It is unreasonable to expect that the Miami Dolphins again will enjoy the kind of success that, apart from mid-January, they experienced last season. Oh, Don Shula's club should make the playoffs for a third consecutive year, but for the team to prevail as before—without suffering one injury serious enough to revise a three-deep list—begs much of logic and more of fate.
Such was the uncommon good health of the AFC champions in 1971 that one can only suppose they have been living on borrowed Blue Cross. The Dolphins themselves, faced with what could be the most competitive race in the NFL, have that eerie feeling. "If we stay injury-free," says Nick Buoniconti, the seasoned middle linebacker, "there's no reason we shouldn't repeat."
The Dolphins have defied all that seems logical ever since Shula arrived on the scene in 1970, developed a remarkable ball-control offense and unreasonably proceeded to turn a 10-game loser into a 10-game winner. Logic says that teams that possess the football as long as Bob Griese and his tenacious playmates do will afford a study in inexorable boredom except when they are fumbling the ball away or throwing it into enemy hands. Yet few teams in memory have generated more thrills from their art than the Dolphins, whose limit of regular-season turnovers last year stood at 23, lowest in the division.
The heart of the offense is the NFL's best rushing attack, led by Larry Csonka and his all-purpose buddy, Jim Kiick, who combined for 1,789 yards, 10 touchdowns and a single fumble in 357 carries. Breakaway Back Mercury Morris, who led the AFC in kickoff returns, did not get into the act often enough to suit his pride and has hectored Shula for more work.
But the man who makes Miami move is Griese, a quarterback who brings more cool detachment to the game than his 27 years normally acquire. Sure-handed, intelligent and a scrambler when the need arises, Griese was the NFL's second-ranking passer in '71 with 2,089 yards, 19 touchdowns and but nine interceptions. Now he plans to improve.
What should help Griese is a third season of familiarity with Paul Warfield, who led the league with 11 touchdown receptions, and an introductory one with Marlin Briscoe, who played out his option at Buffalo. Griese's other options are Marv Fleming, Howard Twilley and Jim Mandich.
Until the Super Bowl, when Dallas ran over the Dolphins with alarming impunity, Miami's defense appeared sound in holding regular-season rivals to 174 points. After that, however, no one was more alarmed than Shula, who promptly acquired Jim Dunaway (6'4", 277) in a trade with the accommodating Bills and made Notre Dame's Mike Kadish (6'5", 265) his first draft choice, hoping to combat the rush with more size. Dunaway already has won a starting job in the front four, where Manny Fernandez and Bill Stanfill are accomplished pass rushers. Against the pass, the Dolphins again will utilize a swarming zone blessed by the moxie of Jake Scott and Dick Anderson at safeties, with Tim Foley and Curtis Johnson starting their third year at the corners. For Miami the season may come up like thunder, since the Dolphins face a predictably dramatic opener at Kansas City and road games at Minnesota and Shea Stadium during the first four weeks.
Defense, for sure, is the primary reason that the Colts again should battle Miami to the wire, ready to usurp the title they missed by one half game. Baltimore in '71 was audacious at crushing ballcarriers, sacking quarterbacks and stealing passes. Only five field goals were kicked against the team, which blocked seven other attempts along with three punts and a conversion try to set a club record low yield of 140 points.
Yet, if the team is to succeed, improvement must come from a passing attack that produced only 10 touchdowns, partly because of increased emphasis on the running game, partly because a lot of receivers came up stone-fingered. Johnny Unitas, who unemotionally turns 40 next May, once again has sound ankles inside his high-top shoes, however, and that's a plus, since a ruptured Achilles' tendon kept him from starting the first nine games last season. But a preseason quest to find Unitas' possible fill-in filled Coach Don McCafferty with foreboding. Karl Douglas was dismal enough to cause the Colts to trade a No. 1 draft choice for Marty Domres from San Diego.
While Unitas is not the Unitas of old, Baltimore's running game is such that he doesn't have to be. Norm (Boo) Bulaich, who missed 4� games—when you add up the quarters—still gained 741 yards on his way to eight touchdowns; Tom Matte, possibly in his final season, picked up 607 yards; and Don Nottingham, the low-drafted bowling ball from Kent State, added another 388. Don McCaulcy, due for increased duty, and rookie Lydell Mitchell add to Baltimore's excess of running backs.