When they put it all together, they are really something to see, these uppity Miami Dolphins. To be sure, the Dolphins don't put it together every time they get the football. But they are doing it with increasing frequency. For that and for other reasons that reflect their own immense improvement, and because of some extraordinary events not of their making—a plague of injuries to key people on contending clubs, such as John Unitas and Joe Namath; defections here and there; various crises of the spirit—and because the schedule should work to their advantage, the Dolphins are a Super Bowl contender.
And why not? Joe Thomas, the surest personnel man in the game, has supplied Don Shula, one of its best coaches, with the ingredients. Shula has responded by cooking up the toughest running attack in the AFC, to wit: Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick, with a little Mercury Morris on the side. Morris is not half as hard to bring down as the other two, but is twice as tough to find. He averaged 6.8 yards a rush last year. And when Csonka wasn't running over people (second leading rusher in the AFC with 874 yards) he was knocking them aside for sidekick Kiick. The process is reversible. Kiick plays Sundance to Csonka's Butch Cassidy in the Miami press (they even held out for more money together), and The Kid may just be the best all-round back in football. He runs, he catches, he blocks, and he can smell a goal line in the dark.
Then there is Bob Griese. His four-year passing totals (8,192 yards) far exceed those made by Brodie, Starr, Jurgensen and Gabriel in their first four years (admittedly, only Griese was a starter for the entire period); and last season he led the AFC with a 58% completion figure. Griese is a leader. It comes naturally. "If there's a group of guys standing around," he says, "somebody has to take charge." Griese takes charge. His roommate is Wide Receiver Paul Warfield. They have developed a sensitivity for one another, what Griese calls "a complete anticipation." Warfield averaged 25 yards per reception in 1970.
Assistant Coach Monte Clark has improved the offensive line. Guard Larry Little was voted the best offensive lineman in the AFC by rival players. And although Griese had other fine targets to throw to in addition to Warfield ( Howard Twilley, Karl Noonan, Marv Fleming), Thomas gave him an uncut diamond in Otto Stowe of Iowa State.
The Miami defense is tough. It is also deceiving. It does not get to the quarterback often (last in the league in sacks with 18 in 1970), but that is due to the nature of Shula's containing zone. The result: the Dolphins allowed the fewest points in their division. The secondary, from Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti (slightly hampered by a broken wristbone) to Safeties Dick Anderson and Jake Scott, is first-rate.
A psychology test was given to the Dolphins this year. It revealed a "shocking amount of ambition." The psychologists traced it to Shula, who, they said, "is very much attuned to ambitious people." Astrologist Doris Kay said the Dolphins are Sagittarians. She said it is going to be a very good year for Sagittarians.
The prospect of a three-team race in the East is still there, of course. Only the odds have changed. The Colts, you will remember, won the Super Bowl. But, in April, having survived 280-pound tackles, John Unitas fell chasing a two-ounce ball in a game of paddle ball and ruptured the Achilles' tendon of his right foot. Unitas says he is ready to play. He is a Taurus, bull-stubborn, and a quick healer. Earl Morrall, the young fellow (a mere 37) who backs up Johnny U., says Coach Don McCafferty called him after Unitas' fall. "Don't do any skiing, Earl," he said. "How about some fishing, Coach?" "No, you might fall out of the boat and drown."
More, Billy Ray Smith, a 12-year veteran at defensive tackle, hung up his bandages to be a stockbroker. Without Smith, says one Colt, "we don't have the ranting and cursing that arouse a defense." Wide Receiver Jimmy Orr also retired, as did Tackle Sam Ball.
In a personnel match-up with Miami you would have to say the Colts are a close second. Their running game is similar, featuring Tom Matte, Norm Bulaich, Don McCauley, the No. 1 draft pick from North Carolina, and Don Nottingham, the No. 17 pick from Kent State and the 441st and next to last man taken in the entire draft. But these four have two things in common: while they can bloody your nose and bruise your spirit, they can't outrun you.
The Colt receivers are quality, what's left of them. Tight Ends John Mackey and Tom Mitchell are incomparable. Eddie Hinton is a legitimate deep threat. Ray Perkins will play fulltime with the departure of Roy Jefferson to Washington. After these.... Placekicker Jim O'Brien, whose field goal won the Super Bowl, is now the third wide receiver. O'Brien played there in college, but whenever they let him go in he's told, "Don't block anybody, don't make anybody mad and, above all, don't let anybody step on your foot."