The Miami Dolphins' locker room is hospital white, and there are no carpets on the floor and no stereo music. A working locker room. And last Thursday night, in the wake of the Dolphins' 39-24 victory over the New England Patriots in the showdown battle for first place in the AFC East, it was filled with ghosts.
There were Larry Csonka, limping into the trainer's room on a mangled toe, and Bob Griese, his face a blank as he bantered with writers desperately trying to draw some emotion from him, and Larry Little, describing what it was like in the huddle as the Dolphins reached back into the history book to snatch a little glory from the old Super Bowl years.
"One time Zonk looked at me and said, 'What's the matter, Chicken, you're not talking?' " Little said. "I told him, 'Working too hard, man.' "
Faces from the past, the dear departed, written out of the future. Ghostly figures in a young locker room. Memory lane. You could close your eyes and almost hear the cackling laughter of Jake Scott or Manny Fernandez, the snap of the towel as Jim Kiick cracked some rookie across the butt.
But when things got tough in the Orange Bowl last week, Coach Don Shula called on his old guard. He brought Griese off the bench to relieve Don Strock, who had suffered a case of the scatters in the first half. Griese is modest and low-key, and 300-yard passing games are not his style, but he knows how to work a game, and there's still enough life in his arm to keep the defenses honest. On this night the formula worked. He connected on the first five passes he threw, but mostly he handed the ball off to Csonka. In the third quarter, when the Dolphins under Griese outscored the Patriots 16-0 and clinched the game, New England's offense saw the ball for a total of five snaps.
Physically, Griese hasn't been right this year. Medical testimony has been divided. Griese had a hamstring pull that didn't let him set up right, that caused him to push the ball; his arm was just shot, it was as simple as that. Whatever, when you're playing catch-up at the end, when you need a live gun to win it for you, Griese wasn't the man. Losses to the Jets, Oilers, Raiders and Browns reinforced the argument. There were grumbles. When was Shula going to bite the bullet and sit him down?
Shula agonized. Finally he benched Griese on Nov. 25, the day of a game with Baltimore; it was the first time that a healthy Griese had not started for the Dolphins in 13 years. Strock started, but he got conked on the head in the second quarter and his day was over. Griese came in and threw for two TDs. Nice, but you know...Baltimore.
"Don deserved the right to start," Griese said in Baltimore. "Today didn't count, because of his injury, so let's move it to the next game." Which happened to be the big one against New England.
"You don't have to talk about Griese winning back his job; he's proved himself around here," Shula said after the win over the Patriots. "He'll go back as the starter."
In the Miami locker room Griese was being worked for the glad-to-be-back angle. He fixed his interrogators with that cold-eyed stare. "I never lost confidence," he said. "Starting or not starting isn't my decision."
"How about what Fran Tarkenton said?" Griese was asked. In midweek Tarkenton had mentioned that there comes a time in every quarterback's life when he has to say sayonara. "Francis isn't right all the time," Griese said. He thought for a moment. A smile? Tough to tell. Could have been. Yes, there it was again. "We came out in the third quarter, and it felt like old times. Give Zonk the ball. It was very reminiscent."
Twenty feet away, Csonka was limping heavily on the damaged big toe of his right foot. This was nothing new. He had limped his way through two Super Bowl championship seasons in Miami. Same big toe, twisted and discolored, looking like something out of a butcher shop. Turf toe. The Dolphins got their artificial turf at a cut-rate price, and Zonk didn't mind telling you about it. There's grass in the Orange Bowl now, but Kim Bokamper, the young linebacker, stepped on Zonk's toe in the warmup.
"He smiled about it," Csonka said. "That's linebacker mentality. He'd make a good fullback."
At 32, Csonka was back at Shula U. after a four-year odyssey through Memphis of the WFL and the New Jersey meadows, where he occasionally played for the Giants. He dropped 30 pounds to make Shula's squad, and on Thursday night he was knocking Patriots over as he ran for 88 yards on 22 carries against the NFL's top rushing defense.
"Hey, the line opened the holes," he said. "These guys know how to block."
It's a strange, patched-up mixture, that offensive line—oldtimers, youngsters, everybody carrying some injury. Once upon a time Little, the right guard, had been the main man. This year he'd been written off. Bad ankle, new faces—hell, the guy was 34 years old. But Shula gave him a start against the Patriots.
"You control the ball, you win the game," Little said afterward. "We Zonked 'em. I haven't felt like this since—how long?—since 1974."
