we could move it all right. When we beat Miami earlier, we did to them what they did to us today. The last time we played they got only a yard or two on first down and had a lot of third-and-long situations. We are a young team, maybe younger than we thought. We fought like heck the last five weeks but we didn't seem to have it today.
"We didn't try to stop Csonka," he added, "we tried to control him. We tried to get him second and eight and third and eight so that when he'd get his five yards it wouldn't mean anything. But we just couldn't control him."
"I felt the tempo of the game dictated our going with the run," Griese said. "We were prepared to pass more if need be, but you do what's working for you. We needed to control the ball after their scoring drive and this we were doing with the run. As for a comparison with our earlier game with Oakland, we threw out the bad plays and kept the ones that worked. We run the same plays a lot."
Csonka said, "It's our offensive line. If we get three, four or five yards on a play, we're going to use it until we don't get three, four or five yards. I'm not a swivel-hipped halfback who gets 1,500 to 2,000 yards in a season—without taking anything away from swivel-hipped halfbacks. I depend a great deal—I'd say 85%—on my offensive line for my yardage."
It was no surprise then that Csonka gave as much of a pep talk as any Dolphin ever will to Little after the second touchdown. Little came up limping, and it looked like he might be sidelined. "I said, 'If you make it through this, you've got two weeks to recover,' but it wasn't a case of me talking Larry Little into staying in the game. I just said the kind of thing he would have told me had the situation been reversed. Our offensive team has a lot of unity between the linemen and the backs. They know what's in our heads, we know what's in theirs. This team is too professional for a lot of backslapping."
It may be that the Dolphins also are too professional to play a slapdash game in the Super Bowl. If indeed Miami wins again it will be the first team to do so since the mighty Packers won back-to-back world championships.
"We like to be talked of in terms of the Green Bay Packers," says Coach Don Shula. "I'm one and two right now and all I want to do is get even. I can't be any more proud of this team than I am right now. We got the big offense, and the offense got the points on the board."
In an exhibition last August, Minnesota beat Miami 20-17. Csonka remembers it well. "What can you say about Minnesota?" he says. "I just recently had the helmet of Roy Winston [the Viking linebacker] removed from my backbone. All we're looking forward to is winning the Super Bowl. That's what we've been working toward all season. We don't have single, individual colorful players like some teams have, but I think that helps us to blend together."
It would seem that Csonka is as mistaken in his summation of his team as he is in his forecast. No one could have failed to recognize a single, individual, colorless, still-hipped player in the Orange Bowl Sunday, and just in case he was overlooked his next performance is at Houston. The guy doing the job right behind Larry Little.