Take yourself back, back in time: 10 years and two weeks, to be exact. Same city, Los Angeles (Pasadenans have their pride, but it's L.A. to the rest of us). Same teams, Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins. On that day, Jan. 14, 1973, in Super Bowl VII, the Dolphins made a dream complete. With 11 defenders best known for the fact that nobody knew their names, the Dolphins beat the Redskins 14-7, thereby completing a perfect season, 17-0. It was the first time that a team had gone undefeated and untied in NFL history—and the last.
While a perfect season may never happen again, if it should, who can say that it won't be accomplished by the new version of the Dolphin defense? The faces have changed, but not much else. Nobody knows these players' names, either. And as it was with the great No-Name Defense of a decade ago, no one—not the fans, not the guys in the blimp, not even the Redskins, for all the miles of game films they're studying this week—will know exactly how or from which direction this Miami defense will be attacking. Although it may seem an exaggeration to say that the Miami Dolphins have revolutionized the art of defensive football, the way the Dolphins go about it, defense develops into something far more destructive than just stopping the other team's offense.
Don Coryell was the first to put his finger on it. Two weeks ago the Dolphins coldcocked his San Diego Chargers, possessors of what many football people were saying was the first truly unstoppable attack the game has known, 34-13. Coryell came to this conclusion about what he had just witnessed: "Their defense is really an extension of their offense. Quite extraordinary. It was almost as though our offense was on the defensive against them." It had been the Chargers' mission all season to prove that the best defense is indeed a good offense, but the Dolphins skewed that old bromide. The best offense for them is a good defense. As Wes Chandler, the Chargers' nonpareil pass receiver, said after being limited to just two catches, "They took away our bread and butter time after time after time. They jammed us at the line, took away the short routes, destroyed our quarterback's timing completely." That man, Dan Fouts, suffered what was easily his worst performance in three years—a mere 15 completions, five interceptions, three sacks. Said Fouts, "Miami gave us nothing."
Richard Todd was similarly flummoxed Sunday as Linebacker A.J. Duhe and his mates shut down the Jets in the AFC championship game.
"We never knew where they were coming from," said Jets Center Joe Fields. "We play against a lot of 3-4 defenses, but Duhe adds an extra dimension to Miami's. He lines up outside, he lines up inside. Sometimes both inside linebackers would be on the right or the left instead of in front of you. You get picked off by guys you don't even see." Configurations of ever-changing cross-blocking opened up holes in the lines of scrimmage—isn't the offense supposed to do that?—and blitzing linebackers burst through the gaps. As for the sleight-of-hand pass coverage: "Richard could only guess where to throw the ball to," said Wide Receiver Wesley Walker.
How do the Dolphins do it? What sets their defense apart from, say, that of the Redskins, the only team to allow its opponents fewer points this season than Miami? It can be put into two words. Bill Arnsparger. The 56-year-old Kentuckian has run Don Shula's defenses for 17½ years, interrupted by a 2½-year stint (1974-76) as head coach of the New York Giants. Shula considers him to be the greatest defensive football mind in the game.
Arnsparger will talk all day about his defense to anyone. But if that person doesn't carry a Dolphin playbook, it's uncanny how many different ways Arnsparger has of saying nothing and revealing less.
"What were you doing out there, Bill?"
"Well, our job was to stop their offense from scoring and get the ball for our offense so that it could score."
"But what did you do, specifically?"
"Well, we tried to play our patterns and hit hard. Same as we always do."
"What sorts of patterns?"
"Oh, the kinds of patterns we practice. Like we always do."
"How did you fool them so often?"
"Same ways we always do. It's as simple as that. Same as it ever was."
Let's try another approach. It's no secret that each week Arnsparger literally wears out game films analyzing an opponent. He draws up a 12-page scouting report pregnant with minute details, then condenses the essentials into four or five paragraphs that provide his players with everything they need to do to win. But if preparation and grinding thoroughness were all there is to it, Dick Vermeil, the Eagles' coach, wouldn't have blown a gasket. There has to be more.
The key is in the No-Names, or rather in the concept of 11 guys whose individual identities and skills don't matter nearly so much as their collective performance. Miami's defenders are like a hive of bees (Killer Bees, if you will). Whatever sense of personality each has derives from the whole. Arnsparger (we won't call him the queen bee) drills into his workers every conceivable alignment, play and variation that the opposition might come up with, so that the defense runs on automatic. And then—here's the paradox—the unit is free to be unpredictable, idiosyncratic, seemingly disordered but maddeningly confounding to the other team. The opposing offense, its game plan stymied, finds itself playing defensively, and the No-Names have succeeded in becoming an arm of their offense.