A couple of hours later, in the parking lot. Bob Kuechenberg, the 32-year-old left tackle, leaned on a car, sipped a glass of champagne and talked about the Dolphins. "A real sense of dèjà vu tonight," he said, "a throwback. A team comes in here with the No. 1 defense, a must game, and you do it to them. You know, we hadn't had a really good win This year. We beat the teams we were supposed to beat; the bad teams beat us.
"But I'll tell you, I was tired of hearing everyone talking about how great the Patriots are. All that talent, Super Bowl team and all the rest of it. They're a cocky team, and really, what right do they have to be cocky? That team has never won a single playoff game."
The race in the AFC East now comes down to this: Miami is 9-5, New England is 8-6, and neither team is likely to qualify as a wild card. Miami, Denver, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Houston are front-runners for five playoff spots as division champs or wild-card teams.
What do we have in the Dolphins? An old-style, grind-it-out team? They seem to be at their best when playing that way under Griese, though they can switch gears and go long-ball if Strock is on target. But how far can the old-style game take you in playoff competition, with gunners like Dan Fouts and Terry Bradshaw ready to put points on the board like an adding machine?
Tactically, Griese was an interesting study Thursday night. He threw 10 passes and completed eight in his two quarters of work, the kind of stats he used to approach in the glory days. He limbered up by throwing over the middle, which doesn't strain the arm. In the third quarter, down 17-13 and facing a third-and-12, he made what Patriot Coach Ron Ehrhardt called the crucial play of the game. He hit his halfback, Tony Nathan, cutting inside. Nathan slid by a couple of tackles and made 18 yards and a first down, and the march was on.
Griese's one long pass of the night was a dandy, 38 yards to Nat Moore for a touchdown, but Mike Haynes, the Patriots' cornerback, fell down on the play. Then the strange New England self-destruct mechanism took over. The Patriots' next series ended with a holding penalty, a sack and a snap that sailed over the punter's head and out of the end zone for a safety. The regular snapper, Pete Brock, had a broken hand, and his backup, Whimpy Wheeler, was belted around by the Dolphins.
"We made him a target," Kuechenberg said. "He was shaky on his snaps all night. We pounded on his head."
Steve Grogan, the much-maligned New England quarterback, had brought the Patriots back in the first half and given them that 17-13 lead. Grogan's arm did miraculous things in the first half—219 yards, long and short, it made no difference. It was a heroic show. His offense was badly outmanned. The offensive line was crippled and the muscle of the attack, Fullback Sam Cunningham, was out with a sprained ankle. What's more, the defense was minus its best lineman, Richard Bishop.
Grogan hit Stanley Morgan on a 38-yard touchdown pass 23 seconds before the half ended, but then the Patriots did a funny thing. They forgot to play the last 23 seconds. They covered the kick-off in waltz time, and Nathan ran it back 41 yards, and while the Patriots were regrouping, Strock hit Jimmy Cefalo down to the 26. As the whistle sounded, Uwe von Schamann kicked a 43-yard field goal and the Dolphins had an upper to carry them into the dressing room.
"Don't ask me why that happened," Ehrhardt said. "All I know is it made me sick."
It wasn't the only thing that has made him sick in this strange season. Take the Leon Gray trade. To recap: Gray, New England's All-Pro offensive left tackle, went to Houston in mid-August for first-and sixth-round draft choices. All-Pro Left Guard John Hannah echoed most of the sentiment in New England when he said, "We just traded away our Super Bowl." On national TV, Ehrhardt admitted he was against the move.
"I knew that would come up again," Patriot General Manager Bucko Kilroy said the night before the Dolphin game. "Look, before I made the deal, I asked the coaches, 'What do you lose by playing Whimpy Wheeler [No. 4 draft in '78, out with a broken leg last year, still recuperating when the deal was announced] in that spot?' They said, 'Not a thing.' Then later, they turned around."
"That's not true," Ehrhardt said last week. "I wasn't asked, and if I had been, I wouldn't have said that."
But there is another theory, and that is that the deal was a money-saver, an ownership decision, and Bucko was left to take the fall. Gray's contract package, signed after the '77 season, and which Houston now has to pick up, runs through 1981. With incentives, it can cost more than $500,000. The Oilers also had to cover $70,000 worth of the $85,000 signing bonus Gray received. Compare that with what New England is paying Wheeler, and you've got a healthy saving.
Don't write the Patriots out of the playoff picture just yet. Strange things can happen at this time of the season. Nerves jangle, throats tighten, must-win games turn into nightmares. The Dolphins are riding high in the AFC right now. That could change. But for one magic night in the Orange Bowl last week, some ghosts came back to life.