There was a great mystery that unfolded in the Orange Bowl last Sunday. How were the Miami Dolphins able to double-and triple-cover all the New York Jets' pass receivers and still have enough people left to rush the quarterback and stop the run? You know, the menial tasks. O.K., O.K., so maybe they didn't double-cover all the receivers, just most of them, the ones they were worried about.
The Dolphins are on their way to the Super Bowl after their 14-0 triumph over the Jets in the AFC Championship game, and there might be a major story breaking when the league office reviews the films of Sunday's game. Flash—the Miami Dolphins used 14 men on defense, and their victory is hereby canceled. Rewind the tape and play it again.
All right, all right, so they only used 11, but how come every time Richard Todd threw the ball downfield there was one green jersey surrounded by three white ones? Todd came into last weekend's action as the leading longball thrower of the four quarterbacks still in contention, based on playoff passing yardage. Wesley Walker was the playoffs' most prolific receiver. But at the end of that long, rainy, muddy day in Miami, this is what they had to show for their efforts: Five interceptions, including one that Linebacker A.J. Duhe ran back for the final touchdown in the fourth quarter. Seventy-seven yards worth of passing, subtracting 26 sack yards from Todd's 103 gross. Fifteen completions in 37 tries. One interception and one completion in four throws to Walker, and the completion gained zero yards and came with 1:25 left in the game.
And while the Jets' defense played almost as brilliantly as Miami's, it had to cover for an offense that got the ball past midfield only once under its own steam, an offense that gained more than 10 yards on only two plays—an 18-yard pass to Wide Receiver Lam Jones and a 12-yarder to Tight End Jerome Barkum, both of whom made diving catches.
And the mystery remains. In this era of high-flying offenses, how were the Dolphins able to lock up so many different receivers? On a slippery, muddy field, which is supposedly death to pass rushers, how were they able to get enough traction to sack Todd four times and still shut down one of the NFL's fine running attacks? How did Duhe, a converted defensive end, grab three interceptions, an AFC Championship record?
Todd had no explanations. Weary and depressed after his torturous afternoon, all he could offer was: "They beat us, period. They deserve to go to the Super Bowl, and that's all I'm going to say."
What he could have said was he couldn't read the coverage, which wasn't entirely his fault. Joe Walton, the offensive coordinator and a hot candidate for one of the NFL's vacant head-coaching jobs—at least he was before Sunday—sent in the plays, and they weren't too hot. But let's not be too hard on Walton. The finest offensive brain trust in football—San Diego's Dan Fouts and his Air Coryell playbook—suffered a similar five-interception fate against the Dolphins the week before. It, too, was overmatched by the Dolphins' defensive coach (please don't call him a genius; it's a jinx these days), Bill Arnsparger.
Todd could have said, "How are you expected to set up and throw when your feet keep slipping in the mud?" but that wouldn't have been classy. You're not supposed to blame anything on the conditions, which, thanks to a combined NFL and Orange Bowl foul-up, were horrible. Todd never looked comfortable in the pocket, even when he was getting enough time, and Dolphin Quarterback David Woodley (three interceptions) wasn't doing much better. The Jets' superb runner, Freeman McNeil, couldn't make his quick cuts on the treacherous turf, and most of the time the Dolphins' front three of Doug Betters, Bob Baumhower and Kim Bokamper were on him almost as soon as he got the ball, anyway. Todd's roll-outs to his right side, the comfortable side, were cut off by the 6'7" Betters, who had a big day against All-Pro Right Tackle Marvin Powell.
But the mystery remains: Has Arnsparger finally come up with the perfect coverage scheme to combat the football of the '80s? The great pass-defense performances of the past usually started with a ferocious rush up front—Doomsday Defense, Purple People Eaters, Steel Curtain, the Fearsome Foursome—names that had the opposition quarterback backpedaling before he got off the plane. But when the rush failed Sunday there was pure coverage, connecting lines on the blackboard, X's that met O's at exactly the right spot, intricate, cerebral stuff with catchy buzzwords like "inside-out," "double-double," "press" and "force."
Let's look at this thing a little more closely. Don Shula's Super Bowl defenses usually tried to funnel things toward the middle, where a pair of All-Pro safetymen, Dick Anderson and Jake Scott, were waiting to swoop in for the interceptions. Four of Todd's five interceptions, two by Duhe, one by Strong Safety Glenn Blackwood and one by Cornerback Gerald Small, came on stuff over the middle, crossing patterns, down-and-ins, posts. Todd was made to believe the inside was open, and then it was taken away from him.
