A group of wealthy celebrities known as the Miami Dolphins were supposed to have their pride and all of their earthly possessions at stake in the city of Buffalo last Sunday because they had absentmindedly forgotten to open the pro football season on schedule the week before, having been preoccupied with tax shelters, clothes fittings, oil-portrait posings and cornering the market on Gucci chin straps. Whatever. They had lost their first game in a very embarrassing way, and to the New England Peasants—er, Patriots—of all people, and the world was poised to say that if they lost again, even though the Bills were new and improved and wonderful, it would prove that success is the ultimate killer in American society. But then the game in Buffalo didn't prove anything, and now we will have to wait at least another week to find out if the Dolphins are mortal. The trouble was, the Bills made it so convenient for Miami to score.
Well, let's take that back. The Dolphins are not so fat and happy that they couldn't put together a couple of touchdown drives of 36 and 324 inches. Which is how far they had to go to get their first two touchdowns after the Bills established their excellence at fumbling.
Give a millionaire an inch and he'll take a 24-16 win.
A close study of the game films will probably reveal that the whistle should have blown O. J. Simpson dead before the ball dribbled away from him, enabling Linebacker Doug Swift to pounce on it at the one-yard line and the Dolphins to uncork their one-play, 36-inch drive. But no excuse could be made for Fullback Jim Braxton's fumble, which gave Miami the ball at Buffalo's nine and let the Dolphins in for the touchdown that made it 14-3 and perfectly obvious that this was not going to be Buffalo's day. Inasmuch as it took an utter miracle on the part of Joe Ferguson and Ahmad Rashad to overcome a Braxton fumble against Oakland in the Bills' first game, the suggestion can be made that one of Buffalo's future problems will be to outscore its own fullback.
For three quarters it looked as if Miami was there to be had, if Buffalo could only stop beating itself. It wasn't until the fourth quarter that the Dolphins put on any sort of sustained drive, and even that one was helped along by a 15-yard penalty. Meanwhile, Buffalo had been hitting harder and cruising up and down the field. The Bills drove 40 yards to a 3-0 lead, they drove 59 yards to zero because a field-goal attempt was blocked, they drove 66 yards for a touchdown that brought them up to 14-9, and they would eventually drive 65 yards for a touchdown that would bring them up to 21-16. Overall, they outgained Miami, they did a commendable job of containing Larry Csonka (68 yards in 19 carries) and they could say, if it was any consolation, that they gave the Dolphins 14 points, which Bob Griese got on a couple of lobs to his tight ends, Jim Mandich and Marv Fleming.
Whether any of this is evidence that Miami is not so fantastic anymore or that Buffalo is enormously better and a serious contender for the playoffs, is something no one can yet be sure of. Most likely, there is truth in both suppositions.
When last Sunday's game was over, Csonka and most of the other Dolphins walked off the field looking as dejected as the Bills. Heading up the tunnel toward the dressing room, Csonka said to no one in particular, "I'm glad that's over."
Don Shula was not especially happy. He neither smiled nor joked much about anything. Better than anyone, he knew the Dolphins had not played with their old perfection. They, too, had fumbled, had blown assignments, had been caught holding, had not controlled the game at all in terms of how they like to hog the ball.
"We were more aggressive this week," Shula said, "but anything would have been an improvement."
With slightly more than seven minutes to play it was still a football game either team could win. At that point, Ferguson, who had another splendid day with 17 completions out of 22 passes for 188 yards—and who looks like one of the best quarterbacks around—had brought the Bills back up to 21-16 with a 25-yard scoring pass to J.D. Hill. The 80,020 citizens in Buffalo's Rich Stadium were right to dream about another celestial ending, for Ferguson had beaten Oakland just six days before with hardly any time at all left on the clock. If Buffalo could kick off deep, hold the Dolphins, get the ball again...well, Ferguson had those wraiths, Rashad and Hill, to throw to. And he had time.
What happened was 1) what Buffalo Coach Lou Saban said earlier was going to have a tremendous influence on pro football and 2) another Buffalo mistake. Saban had said, "The most significant rules change this year is having to kick off from the 35 instead of the 40. People are getting the ball on their own 30 and 35 and even out to the 40. They don't have to start out in the hole. They can do more things. Somehow, that extra five yards makes a difference."
So, just when Buffalo needed to get Miami in the hole, the Dolphins returned that kickoff to their 37, and when the Bills' Dwight Harrison drew a personal foul penalty, worth 15 more yards, the whole thing added up to Miami conveniently being on Buffalo's 48. That kind of good fortune was all the Dolphins needed, even if they were playing with their money clips in their hands. Griese hit two short passes, put Csonka to work, and pretty soon the Dolphins' Cypriot tie-maker, Garo Yepremian, came in to kick the 22-yard field goal that guaranteed Miami's victory and preserved its pride.
Looking back on it, it seems allowable to say that the only other American institution starting off as slowly as the Dolphins is O. J. Simpson. Granted, he is not healthy. He flashed his running brilliance twice on Sunday, but he has gained only 141 yards in two games, he has sprained an ankle and last week he fumbled for both sides. O.J. fumbled at the end of a 22-yard run that produced one of Buffalo's scores, and the ball surely was going to squirt through the end zone for a Miami touchback if Rashad hadn't dived under several dozen Dolphins and clutched it to his bosom for six points.