When the Dolphin defenders line up Sunday, they'll try to impose their group personality upon the Redskins' offense with the intent of causing havoc. If their game plan is succeeding, they'll do more than just keep Joe Theismann guessing. They'll disrupt everything, make everyone wonder what's going to happen on every snap of the ball. Where will they be coming from? Who's going to blitz? What's the coverage? Where are the holes? Will they be pinching inside or closing the flanks? Rushing three men or four? Which three? Which four?
"I've never seen defenses like the ones we've got," says veteran Linebacker Bob Brudzinski. "Nobody else runs stuff that we do—where the defensive end comes out in coverage, the linebackers play like linemen, the linemen play like linebackers, stunts are different on every snap. It really screws offenses up, never knowing what we're going to do."
Of course, the Dolphin defense hasn't snuck up on the NFL quite the way the No-Namers did a decade ago. The victory over Washington in Super Bowl VII was an amazing feat for a franchise that was then only seven years old, a franchise that had never had a winning season before Arnsparger and Shula arrived three years earlier.
The harbinger of the perfect season came in the 1971 AFC championship game, in which the Dolphins beat Baltimore, the defending Super Bowl champs, 21-0, giving the powerful Colts (Shula's and Arnsparger's previous team) their first shutout in seven years. That season ended with a 24-3 loss to Dallas in Super Bowl VI. But in 1972 Miami shut out Baltimore twice more, and New England as well, and just kept winning and winning—holding all opponents to an average of 12.3 points per game—until there were no more games left to win.
It was magical, really. "Even when we should have lost, and it probably would have been good for us to lose, we still won," says Center Jim Langer, now a bank officer in Minnesota. Even after the 14-0 regular season, most fans outside Miami knew only names from the offense—Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, Mercury Morris, Paul Warfield. One day a sportswriter was talking about this with Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti. "Your defense is so great," said the writer. "But no one knows who you are."
"Yeah," said Buoniconti, "that's right. We're a bunch of no-names."
And from that day forth they were no-names no longer, but No-Names. As a sobriquet it was better than The Purple People Eaters, better than The Fearsome Foursome. "Better," says Buoniconti, "because it reflected sacrifice and teamwork and humility. And those were exactly the things we played with." The No-Name Defense became legend. The irony, of course, is that soon their names were known as well as those of any who had made careers of stopping, instead of advancing, the football. Buoniconti became a two-time Pro-Bowler. As a prominent Miami attorney and TV commentator, he's even better known today than Sam Huff. Manny Fernandez, the lightning-quick tackle who earned his job as a free agent, became a symbol of the team and the first player with a Hispanic surname to star in pro football. Bill Stanfill, the big tackle from Georgia, went to three Pro Bowls. Bob Matheson, the "fourth linebacker," is best remembered by his number, 53, because of the revolutionary alignment—the 53 Defense—that evolved into today's standard 3-4. Safeties Dick Anderson and Jake Scott, voted to eight Pro Bowl teams between them, formed perhaps the best deep-back tandem ever to play in the NFL.
Six of the old No-Names were leftovers from Coach George Wilson's Dolphin teams, which had never won more than five games in a season. There was only one first-round draft pick among those who came in under Shula—Matheson, who was nearly washed up as a defensive end in Cleveland when Miami got him in a trade. End Vern Den Herder was a ninth-rounder. Linebacker Mike Kolen was a 12th. Scott was a seventh-rounder, Linebacker Doug Swift, undrafted out of Amherst, was signed as a free agent after being cut in Canada.
"The No-Names," says Arnsparger, "were intelligent men who understood what we were trying to do and were willing to pay the price. I remember Swift being discouraged and asking his coach at Amherst how to make the NFL, and the coach telling him, 'Just put your hat on everything that moves.' That was the way it was for that team."
But now it's time to name the new No-Names (and even—dare we?—distinguish them as individuals). May I have the envelopes, please.
