Bert Jones sat on the Baltimore bench during the first half of the Colts' game with Miami in the Orange Bowl last Sunday and watched Bob Griese go to work for the Dolphins. Jones had had a big first quarter, zinging rockets through an injury-depleted Miami secondary, but now in the second quarter it was Griese's turn, and as a 10-3 Colt lead turned into 17-10 Miami, Jones could only sit and watch.
"What is Griese, 35 years old now?" Jones said after the game, which the Colts went on to win 30-17. "You know, watching him work like that in the second quarter...well, you're dying to get back in there, but just watching that guy...he was really something. I've always held him on kind of a pedestal anyway. Today he went right out and knew what he had to do. He ran a short-passing, ball-control offense, and he kept our defense on the field and his defense off it. Hey, it was almost 100° on the floor of the Orange Bowl today."
The Colts and the Dolphins are both 3-2 now and chasing 5-0 Buffalo, the NFL's only unbeaten team, and 4-1 New England in the AFC East. They both show offenses in which the passing carries the running, and both can play defense on occasion, but not consistently. Quarterbacking is a different story. Jones, mature in his eighth year in the NFL, has picked up the knack of sensing where the trouble is coming from, of taking those quick and instinctive steps to buy time for his receivers. And when things are shut down he can scamper, as he did for nine yards for the touchdown that put Sunday's game away in the fourth quarter.
Griese sets up in the pocket and takes some tough hits, but he is no longer nimble. If things aren't going right, if he doesn't feel comfortable back there, his ball will do tricks. Another difference: the Colts have one quarterback. No one other than Jones has thrown a pass for them this year. The Dolphins are still trying to find their No. 1.
It is Friday, and Griese sits by the Dolphins' practice field, stares up into the cloudy Miami sky and talks of what brought Ponce de Leon to Florida more than 400 years ago. "I'm not as young as I used to be," Griese says. "My arm's not as strong as it used to be." He pauses for emphasis. "But I know when to drill the ball and when I don't have to. I know how to slow down a pass rush with fire-out blocking and draws. I know how to attack a defense."
It's an odd feeling, listening as the man Miami owner Joe Robbie once called "the cornerstone of our franchise" justifies his existence, but these are strange times for the Dolphins. It's five weeks into the season, and Coach Don Shula finds himself with a pitching staff made up entirely of relievers.
The starting Miami quarterback has yet to be the finishing quarterback. In a 17-7 loss to Buffalo in the opener, Griese was relieved by Don Strock, the seven-year veteran. Then came three victories—Strock getting the win over Cincinnati in relief of Griese, Griese relieving Strock to beat Atlanta, Griese relieving David Woodley, the rookie from LSU, to beat New Orleans. In the loss to the Colts, the Dolphins came close to getting a complete game, but with 43 seconds left, Woodley relieved Griese, who had banged up a shoulder.
Griese stepped into the Dolphins' lineup 13 years ago, a deft little scrambler from Purdue, and for a dozen seasons the Dolphins didn't worry much about the quarterback position. "In the early days I was operating behind the kind of line an expansion team usually puts together," he says. "I was throwing 30 to 40 passes every week and running for my life. It wasn't the ideal way to break in, but you pick up survival tricks, like the head bob and play fakes and little things to keep the pass rush off you. It's like working with mirrors, though. Sooner or later the percentages catch up with you, and you just have to have the weapons."
Griese never let his ego interfere with the game plan. Ten passes a game or 30, it made no difference to him. One afternoon—it was at the end of the '73 season, the Dolphins' second victorious Super Bowl year—Griese threw four touchdown passes in the first half against Detroit, and after the game, when the reporters asked him what's with all the air power, he gave them that bland look of his and said, "It was time to polish up our passing game for the playoffs."
As easy as that. Push a button and four touchdown passes come out. Click. The ultimate machine.
No more. For Griese, the travails started in the third game last year when he pulled a hamstring against the Vikings. He played in the weeks that followed, but he wasn't right. He wasn't setting up properly; he didn't seem to get enough arm into the ball. The Dolphins lost four of their next eight games and finally, despite many misgivings, Shula made a move he thought he'd never have to make. He benched Griese for the first time and started Strock.
"I'll never forget Bob's first day on the practice field as a second-string quarterback," Shula says. "Seeing him not lined up with the first unit—it was a strange and depressing sight. It was a kind of makeshift unit he was running, too, a tight end playing split receiver, that kind of thing. He didn't say a word. He just made his calls and acted like nothing had changed. He prepared himself just like he was going to start."
Two weeks later Griese came off the bench, completed eight of 10 passes and led the Dolphins to a come-from-behind win over New England, a victory that gave Miami firm control of the AFC East. Shula announced that Griese was once again his quarterback. And he was—right until that strange relief-pitcher syndrome surfaced this season.
"It just seems that whoever starts has trouble, and whoever comes off the bench gets the job done," Shula says. "I started Strock against Atlanta because he'd done it in relief the week before. I started Woodley against the Saints in the Orange Bowl because it was a hot, brutal day, our offensive line still wasn't settled, and it looked like the quarterback would have to move around out there. A 35-year-old quarterback like Griese would have trouble scrambling. A young kid like Woodley, well....
"I wish I had the answer. You play with all sorts of ideas, a rotation system, a shuttle. Maybe at 35 Bob is capable of 30 great minutes of football but not 60."
Meanwhile, Dolphin fans have been going through a case of the "We wants." When Griese is in there, they yell, "We want Strock!" When Strock is in, they yell, "We want Woodley!" And when Woodley is in, all they want is greatness.
David Woodley, dark-haired, good-looking, not quite 22 years old, 6'2" and mobile, an eighth-round surprise in the draft, the 13th quarterback picked. But he exploded like a rocket in the preseason and showed such promise that Shula traded away another young prospect, Guy Benjamin, to New Orleans.
"Starting ahead of Bob Griese, well, it kind of embarrassed me," Woodley says. "I found out one thing, though, that it's a lot different playing in the regular season. In an exhibition game you see one, maybe two defenses. Everything isn't in yet. Once the season starts though, you get the full treatment."
At LSU Woodley got caught in Charlie McClendon's familiar two-quarterback shuffle, something that even the likes of Bert Jones was subject to. Woodley shared the work with Steve Ensminger, who came from Baton Rouge. "I started every game but four in my last two years," Woodley says, "but when I came here, people were saying I didn't even start in college. They made it sound like I came from a lagoon somewhere."
Strock is caught in the middle. His big plus is his cannon of an arm. His big minus is that in seven years he hasn't been able to take command of the position. He is easygoing and affable, a pleasant man in the midst of a dilemma. "All I know is that we're groping," he says. "We're trying to find out what it is we do so wrong in the first half and so right in the fourth quarter."
But Strock has also quietly indicated that he'd prefer to perform elsewhere. He is playing out his option for the second straight season; he has taken the mandatory 10% salary increase each time. "I'm not thinking about my personal situation right now," he says, "but after the season I'm going to give it some deep thought."
Griese has maintained his usual unflappability, a serenity that Shula finds "incredible...there's absolutely no one else like him."
"I never let ego get in the way of my work before, and I won't now," Griese says. "I understand the situation. If you're having trouble with your pass blocking, you want a scrambler in there, a guy who won't get the sack. If you're behind and you have to come back and score quickly, you want Strock in there, a stronger arm. I'm not going to rock the boat, but I'm not going to lose confidence in myself, either.
"You have to be realistic. If I go in and the offense doesn't work, if Strock goes in and the offense doesn't work, and if Woodley goes in and the offense doesn't work, then you've got to wonder. Maybe it's not the quarterback."