Which prompted Lou Saban to say dryly, "How do you practice not fumbling?"
It was too bad the spectacle in Buffalo wasn't more revealing because all week long there were hordes of puzzled human beings scattered from Boca Raton to Lackawanna trying to figure out why Shula, the supernatural, mystical guru of coaches, had let that terrible thing happen to the wonderful Dolphins on the first game day of the season. Miami lost to New England 34-24, and that did not make any sense. New England was not supposed to score 34 points against Miami in four years, let alone three hours.
The only way that result could be tolerated was if it could be proved, or at least gossiped, that perhaps the Dolphins were in deep emotional trouble. It was true that such injured Miami heroes as Mercury Morris and Nick Buoniconti and Tim Foley did not play against New England, but that was not supposed to matter. With Shula's coaching genius, the Dolphins could fill in with Charlie Callahan and Beano Cook from their publicity office and Edwin Pope from the Miami Herald, and everything would still be marvelous.
But it wasn't marvelous and what was worse even than the score was the way Miami went about losing. The Dolphins simply did not look ready to play. They gave up 10 easy points to the Patriots on an interception and a fumble, and the defense leaked throughout the day.
Well, they missed Buoniconti, somebody said. Oh, really? Mike Kolen made seven unassisted tackles and played pretty well. Well, they missed Morris. Of course. Except that Morris doesn't play defense. Twice the Patriots scored over Manny Fernandez. Yes, but....
"Upon examination," said a loyal Florida sportswriter, "you could tell that Manny was rolling outside off his initial blocks."
Swell. That excuses it.
The official Miami word was that New England was a vastly improved football team. Plunkett had a great day and, as Paul Warfield mentioned, "We've got to realize that every one of our games is a Super Bowl."
Privately, a guy in the Dolphin organization inched a little closer to the truth: "We used to have an offensive line that went out and did the job. Now we have experts. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing wrong."
Two games hardly sum up a season, but the loss to the Patriots and the less-than-impressive verdict over Buffalo give everybody a chance to play psychiatrist. Miami has some poststrike bitterness. Don Shula and Owner Joe Robbie don't really like each other, and Shula may be going to Tampa next year, right? After you've won two Super Bowls in a row, you tend to get bored with winning. Everybody is rich and lazy. Larry Little makes more money than Bob Kuechenberg. Csonka, Jim Kiick and Warfield are headed for the WFL, and so, maybe, is Kuechenberg. Everybody remembers last Super Bowl when the Dolphins were talking about how much more money they were going to demand before they took off their jerseys and slipped into their suedes and Rolls-Royces.
"I don't think any of that is true," said Saban, who had the unenviable task of facing the Dolphins when they were expected to come roaring back to rescue their pride. "If the New England game had lasted a little longer, I think Miami would have won."
Probably so, At least by 1977.
As amusing as anything was the way the literary set reacted to Miami's awful opener. Prodded for a hint of trouble in paradise, one fellow said, "As William Randolph Hearst told his man in Havana, 'You supply the news, I'll supply the war.' " Another said, "Why don't you ask these questions about Oakland? They lost to Buffalo." That might have been good advice, except nobody can remember Oakland winning any Super Bowls.
In Buffalo before the game the only topic of conversation was The Great Miami Mystery. John Brodie, in town to work the telecast for NBC, called on his thousand years of quarterbacking experience to wonder about one of football's favorite words, "motivation."
"This will be Shula's toughest coaching job," Brodie said. "How do you give a bunch of guys a goal to accomplish when they've done it all? When they've done it twice? They may tell themselves they're just as dedicated, but Miami's success has been the ability to coordinate together. If one or two guys aren't really with it, these aren't the real Dolphins. Their beauty has been the team, not individuals.
"Nobody's going to know whether anything is seriously wrong with the Dolphins until they lose again, early on. If that happens, they might start blaming each other. Still, they're lucky in one respect. In Shula they have the best guy in the business to whip 'em into shape."
Football coaches don't like to deal with emotion these days. They prefer to think they win or lose because of personnel and—that other terrific football word—"execution." You can only see coaches by appointment. They speak into squawk boxes and talk about 3-4 defenses that take away the sweep—unless Mercury Morris is healthy (he was healthy enough in Buffalo to gain 88 yards in 13 carries and score a touchdown). Their ideal team would be composed entirely of deaf mutes who can pass rush and play zone. No troublesome quotes that way.
Shula said, "We stunk," after the New England tragedy, and then he added that the Patriots played an inspired game. Coaches can have it both ways. He wasn't tickled to death in Buffalo, but then he said cheerfully that the Dolphins were 1-1 at this same time a year ago.
Maybe, as the old joke goes, the reports of Miami's death were greatly exaggerated, and maybe there is some truth to what Larry Little, the wealthy guard, said in Buffalo, which was, "Nobody loves us but us." Maybe what it all comes down to is that New England and Buffalo are teams that are going to have to be reckoned with all season, and the Dolphins just happened to find it out before anyone else.
In the meantime the Dolphins are going to stay under the microscope until they stack up some bodies who don't fumble. As one of the Dolphin coaches, Monte Clark, said, "Right now, we're just trying to fight our way back to the scrimmage line."