Announcing the top-rated defense in the NFL:
THE LINE. One end, Kim Bokamper, while in the locker room sometimes wears an ersatz championship belt and a black mask fashioned from an old pair of gym shorts. He calls himself the Opa Locka Region Wrestling Champion of the World. The other end, Doug Betters, flies his own airplane and once, admiring a pretty day over Carmel, Calif., drifted into an Air Force missile testing range and came close to being blasted to kingdom come. The nose tackle, Bob Baumhower, likes to don scuba gear and harass sharks. He owns a yellow-naped Amazon parrot named Ralph who talks a blue streak—in Spanish.
LINEBACKERS. Duhe married an Orange Bowl queen, drives a pickup truck, flies Betters' plane and drives Baumhower's boat. Larry Gordon grew up catching rattlesnakes in the backwaters of Louisiana. "Why?" he says. "To kill 'em." Earnie Rhone walked onto the team undrafted and won a job with a hit that knocked a running back's helmet off his head, 15 feet into the air and 20 yards across the field. Brudzinski is "100 percent Polish and proud" and "110 percent pleased" to have been rescued by trade from the laid-back L.A. Rams.
THE SECONDARY. Cornerback Don McNeal was one of a family of 10 children in Altmore, Ala., raised by their father, a farmer, after their mother died, and now counsels children of Florida migrant workers. The other corner, Gerald Small, learned aerial football as a high school quarterback at Edwards Air Force Base. The strong safety, Glenn Blackwood, was the 215th player chosen in the 1979 draft. And the free safety, Glenn's brother Lyle, was the 217th player chosen in 1973. Lyle, 31, the oldest member of the unit, "gypsied around" through five other teams before signing with the Dolphins in 1981. He had a well-earned reputation as a troublemaker, caused, he admits, by a passion for beering and brawling and a general disrespect for coaching. He has since reformed and found religion.
Perhaps it's most fitting that the captain of the defense, the very embodiment of sacrifice and determination, is Rhone. He was not only an undrafted free agent, but he also made his college team, Henderson State (Ark.), as a walk-on. "Now there's some great no-name potential," says Buoniconti. Although Rhone, who joined the Dolphins in '75, was an unknown and small for his position (210 pounds at the time), he believed that he was just as able as the three linebackers the Dolphins had claimed in the draft that year, and he knew he was hungrier. "The opportunity was there," says Rhone. "All I had to do was play my best. I decided that if Coach Shula were to run us all until we dropped, then I'd be the last to fall." He made the team with that helmet-popping tackle. Although he suffered knee injuries in 1976 and 1977, each year he came back after surgery. In the first game of 1981 he cracked a rib, and played in a flak jacket all year.
The defensive game is different now, primarily because of rules that protect pass receivers once they venture five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Shula says that today's defensive backs—like the receivers they must shadow but not touch—are football's finest all-round athletes. "Don McNeal, for instance," says Shula, a former NFL defensive back himself, "is like a Wes Chandler on defense. Bodies like mine (he was a blocky 190 pounds in his playing days) have long been out of vogue for DBs."
Yet today's Dolphin defenders have a number of things in common with the No-Names. Duhe, for instance, was a defensive tackle at LSU with the mobility to switch to linebacker. He is used in much the same way that Matheson was in the 53 Defense. Conversely, Bokamper, a Pro Bowl linebacker in 1979, now uses his quickness and strength as a defensive end, as Den Herder did, and still does as a backup for Bokamper. Rhone, at outside linebacker, benefits from quickness more than size, in the manner of Buoniconti. Brudzinski, studious and hard-working, reminds Arnsparger of Swift, the Amherst scholar who quit in his prime to become an anesthesiologist in Pennsylvania. Gordon and his No-Name predecessor Mike Kolen represent the plain old, tough old, no-nonsense hitter. Betters, who tops out at nearly 7 feet tall in his helmet, is a new incarnation of Stanfill.
In the secondary, which ranks first in the league against the pass and first in interceptions, the Blackwoods play the parts of Anderson and Scott. Corner-backs McNeal and Small, like Tim Foley and Curtis Johnson before them, try to force the pass routes into the middle, where the safeties roam hungrily. And the linebackers, as Duhe showed last week, can intercept passes, too.
Yet as far as Shula is concerned, there will be no comparing the '82 team with the No-Names, at least not for a while. "Let them do what the No-Names did," he says, always a bit testily. The No-Names remain a very special part of Shula's career. He won't trifle casually with their memory. "Let this group go 17-0, win two Super Bowls and three AFC championships," he says. To which Arnsparger might affably reply: "Same as we always do."