Don Shula is having fun again, and you know what that means. It means nobody else is going to have as much. Here's Don now, having fun with David and Andra and Tommy and Eric and Nat and Old Don and the various other pledges and pickups on the Miami Dolphins' No-Name Offense. You'll remember that the last time Don was having fun it was the defense that everybody called No-Name. Either way it works the same. When Don is having fun they all get names sooner or later. See Andra and David and the others run over the Cardinals. See them run over the Steelers, Oilers and Colts. See them tie the New York Jets last Sunday 28-28. (Well, hell. After six straight losses to the Jets, even that's progress.) See the 4-0-1 Dolphins emerge after five weeks as the only undefeated team in the American Football Conference. The last time they were undefeated after five games, the Dolphins went 17-0, including the 1973 Super Bowl. Fun, Don, fun.
As breathtaking as the tie with the Jets was—it went into the night and through a hairy overtime in the Orange Bowl and wasn't sealed until the Jets' Pat Leahy missed, rather profoundly, a 48-yard field goal on the final play—you would be within reason to wonder what there is to get so excited over.
Not much, perhaps. The Dolphins, after all, were 8-8 last year and at the start of this season were believed to be still on the grease rack undergoing an overhaul. Surely a hungry Dolphin fan shouldn't derive too much nourishment from a game in which a lowly opponent, the 1-3 Jets, ran for 242 yards, gained 546 overall, the second-highest total by an opponent in Dolphin history, and made 32 first downs, the first-highest total in that category.
But there's a little for that beleaguered fan to take heart from when one assesses the way the Dolphins played the previous four weeks and realizes the progress they've made so quickly, especially on offense. Too, the Jets' 6½-game mastery of Shula's teams makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, so why worry about it? As Shula said afterward, a tie in this case is "a step in the right direction." He says the riddle is not so much why the Jets beat the Dolphins as why they don't beat anybody else.
October 11, 1981
And that fan can draw a lot of hope from the fact that the vu from where the Dolphins sit is mostly dèjà: Shula doing what comes naturally. Shula once more not willing to wait his turn to win. Shula winning. The NFL Coach of the Decade of the 1970s is 51 now in this, his 12th season in Miami. His middle-age jaw is still granite, but his midriff is more roll than rock and his hair is turning. "Look, gray!" he said in his office last week, twisting a tuft of sideburn as if he could have willed it to stay blond if he'd caught it in time. But he still knows the formula. He invented it.
Here's the way it works. Shula lumps together a bunch of guys you never heard of, rookies like running backs Andra Franklin and Tommy Vigorito, who started against the Jets in place of a couple of injured backs you probably never heard of either. He mixes them in with a second-year quarterback, David Woodley, whom you will be hearing about more and more (in this story and others), and older guys you thought had retired. Like Nat Moore, the butternut-smooth wide receiver whose "decline" was said to be "official" by no less an authority than last week's Dolphin Digest, but who, in this wasted condition, proceeded to get a team-record 210 yards in receptions against the Jets. And Don Strock, the long reliever who used to spell Bob Griese but now picks up the pieces for Woodley, and who was on the throwing end of all the mad bombs to Moore last Sunday.
Then Shula rummages through the trash bins of the other NFL teams and adds a few more.
Then he coaches like mad.
And—presto!—the 82nd Airborne.
And every time one no-name goes down, Shula plugs in another, and the Dolphins win, and everybody says, "Who are those guys?"
The difference is that back in the early '70s everybody knew who Griese was, and who Larry Csonka was, and who most of the other guys on the offense were; it was the Dolphins on defense nobody knew. Now it's the No-Name Offense, and what an offense it will surely be, if it can just stop throwing rods and blowing head gaskets. It's either going to make a new man of Shula, who, says Woodley, is "really having fun with it," or a nervous wreck of him.
Actually, it all started early last year, about the time Griese was sidelined by a shoulder injury that ultimately led to his retirement and rookie Woodley took over. Woodley's start was, to put it kindly, an inauspicious one. Five straight quarters without a point. But for "the best pure athlete I've ever had at quarterback," Shula was willing to be patient. Even then he began to restructure his offense to accommodate Woodley's mobility and running skills.
Woodley slipped into the hot seat as if he had an ice bag for a rear end. Shula always talks about Woodley's "exceptional intelligence"—the "third ingredient" that sets him apart, along with his "exceptional" mobility and what Assistant Head Coach Bill Arnsparger calls "the kind of throwing arm you see in camp once in 10 years"—but it's his unflappable demeanor that's most impressive. His teammates used to call him "Woodstock" for the disheveled appearance he favored—frazzled hair, faded jeans—and kidded him about his "Salvation Army wardrobe." The best he ever looked, they say, was when he borrowed Safety Mike Kozlowski's clothes for the team banquet held this past May. In truth, Woodley is erect, handsome and blue-eyed, but his natural reticence adds to his image of being kind of disconnected. And, as a conversationalist, you might call him phlegmatic.
Q.: "I understand you bought a new house, David. Where is it?"
A.: "In Broward County."
Q.: "Could you be just a little more specific?"
A.: "Yeah, well, it's north of here. It's not far."
Woodley got married last June. He might be the only man alive who would say his marriage didn't change anything. He says he still just mostly "hangs around." He watches television.
Q.: "Is that all you do?"
A.: "I read."
Q.: "What do you read?"
Over the last seven games of the 1980 season, the Dolphins averaged more than 330 yards a game in total offense—a figure camouflaged by the fact that they still finished 26th in the league in yardage. In the off-season, Shula completed the transformation, altering the offense by "about 10%" to include more "Woodleys": rollouts, sprintouts, etc. Of course, whenever Woodley is in there, the 10% magnifies to 30% or more, because those are the tools peculiar to his ability; in the hands of a drop-back, stationary quarterback like Strock, Woodleys are of little use.
