When Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were riding high, the meat-and-potatoes play for the Miami Dolphins was something known around the huddle as an 18 or 19 straight. Hardly an intricate maneuver, the play called for the fullback—Larry Csonka, a.k.a. the Sundance Kid—to follow the halfback—Jim Kiick, a.k.a. Butch Cassidy—and a horde of pulling linemen in or around either the eight hole (right tackle) or the nine hole (left tackle), then bolt upfield through the first available gap in the defense.
"We used to run 18 or 19 straight about 90% of the time in crucial yardage situations," Center Jim Langer said last week. "We dared people to stop us, just like the Green Bay Packers dared teams to stop Paul Hornung on their power sweep behind Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer and everyone else. I remember a game last season when we lined up for an 18 straight against Cincinnati, and Mike Reid of the Bengals yelled, 'Hey, you guys aren't going to run that same play again, are you?' Sure, teams knew what we were going to do, but we executed the play so well—and Zonk was such a great ballcarrier—that they couldn't stop us."
So, with Csonka and Kiick having departed Miami for Memphis of the World Football League, the Dolphins understandably spent a lot of time last week wondering if they would suffer a severe case of identity crisis in Saturday night's exhibition opener against Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl. "The first thing we'll have to do," Langer said, "is find out which plays work best for our new backs. Maybe we'll even end up throwing the ball more than we used to. Who knows right now?"
Coach Don Shula thought he had the answer stashed somewhere among the hundreds of complicated diagrams and charts in Miami's new playbook. Instead of running the ball 75% of the time on first down, instead of running the ball on two of every three plays, instead of destroying the opposition with Csonka and old No. 18 or 19 straight, the Dolphins, Shula suggested, would now become a more balanced team and pass the ball 50% of the time even though Paul War-field, Miami's premier receiver, had defected to the WFL with Butch and Sundance.
August 17, 1975
"Compared to other NFL clubs, our attack obviously was way out of balance," Shula admitted. "All because of that Larry Csonka. Believe me, losing Csonka hurts more than anything. Kiick had become a part-time player—although a good part-time player, particularly on third downs—and we faced the loss of Warfield anyway because he was not happy with our accent on the running game; in fact, Warfield might not be here with us now even if he had not signed with the WFL. But Csonka. The guy never fumbled. I don't think he fumbled five times in five years. Or look at it this way: with Csonka in the lineup, we always had a no-error offense."
Shula stopped talking for a moment, then began to grin. "You know," he said, "I really had to chuckle the other day when I read where that Memphis owner John Bassett was complaining that the WFL had taken the skin off his back by moving his general manager to the Chicago franchise. They took the skin off his back? Well, what do you think Bassett did to me?"
To replace Csonka, Shula promoted Don Nottingham and acquired Norm Bulaich from Johnson & Johnson's Philadelphia taping room. To replace Kiick as Miami's third-down specialist he acquired veteran Donny Anderson, a competent blocker, pass catcher and short-distance runner from St. Louis for disgruntled Wide Receiver Marlin Briscoe. To replace Warfield at wide receiver he is using a combination of wily Howard Twilley and second-year speedster Mel Baker.
No, Shula firmly insisted. Bob Griese, that dauntless Sears, Roebuck representative, would not become a running quarterback. Yes, the speedy Nat Moore, who destroyed the opposition's double coverage on Warfield last season by catching a team-high 37 passes as a rookie, would be Miami's "big-play guy," even though at 5'9½" he is not very big. And, yes, Benny Malone would start ahead of Mercury Morris at running back. Last year Mercury went into eclipse and was suspended for a few days after he had a minor falling-out with Shula over the conditioning program he was using—or not using—to rehabilitate his injured knee. Enter Malone, whose bowlegged, high-stepping, flat-footed gait could easily get him a job crushing grapes in Monti Chianti. Benny is faster than Mercury. Call him Laser.
"If I don't pick up 100 yards per game behind this line," Malone said, "I'm just going through the motions." Benny and his brother Art, who plays for Philadelphia, are the sons of migrant farmers in the Southwest. "When I was six years old," he said, "I picked cotton, potatoes and watermelon for like 60¢ an hour. We sacked onions in 110° heat, crying like babies. Football's a breeze compared to working those fields."
For the game against the Bengals, Shula decided to begin his "search for our identity" by starting Nottingham alongside Malone and then working Bulaich with Morris, saving Anderson for third-and-long-yardage plays. "Nottingham is a more punishing blocker than Csonka," Shula said, "and Bulaich gets outside quicker than Csonka because he has halfback speed and feet. But let's face it, neither one of them will give us what Csonka did once he had his hands on the football." Clearly, what Shula no doubt will take right now is a combination Nottingham-Bulaich season to equal the average 1,000-yard Csonka schedule.
Nottingham, who claims to be 5'9¾" tall, weighs 215 pounds, speaks in a squeaky voice and answers to the name "Bowling Ball" because of his similar proportions, gallantly insists that "With Boo and me the Dolphins will not be hurt at the position."
Working out with Griese in training camp Nottingham ran into an unexpected problem. "Zonk's five or six inches taller than me," he said, "so his pocket for a hand-off is five or six inches higher than mine. Once Griese handed the ball off to my windpipe. Now we're working at it." Bulaich's problem is that he usually spends a great part of each season on the injured list because of recurring hamstring and muscle pulls.
On Miami's first play against Cincinnati, Griese totally stunned the 58,017 Dol-fans by throwing deep over the middle to Tight End Jim Mandich. Forget that the pass was broken up by Cincinnati Safetyman Tommy Casanova. Griese passing on first down was like George Allen trading for a draft choice. On the next play, though, Nottingham went over the left side on a delay for 11 yards and a first down, knocking off tacklers like Csonka, and on the sideline Shula began to scratch his chin. Pass goes incomplete. Guy in Csonka's position runs for 11 yards. Hmmm. Snap decision. The Dolphins had 25 more first-down plays the rest of the game, and despite Shula's prediction that they would pass 50%,' of the time, they ran the ball 20 times and passed only five.
What was different, however, was Miami's strategy on third-down plays, particularly those for short yardage. In the old days, like last year, Csonka invariably ran 18 or 19 straight for a first down when the Dolphins needed one. Against Cincinnati, Miami was confronted with 10 third-down plays. Eight times the Dolphins tried to pass for the first down—and eight times they failed. Twice they ran for the first down—and twice they made it. In all they tried 34 rushes and 19 passes.
The Bengals halted Miami drives by intercepting Griese twice in the first half—once in the end zone, once at the 10—when Baker slipped while running his patterns. Baker also dropped two perfect passes while in the clear. Then, in the fourth quarter with the Dolphins trailing 3-0, Shula called on 41-year-old Earl Morrall for quick relief. Seven plays and 58 yards later Morrall flipped a 10-yard touchdown strike to Nat Moore just inside the sideline of the end zone, and after Garo Yepremian's kick, Miami led 7-3.
As the clock ticked away, Malone and Nottingham maintained ball control with strong running up the middle, and on Miami's final series Nottingham went 19 straight for 12 yards, followed quickly by 18 straight for 15 yards and the gun exploded.
In the dressing room Shula studied the statistics: Nottingham, 78 yards in 12 carries; Malone, 71 yards in 13 carries; Miami, 177 yards on the ground and 86 through the air. "I guess it looks as though we're going to be a running team again this year," he said.