There wasn’t a lot of celebrating in the Miami Dolphins locker room after they beat then Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII to become the first and still the only team to record a perfect season.
“It was a mature team that just took everything in stride,” said Doug Crusan in the new book “Seventeen and Oh” about that perfect season. “Although to be honest, it was a relief more than anything. We had finally done it.”
This is the 50th anniversary of that historic season and still no other team has done it. And now that the schedule has been increased to 17 regular season games (it was 14 when the Dolphins did it), it looks unlikely any team will go 20-0 to have another perfect season.
The closest any team has gotten to it since then was in 2007 when Patriots went 18-0 before losing the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.
The book written by Marshall Jon Fisher, who was a young fan growing up in Miami in 1972, and published by Abrams Books, is a sweeping history not only of that Dolphins season but of what was happening in Miami and the rest of the country at that time.
They went to training camp in a year in which both political conventions were in Miami Beach and the Watergate break-in had just taken place. And the Vietnam War was still raging. It was a tumultuous time. And in an era before million-dollar salaries, he writes the players considered themselves ordinary working guys who lived in the community.
Some of the author’s school friends got the courage to knock on Howard Twilley’s door and ask him to throw the football with them. His friend said Twilley was too nice to say no although his wife may have been annoyed.
The Dolphins went to camp with a chip on their shoulder because they had been blown out by the Cowboys in Super Bowl VI and were on a mission to win it this time and they did it. That is almost as hard to do as having a perfect season. A team that lost the Super Bowl has only won it once since when the Patriots beat the Rams in 2019 after losing to the Eagles the previous season.
The book is divided into 21 chapters, one for each of the 17 games, two at the beginning for what he calls Preperfect I and II and one for Super Bowl pregame and one Post Perfect chapter.
Each chapter not only includes the story of each victory, but has mini bios of the players and what they were like. For example, he pointed out quarterback Bob Griese is an introvert. I remember covering their two Super Bowl wins and he was one of the worst interviews on the team. It was annoying at the time – especially when he later became a TV analyst – but I guess it was his personality.
He also provides inside details of how Joe Robbie, who really didn’t have the money to own an NFL team, kept it afloat and as Mike Ditka once said of George Halas, he treated nickels like manhole covers.
Robbie even fired the caterer providing the food in the press room because he wanted to save money. The author doesn’t mention it but he did spend money hosting a dinner for the New York media before the Giants game in an effort to promote the team before the days of the Internet and ESPN and the NFL Network.
The author is also candid in talking about Robbie’s drinking problem, which was no secret in the NFL. I once saw him passed out at the hotel bar in a league meeting. And he quotes Larry King as saying Robbie wasn‘t a very likeable person.” The author doesn’t sugarcoat how things were.
Robbie also had a contentious relationship with city officials over their refusal to build him a stadium to replace the Orange Bowl. He was so upset that he signed off when the league decided to give Super Bowl XVI to Detroit when it was Miami’s turn in what was a Miami-New Orleans Los Angeles rotation in the early years.
They were trying to prod Miami into replacing the Orange Bowl. The move was announced at a Hawaii meeting and when I interviewed Robbie, he was candid in saying the stadium issue was costing Miami the Super Bowl.
The Miami Herald didn’t cover the meeting and when a staffer called to ask what happened, I gave them the Robbie quotes. The next day, Robbie said, “I didn’t realize I was talking to the Miami media.” Miami wouldn’t budge and went nine years without a Super Bowl until Robbie built a privately funded stadium by inventing the PSL concept.
The author also notes that the doctors passed out painkillers like they were candy and didn’t seem to realize that too many cortisone shots made them less effective.
He also notes the team had only five black starters, which wasn’t unusual in those days. The league had a gentleman’s agreement to ban black players from 1934 to 1946 when the Rams and Browns, who were then in the AAFC, signed two each.
The book said the Rams did it In 1947 and hopefully that will corrected in later editions. Coach Don Shula, though, did make an effort to have the players cross racial lines and create harmony on the team. But times were changing. By 1974 when the Steelers started their Super Bowl run, they had seven black starters on defense because they mined the black colleges for talent. When the southern colleges integrated, more black players were showcased and the league is now over 70 percent black or multi-racial.
Although the book is likely to fly off the shelves in Miami, it is a must read for any sports fan and is likely to be included in the future in any list of top books about the NFL. But there is one paragraph the Miami fans won’t like.
He points out that even though they a perfect season, they weren’t the best team ever. They probably weren’t as good as the 1973 team that lost the second game in Oakland and then lost a later game when they had clinched the playoff spot and rested Griese and some other starters. But they were more dominant in 1973, particularly in the playoffs.
The Dolphins, particularly Shula, usually contended having a perfect record made them the best team. He was upset a few years ago when ESPN put together a tournament using a computer and had the Steeleers beating the Dolphins in the title game.
Shula ignored the fact that they weren’t a team of the decade and a lot of things went right for the Dolphins that year. For example, Green Bay, which won the first two Super Bowls, and Kansas City, which appeared in two of first four, had grown old.
Dallas, which beat the Dolphins in the Super Bowl the previous year, lost Roger Staubach for much of the year and lost to Washington in the NFC title game. Staubach returned the previous week to lead a comeback win over the 49ers but he was still rusty.
And the Redskins had Billy Kilmer at quarterback because Sonny Jurgensen was injured. Pittsburgh didn’t become a great team until 1974 when they added four Hall of Famers and signed a fifth as a free agent to give them10 HOFers. They won four of the next six Super Bowls.
And Oakland, their toughest rival in those years, lost to Pittsburgh in the Immaculate Reception game so the Dolphins played a young Pittsburgh team instead of Oakland.
The Raiders ended their win streak in 1973 but then lost to them in the playoffs before beating them in the Sea of Hands game in 1974 that ended their bid for a fourth consecutive Super Bowl appearance and a third consecutive Super Bowl win.
So the Raiders beat them twice in three games in 1973 and 1974. We will never know if they would have beaten them if Pittsburgh hadn’t pulled off the Immaculate Reception
The next year Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield jumped to the WFL and their run was over. Robbie could have tried to keep them, but he always looked at the bottom line. The Dolphins went 10-4 in 1975 but missed the playoffs and slid to 8-8 the following year.
Shula never won another Super Bowl after 1973, coaching 23 more seasons and making it to the Super Bowl twice but lost to Washington and San Francisco. That left his title record 2-5. He had four Super Bowl losses and the 1964 title game to Cleveland when he was in Baltimore in the pre Super Bowl era.
Things weren’t the same for Shula once he didn’t have Joe Thomas and Bobby Beathard finding his players and he couldn’t build a title team around Dan Marino. Still, he wound up being the winningest coach of all time.
The post perfect life of the players was mixed. Some had successful careers. Doug Swift for example went to med school at an Ivy League school (Penn). But others suffered the effects of playing in a run oriented era when there wasn’t much emphasis on player safety. Too many had to deal with CTE and dementia and addicted from taking too many painkillers. Two wound up in jail.
And Robbie’s heirs wound up selling the team after he died. When he died, he singled out three of his nine children to act as trustees and manage the Dolphins. Others disagreed and a legal fight started that ended with them selling the team. Each of the Robbie children wound up with $6 million after taxes. If they had kept the team in the family, they would be worth billions.
The Dolphins have been poorly managed and coached in recent years and have had only nine winning seasons in 21 years.
Still, to paraphrase Bogart in “Casablanca,” they will always have the perfect season. For one brief shining moment, they were perfect. This book tells the story of what it was like when they did it and how they did it.