Shula himself calls the plays for Woodley, something he hasn't done since he used to have fun with Tom Matte, a converted halfback, subbing at quarterback for John Unitas and Earl Morrall in Baltimore in the '60s. Woodley doesn't mind—he thinks his time will come, but "it's a long way down the road." He also thinks the play-calling is in especially good hands because Griese is up there in the press box with Offensive Coach Wally English, phoning down suggestions for Shula to pick through. If you can remember how smart Griese was at field level at a modest 6'1", says Dolphin Publicist Bob Kearney, you can imagine how much smarter he is "now that he's 55 feet tall."
The week before the Jets game, Woodley had his best day as a professional: passing for 309 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-28 victory over the Colts. It was doubly sweet for Shula because the week before that he had had to yank an ineffective Woodley in favor of Strock in the second half against Houston. "The best thing about it was David didn't sulk," says Shula. "He just went to work." "Going to work" is a Shula antidote for just about everything that ails anything. The reason the Dolphins are doing so well now, says Shula, is that all 45 of them "went to work," contributing, "taking up the slack for each other."
There was considerable slack to be taken up against the Jets because the Dolphins had to tool up for the game with parts strewn all over the garage. Vigorito, a 197-pound whiz kid from Virginia—who, Guard Bob Kuechenberg says, "has the fastest white feet I ever saw"—was subbing for Tony Nathan; Franklin, the "best blocking back to come out of the 1981 draft," according to a Dolphin personnel man, had taken over at fullback for Woody Bennett. Vigorito said it wasn't hard to fit right in because with Shula "you gain confidence quickly. You don't feel he's above you so much as he's with you." He said that he looked up at mass one morning and there was Shula, being "with him." In the flesh? Of course.
Franklin, meanwhile, had run for 76 yards against the Colts and Shula was beginning to liken him to Csonka. Except that Franklin is shorter than Csonka. And smaller. And faster. And much darker. Then why does he remind Shula of Csonka? Well, for one thing, at 5'10", 225 pounds he hurts the people who try to tackle him; for another, in four years at Nebraska he fumbled a grand total of three times. For Shula, that made him a three-time All-America. Shula hates fumblers.
The game plan for the Jets revolved around Woodley (who else?) and was predicated on his being able to neutralize the pass rush of defensive ends Mark Gastineau and Joe Klecko. The Dolphins had got a snootful of those two before; Shula said one was the best, and the other was better, and please don't ask which is which. Gastineau, in particular, had haunted Miami Tackle Eric Laakso, one of Shula's "quiet" developments in the last couple of years. Last season when the Dolphins met the Jets, Gastineau treated Laakso like an open window. "It wasn't so bad the second time," Laakso said, "but it wasn't so good, either."
The first quarter was 15 minutes of hell for the Dolphin defense. The Jets averaged 14.3 yards per play the first 10 times they snapped the ball, and in two possessions Quarterback Richard Todd completed six of six passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. In between, however, the Dolphins got a fumble recovery, and on first down at the Jets' 28 Woodley sprang the option, running right. "We'll use it early," he had said beforehand, "and if they don't pick it up we'll use it again." For Gastineau and Greg Buttle, the linebacker on that side, the play must have looked as if it was drawn up on Mars, because by the time they reacted Woodley was by them on his way to the Jets' three, a 25-yard gain and the longest Dolphin run of the day. Franklin scored from one yard out two plays later to tie it at 7-7.
But later in the period, with the Dolphins trailing 14-7, Gastineau and Klecko put their act together—and Woodley out of the game. Arriving at the corners of his anatomy simultaneously, just as he released a pass, they made an impact that could be heard to the 40th row. Shula was still screaming at the officials—charging a late hit—when Woodley was helped from the field. Locker-room X rays showed nothing broken, but he was too badly bruised to return.
And then an interesting thing happened. Interesting because it typifies a Shula team. The Dolphin line never let Klecko or Gastineau or anybody else put the crunch on the quarterback again. Strock got nudged a couple times after he let go of the ball, but he was never sacked. Laakso said later that he had finally won "the battle" with Gastineau. Up and down the line similar battles ended in Dolphin victories, and Strock wound up completing 18 of 29 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns. His second, for 23 yards to Moore, who made brilliant, fingertip receptions all afternoon and evening, apparently won it for Miami at 28-21 with 3:59 to go in regulation time.
But just as there was no stopping Strock, so it was for Todd. His fourth touchdown pass, to Wide Receiver Bobby Jones, beat the clock by 1:09, and sent the game into a fruitless and relatively uneventful overtime. Jones's catch was in itself a small miracle, making it as he did with Miami's Don Bessillieu and Lyle Blackwood growing out of his shoulder pads. Somehow he got the ball and they didn't, and they fell down and he didn't at the three, and he stumbled on into the end zone.
Shula said all the predictable things afterward. He couldn't, of course, be happy with the defense, especially in the first half when the Dolphins couldn't decide whether they were playing man or zone. Nor could he be happy with the failure of the offense to execute in overtime, when they were three downs and punt the two times they had the ball.
But here's a Miami offense that didn't produce a Pro Bowl player last year coming together. Jelling. Getting tougher. And a young quarterback with arms and feet to lead them. (This isn't a two-quarterback team; it's a team with a starting quarterback and a first-rate relief pitcher, and even if his teammates now call Woodley "Woodstrock," they certainly know the difference.) And here they are unbeaten after almost a third of the season, when everybody thought they'd be reaching for the smelling salts by now, and even if it's still too early to predict anything, they are ahead of everybody else in the AFC East, right?
And isn't that fun?