The fifth interception, resulting in Duhe's 35-yard touchdown, was a freak, a mirror of the play that broke up the Redskin-Cowboy game on Saturday. "I was in a down-lineman position, rushing from left defensive end," Duhe said. "I wasn't getting anywhere on my rush, and then I saw Bruce Harper take that little hitch that he does when he's going to drift out wide. I saw Todd look downfield and then look back to Harper, so I drifted out with him. I jumped up for the ball, and it hit me in the hands or the forearm or something. I saw it falling, I hobbled it, then I had it and I was gone. Baumhower was yelling, 'Lateral it! Lateral it!' but I wouldn't."
The Jets came into the game figuring Walker would draw the heavy double coverage, so they were going to spring Jones, an Olympic gold medalist and perhaps the fastest man in the NFL. Short stuff at first, then the big banana.
Todd's first pass of the day was a down-and-in to Jones. Three Dolphins converged on the ball—Glenn Blackwood, Left Cornerback Don McNeal and Inside Linebacker Earnie Rhone—and Blackwood picked it off. Jones was Todd's favorite receiver in the scoreless first half. He threw only one pass to Walker but aimed six at Jones, and the net result was an interception and two completions worth 25 yards.
"The bump," said McNeal, one of the league's finest and most underrated cornerbacks. "Jones wasn't used to getting that bump on the line of scrimmage. It bothered him. That's one thing Coach Arnsparger stresses every day. Get that good jam when a guy starts his pattern. It's especially effective on a muddy field. It makes a receiver slip and it throws his timing off, getting into his pattern. When a cornerback plays seven yards off, then the receiver has an advantage on a muddy day, because the defensive guy's-the one who's gonna slip."
The Dolphins weren't afraid to play bump-and-run Sunday. The L.A. Raiders are supposedly the NFL's premier bump-and-run team, but in the first half against the Jets the previous week they chickened out and had their cornerbacks laying back. It's a scary prospect, jamming pro football's fastest pair of wide receivers, but the Dolphins did it, and that's where the field conditions came into play. Flyers don't fly in the mud.
Pools of water at midfield greeted both teams as they came out for their warmups. No tarp had covered the field during the 24 hours of rain before the game. Jet President Jim Kensil was furious. "The Orange Bowl doesn't even own a tarp," he said, "and the league bylaws say that every facility has to have one. A tarp costs about $4,000. The Orange Bowl people said that their Prescription Athletic Turf has pumps that suck out the water, but they didn't get the job done today. We could have brought our own tarps down from New York if we'd known. They said that a tarp would kill the grass underneath, but I'd rather play on dirt than this stuff."
Walt Golby, the stadium manager, confirmed that the Orange Bowl doesn't own a tarp. "It's not necessary on this type of field," he said. "Look, I just inherited this job."
The league, which is supposedly in charge of all conditions for playoff games, handed out a little release in the press box. It described the makeup of the turf: the plastic liner on the bottom, covered by 12 inches of sand and six inches of topsoil, the intricate drainpipe and pump apparatus. "Based on the amount of rain already fallen," it said, "if the rain was to stop at 12:00 noon most of the surface water would be gone in two hours."
Well, the rain didn't stop at noon. It didn't stop at all, although it let up a bit at times. Presenting the release was like handing out a description of a sprinkler alarm system after the house has burned down. The only concession to the elements was a group of groundskeepers sweeping off the water with rubber squeegees before the kickoff, thereby creating a quagmire on the sidelines.
That wasn't the only foul-up. The clock stopped working, causing confusion in the timing of the game. On Miami's third-quarter touchdown drive—seven plays, 48 yards—a fumble by Fullback Andra Franklin was ruled a non-fumble. The TD, a seven-yard trap play by reserve Fullback Woody Bennett, was set up by a half-the-distance-to-the-goal-line penalty on Cornerback Bobby Jackson, when he protested a sideline completion. "All I said was, 'That's bull———,' " Jackson said.
Jet Coach Walt Michaels was still mad after the game, but he wouldn't comment on the field conditions or the clock or the calls. "Look, I'm not a wealthy s.o.b.," he said. "I can't afford the fines."
"It was muddy," Jet Linebacker Greg Buttle said, "for both teams," which is like a guy watching someone fighting a shark and saying, "Well, it's wet for both of them."
The Jet defensive unit, which played heroically in a hopeless cause, was grim. "You stop 'em and stop 'em and force turnovers [four by the Dolphins] and it doesn't get you anywhere," said Strong Safety Ken Schroy, who had two interceptions. "Maybe our offense didn't play up to its capacity, maybe they didn't make the right adjustments. Something was wrong out there."
Not with the Dolphins.