Careful now, it's going to be easy to get carried away by all of this. Let's keep it in perspective.
The Miami Dolphins were not the perfect offensive machine Sunday in their 44-24 victory over the New England Patriots in Foxboro, Mass. They had an extra point blocked. Dan Marino threw an interception. They punted once. They had the ball for nine possessions and they scored only seven times. What's that you say? Seven scores in nine possessions is enough to win any game that's ever been played since Pop Warner was a water boy? But we're looking for perfection here, and the only thing perfect about the Dolphins is their record, 8-0. The last time they got off to a start like this was 1972, and they were never stopped. That ended at 17-0 and a Super Bowl victory.
It was an entirely different animal that Don Shula had in those days. It ranked with the old Lombardi Packers as the best-balanced offense the game had ever seen. The Dolphins could hammer you to death with Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick running behind an All-Pro middle threesome of Larry Little, Jim Langer and Bob Kuechenberg, and for flash and dash they had Mercury Morris. This cast produced the most rushing yards ever in one season, up to that point. When they wanted to air it out there was All-Pro Bob Griese throwing to a Hall-of-Famer, Paul Warfield, and their defense was a cerebral affair, keyed to the emerging genius of Bill Arnsparger and his new 53 concept and operated by a superb middle linebacker, Nick Buoniconti, and the All-Pro safetymen Dick Anderson and Jake Scott. The names glitter like diamonds. Talent, ball control, smarts, 17-0. Would there ever be anything to match it?
Shula won't compare this team with the '72 Dolphins. It's a sucker's game. The season is only half over, and who knows what perils lie ahead? So we'll do it for him. For the first six games, while the world was marveling at Marino gunning the ball and the twin Marks—Duper and Clayton—catching it two zip codes away, the whispers were starting. It's not a typical Shula-type team; it's all whoosh and no muscle. It's not the kind of team he's comfortable with. He's like a coachman with a team of runaway horses. All he can do is give 'em their head. Why else would he pick up a 265-pound cartoon-character of a fullback, Pete Johnson, a guy two teams, Cincinnati and San Diego, had given up on? His running game is nowhere, and sooner or later that will catch up with him.
Two weeks ago, halfback Tony Nathan went down with a strained hamstring, and Shula plugged in rookie Joe Carter, a fourth-round draft choice from Alabama. He went for 105 yards against the Oilers. It was the first time a Dolphin runner had made a hundred since 1982, but what the hell, it was Houston. People do what they want to the Oilers.
New England isn't Houston. The Patriots, who went into the Miami game at 5-2, are a proud bunch, with one of the best defensive coordinators, Rod Rust. They are a team with a fine old pro at inside linebacker, Steve Nelson; an emerging terror at an outside backer spot, Andre Tippett; and a solid cover man at the right corner, Raymond Clayborn. Let's see 'em do it to the Patriots.
What happened was scary. The Dolphins piled up 552 yards, tying their club record. Marino twisted down the choke on his long ball and threw for 316 yards on 15- and 18-yarders. He scrambled. He bought time. He looked the defenders off, and with his remarkable field of vision, he always seemed able to find the open man. He'd gallop, shake off a tackier, pull up and flick the ball.
Two lasting vignettes: Marino shrugging off blitzing linebacker Larry McGrew, who'd taken dead aim on him, and firing the ball to Carter for nine yards; Marino, one step away from the charging 271-pound Kenneth Sims, motioning his tight end, Dan Johnson, to go deeper, and then drilling the ball 16 yards to him on the dead run, down to the one-yard line.
"We should have had four or five sacks today," Patriot defensive end Doug Rogers said. "How does a guy like that escape, as big as he is?"
Marino is 6'3", 214 pounds, and his toes don't twinkle, but somehow he avoided every kind of rush New England mustered. He went unsacked on the afternoon; he has tasted the canvas only twice all season, which is just one of a laundry list of shocking statistics the Dolphins can throw at you. How about this one? Marino's four touchdown passes Sunday gave him 24 for the year—two more than Griese's club record—and the season is only half over.
O.K., right, we know the Dolphins can pass, but that only accounted for 316 yards Sunday. Where did the rest of those 552 come from? This is the most shocking statistic of all. The Dolphins rushed for 236 yards against New England, the most they've gained on the ground since a game against the Rams four years ago, when Delvin Williams ran wild for them.
It wasn't fluke stuff, either. Carter (14 carries for 92 yards) and Woody Bennett (14 for 80) slashed at the off-tackle holes. Johnson got the short-yardage calls; his six-for-16 afternoon included two TDs. When it was all over the Dolphin runners had averaged 6.4 yards per attempt. Their running game is back, or at least it was against the Patriots.
Rust was afraid something like this might happen. He knew Marino was particularly dangerous throwing on rhythm, off a short drop, but he also knew how to defense that. He'd been Kansas City's defensive coach for five years, and when you play in the Air Coryell-Dan Fouts division, you'd better learn how to defend against the short-drop passes. Last year Rust's Patriots held the Dolphins to two field goals in Foxboro and handed Marino one of only two losses in regular-season games as a starter. The key was getting the Patriot linebackers into the passing lanes, fouling up Marino's sight lines, disrupting his tempo and making him hang on to the ball until the rush got to him.
