Five years ago the Denver Broncos looked strong enough to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only teams to go through the regular season and the playoffs undefeated. The Broncos had a future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback. They had a running back on his way to a 2,000-yard season. They had two 1,000-yard receivers and arguably a Hall of Fame tight end. John Elway, Terrell Davis, Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith, and Shannon Sharpe, respectively, sparked Denver to a 13-0 start during which its average margin of victory was 15 points. Then the Broncos met up with the 5-8 New York Giants at the Meadowlands, where the crowd was screaming and the Giants were jumping around like it was the Super Bowl. New York drove 86 yards in the final two minutes to get the 20-16 upset.
"We were sure we could do it," Sharpe recalls of the bid for a perfect season. "But when you get close to 16-0, you can't believe what you're up against. We lost the next week too, at Miami. Once you get to about 9-0, you're everybody's huge game. I don't think [an undefeated season] will ever happen again."
Former linebacker Nick Buoniconti, a member of the '72 Dolphins, says Miami's 17-0 run through the NFL is the most underrated team record of all time, and he may be right. The longer schedule—16 regular-season games ( Miami played 14) plus three playoff games—combined with the advent of unfettered free agency and the salary cap have created circumstances that make an unbeaten season virtually unattainable. Free agency and the cap have robbed teams of the lineup continuity and chemistry necessary for superior play every week.
For instance, during one stretch in the 1980s the Giants started the same offensive line for 36 consecutive games; over the past three seasons tackle Luke Petitgout has been the only constant on New York's interior line. In the free-agent era the better teams suffer: A $1.1 million safety last season for the Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dexter Jackson this year became a $3.7 million starter for the Arizona Cardinals because the Bucs couldn't pay him that much and stay under the cap. These days it seems the only way to build a winner for the long haul is to be better than any other team at drafting players: You need depth to replace the starters you know you'll lose to injury and free agency.
Long as the odds may be, what team has the best chance in 2004 or '05 of matching the '72 Dolphins? Probably the New England Patriots, who had the hot draft hand this year (eight rookies are playing significant roles for the 8-2 team) and have seven picks in the first four rounds next April. New England has a smart coach in Bill Belichick, a good young passer in Tom Brady and a deep defense. But star cornerback Ty Law, who will count $9.3 million on the 2004 salary cap, will have to take a pay cut if he wants to stay. "Ty has told me twice he won't play for a penny less next year," Carl Poston, his agent, said recently. A candidate to replace Law might be rookie Eugene Wilson, a second-round draft pick. He was moved to safety at the start of the season to replace Lawyer Milloy, who was waived after he refused to take a major pay cut.
You see, nobody's perfect in today's NFL.