A Perfect Season
All the glamorous people are on the offense, but it is the Dolphins' league-leading No-Name Defense that stopped the Jets, clinched a playoff spot and kept Miami unbeaten

From Sports Illustrated, Nov. 27, 1972

In the American Football Conference there are four divisions—the Eastern Division, the Western Division, the Central Division and the long division between Miami and the rest of the conference. This week, even before the Christmas shopping season officially began, the Dolphins sewed up a place in the playoffs by whipping the New York Jets 28-24 in front of thousands of rude people waving handkerchiefs in the Orange Bowl.

1127721.jpg (29k) The Jets and all the other contenders in the AFC have won-loss records that would not qualify them for the Fiesta Bowl, while Miami is fast becoming a statistical legend in its own time. As the figure listed here show, Miami is only the second club in the last decade to win its first 10 games, and it has a chance to be the first team in National Football League history to win all 14 regular-season games. The Dolphins' remaining schedule presents almost no difficulties—unless they start giving up points to ennui and overconfidence.

Against the Jets, Miami did in fact play almost nonchalantly, limiting itself to exactly one touchdown a quarter and making a number of inexcusable mistakes. Time and again the Dolphins had to be bailed out by their defense, which leads the league in a lot of things, anonymity included.


Destiny notwithstanding, the Dolphins have achieved their success not so much with their offense as with their ability to take the ball away from opposing clubs. When you go over the evidence, you have to listen to the attorney for the defense. That would be [middle linebacker Nick] Buoniconti, who intercepted Namath once to save a sure Jet score. He is a short, square man with half a hairy chest. The reason it is not a whole hairy chest is that the other half was shaved away to accommodate adhesive bandages used to relieve a shoulder injury.

Buoniconti really is an attorney, although he has never, in fact, stood for the defense. While he was playing for the Boston Patriots he spent the off-season as an assistant prosecuting attorney. After moving to Miami in 1969 he worked in litigation for one law firm, and now handles business law for another.

Buoniconti has a great deal to do with arranging the rather complex defense for the Dolphins. While the well-publicized runners and receivers have been putting points on the board, Buoniconti and the rest of the No-Names have been denying opponents points even more efficiently. One reason they have no name is because no one has been able to come up with something like the Los Angeles Rams' Fearsome Foursome, the Minnesota Vikings' Purple People Eaters or the Dallas Cowboys' Doomsday Defense. Many fans, even in Miami, could not name the front four of the Dolphins and would be hard put to identify anyone on the defense, with the exception of Buoniconti, who is flanked by outside linebackers Nos. 57 and 59.

"We don't have any superstars playing defense," Buoniconti said last Saturday. "It's a crashing cliché to say this, but it's true. Since we don't have the great individuals, we do it on teamwork. We come up with the big plays."


At 5'11" and 220, Buoniconti is a midget among middle linebackers. When he finished he college career at Notre Dame, he was the 13th draft choice of the Patriots but when the NFL and the AFL merged he was chosen as the all-time AFL middle linebacker. He has not diminished in talent since then.

"His two great qualities are quickness and intelligence," says Shula. "He's really not tall enough to play middle linebacker, but his anticipation is so good that he's always in the right place. And he's quick as a cat."

Certainly, Buoniconti does not constitute the whole Miami defense by himself. All season long the other No-Names have made memorable contributions. One of the many defensive formations the Dolphins use is The Fifty-Three, in which they employ only three defensive linemen along with various combinations of linebackers and defensive backs. This is a strong defense against the pass, and it places an unconscionable burden on the middle man in the three-man line, No. 75, a big, cheerful citizen who wears a Fu Manchu mustache.

"He plays under tremendous pressure and does a fine job," says Defensive Line Coach Mike Scarry, of No. 75. "He's always got two people blocking him—a guard and the center—and lots of times a back stays in to pick him up if he splits the double block. That means he doesn't get in on the quarterback very often, but we don't expect him to. What he does is bust in there and force things to happen."

No. 84, a defensive end, performs a similar vital function for the No-Names. "Maybe these guys don't get the tackle," Scarry says, "but they put the quarterback or the runner in position for someone else to make it. That's why we insist on our people playing their positions. Pursuit is fine, but it's not a bunch of people running around haphazardly after the ball. You pursue only after you are sure you know where the ball is going."

Ironically, this fashionable style of methodical, patterned defensive play, based on zones of responsibility, has in some respects cut down the Dolphins as a striking power. Although helping the runners on all teams, zones have diminished the superstar wide receivers, among them Paul Warfield, whom many experts consider the finest deep threat in football.

Warfield, who sat out the Jet game with a sprained ankle and a sore arch, is philosophical about it. "I spent a lot of time learning moves," he says. "When just about everyone played man-to-man pass defense, I used to study the defensive back who would be on me before every game. I rehearsed my patterns until they were perfect to the inch. Now, with zone coverage, it doesn't make any difference. I can put all the moves I want to on a back or a linebacker; they don't pay any attention to me. So you have great athletes who spend an afternoon patrolling nothing more than about 10 square yards of ground. The duels are gone and the long passes are gone and I think that's what excited people."

Of course, winning excites people, too, and most fans do not really care how you manage it. If you can do it with Warfield outmaneuvering a defensive back man-on-man, fine. If you do it with runners such as Csonka and Morris and Kiick, fine. And if you have to do it with defense, they will take that, too. Just ask the Dolphins' attorney for the defense about his No-Names.

P.S. They do have names.

THE FRONT FOUR: Manny Fernandez (75), Vern Den Herder (83), Bill Stanfill (84), Bob Heinz (72).

THE LINEBACKERS: Buoniconti, Doug Swift (59), Mike Kolen (57).

THE CORNERBACKS: Tim Foley (25), Curtis Johnson (45).

THE SAFETIES: Dick Anderson (40), Jake Scott (13).

— by Tex Maule