Two days before the game. Rust looked at his charts and sighed. "The weakness is that when you use your linebackers in coverage too much you get soft against the run," he said. "Either that or you get careless. It can be a psychological thing.
"One thing Shula's offense does is make you defend the entire field, both the length and width of it. The Dolphins won't let you shrink the field on them. They'll run a screen, and when you try to rush to it, they'll run a double-screen off it and fake it and go downfield. They have a big collection of special plays and gimmicks, and they use 'em well. They're a big-play team, but you've got to play the run honest, because they'll use it as a platform for the big play. For God's sake, don't let them run on you. You've got to stuff the run.
"There are no shortcuts when you play Miami. You don't beat them with mirrors."
The Dolphins let the Patriots know what it was going to be like with their first running play of the afternoon. On second-and-10 Carter ran a cutback over left tackle for 11 yards. They followed that with Bennett going for eight, and Carter for five more. There would be no shortcuts, no mirrors.
Perhaps the Patriot linebackers were a little too pass-conscious—or psychologically unready for an infantry battle. They had a long afternoon. "One of our specialties is the short trap," said Miami's Ed Newman, the veteran Pro Bowl right guard. "They knew it and we knew they knew it, and we suckered 'em inside and went outside. We batted 'em—that's our term for an outside trap—with me trapping on the other side."
Tippett had a rough day, particularly on the blitzes, his specialty. When he rushed as an end in the four-man set there would be Cleveland Green, the Dolphins' 262-pound right tackle, sticking a big mitt in his face. When he came from the three-man line Newman picked him up. And when the rush did get near Marino, he ducked it.
"I'm lucky," Newman said. "In my 12-year career I've gotten to play with the epitome of two distinct styles of quarterbacking—Griese, who was careful and precise, and Marino, a flamboyant guy. He's the definitive wonder boy. Nothing awes him out there.
"But we ought to spread this around a little. Tony Nathan comes in off the bench and Dan throws to him once all afternoon and it's good for 24 yards, a sight adjustment between him and Tony off a blitz. Jimmy Cefalo comes off the bench and makes only one catch and it's a 19-yard circus job, lying on the ground, reaching the wrong way. Nat Moore comes in as a third wideout and has a big day, catches two touchdowns. Give the coaches credit for using our people just right, give the receivers credit for great catches and give us credit for blocking. But Marino is the magic."
The Patriots' offense, led by another member of the extraordinary quarterback class of '83, Tony Eason, did a heroic job trying to match scores with a point machine. Eason's day, 19 for 29 for 313 yards and three TDs, was every bit as spectacular as Marino's. But when he came out for the second half trailing 16-10, he was in an impossible situation. For the next 30 minutes he could have put seven points on the board every time New England touched the ball and still come up short, because on its next four possessions, Miami scored four touchdowns. The Patriots ran off a streak of three for three, counting back to the end of the first half, but they were a service break down. They had to break back to even the set, and their defense couldn't do it.
"We score three straight times, they score four without skipping a beat. How many times is that going to happen?" Eason said. "Maybe someday when Dan and I are old and fat we'll sit around teasing each other about it, but today it was a terrible feeling. I mean, they just didn't make a mistake."
"It's not all that complicated," Marino said. "You go out there with the thought in mind that you're going to score every time you get your hands on the ball. If you don't think that way, why even go out there?"
In his postgame remarks Shula said a revealing thing about this edition of the Dolphins. He said, "Marino continues to answer whatever situation he's in. He continues to put points on the board." The operative word was "he," not "we," but when you have the hottest quarterback in the NFL, that's the way you think.
As the Dolphins draw closer to the playoffs, their numbers continue to be astounding. If Marino maintains his pace, he'll tie the alltime record for touchdown passes (36) with four games to play. The Dolphins are ahead of the NFL record for touchdowns in a season (66), and they're 12 yards per game in front of San Diego's record for total yards (6,744). If Marino throws for 84 yards next week against 0-8 Buffalo he'll break Griese's club record for yards passing in a season, with seven more games to add to it.
And now it looks as if the Dolphins have a running game to fortify the pass-catch attack. One of the maxims if you're playing in the AFC East is that you've got to be able to run the ball, because when the frost and winds come you're sure not going to be able to throw it. But it seems as if the Dolphins have covered that, too. They have only one possible bad weather site remaining—Giants Stadium on Nov. 4 against the Jets. They have another roadie in San Diego, but the remainder of the schedule is home or dome, everything in the Orange Bowl except a game in the Hoosier Dome.
The rest of the league is just a mite panicky—and envious. One coach says, "Once in every four times the Dolphins put the ball up deep, they're going to get an interference call in their favor. That's what it means having the coach on the NFL Competition Committee."
"Sour grapes," Shula snarls. "Just check the statistics." We did. They show that for all the gunning Marino has done this year, the opposing defense has been called for interference only twice, the Colts once and the Steelers once. No, the Dolphins have earned what they've gotten—and the best is yet to come.