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.
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 figures 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.
Consider. In the first series of the game, Joe Namath—returning to the scene of his Super Bowl triumph of 1969—dropped back to pass from his 15. Split End Don Maynard put a good move on the Dolphin strong safety, who recovered quickly and intercepted the ball, setting the Dolphins up in business on the Jet 33. From there, seven plays later, Earl Morrall—rushed into the breach six weeks ago to replace the injured Bob Griese—threw to slow-but-tricky Howard Twilley for 7-0, a touchdown that could be chalked up to the No-Name Defense.
The Dolphins sagged a little then. Nick Buoniconti, the middle linebacker who leads the defense and has its only name—he got it at Notre Dame and in the old AFL—appeared to be overly concerned with the Jet running game. Seizing on this, Namath put a beautiful 80-yard drive together to tie the score, and after that the Jets were very much in the contest the rest of the way, mostly because of the Miami offense's habit of coughing up the ball with untypical regularity.
As it turned out, however, the issue was really settled at a point before half-time when New York, leading 14-7, intercepted a Morrall pass and had first down on the Miami nine. Here the No-Names rose to the occasion. "We have had a big-play defense all year and it made the big plays today just when we needed them," Dolphin Coach Don Shula said afterward.
On first down, Emerson Boozer was dropped for a yard loss on an attempted sweep. Then, after an offensive pass-interference penalty, Boozer lost another yard trying to go off tackle, and a third-down pass went wildly incomplete. The Jets happily settled for a field goal to lead 17-7, and although the Dolphin offense was seldom at its stunning best thereafter, it supplied just enough punch to keep the whole team undefeated.
The biggest star on the attack was not the venerable Morrall or the diligent Twilley or even Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick—it was Mercury Morris, who now splits a running-back assignment with Kiick. Morris ran for 107 yards in 23 carries, mostly because of his remarkable talent for moving sideways at full speed. Only Morrall, of all people, managed to top Morris by running 31 yards for a touchdown on a broken pass play. "That's one of the longest runs I ever made," Morrall said afterwards. "I guess it's just fate."
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 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.