A group of wealthy celebrities known as the Miami Dolphins were supposed to have their pride and all of their earthly possessions at stake in the city of Buffalo last Sunday because they had absentmindedly forgotten to open the pro football season on schedule the week before, having been preoccupied with tax shelters, clothes fittings, oil-portrait posings and cornering the market on Gucci chin straps. Whatever. They had lost their first game in a very embarrassing way, and to the New England Peasants—er, Patriots—of all people, and the world was poised to say that if they lost again, even though the Bills were new and improved and wonderful, it would prove that success is the ultimate killer in American society. But then the game in Buffalo didn't prove anything, and now we will have to wait at least another week to find out if the Dolphins are mortal. The trouble was, the Bills made it so convenient for Miami to score.
Well, let's take that back. The Dolphins are not so fat and happy that they couldn't put together a couple of touchdown drives of 36 and 324 inches. Which is how far they had to go to get their first two touchdowns after the Bills established their excellence at fumbling.
Give a millionaire an inch and he'll take a 24-16 win.
A close study of the game films will probably reveal that the whistle should have blown O. J. Simpson dead before the ball dribbled away from him, enabling Linebacker Doug Swift to pounce on it at the one-yard line and the Dolphins to uncork their one-play, 36-inch drive. But no excuse could be made for Fullback Jim Braxton's fumble, which gave Miami the ball at Buffalo's nine and let the Dolphins in for the touchdown that made it 14-3 and perfectly obvious that this was not going to be Buffalo's day. Inasmuch as it took an utter miracle on the part of Joe Ferguson and Ahmad Rashad to overcome a Braxton fumble against Oakland in the Bills' first game, the suggestion can be made that one of Buffalo's future problems will be to outscore its own fullback.
For three quarters it looked as if Miami was there to be had, if Buffalo could only stop beating itself. It wasn't until the fourth quarter that the Dolphins put on any sort of sustained drive, and even that one was helped along by a 15-yard penalty. Meanwhile, Buffalo had been hitting harder and cruising up and down the field. The Bills drove 40 yards to a 3-0 lead, they drove 59 yards to zero because a field-goal attempt was blocked, they drove 66 yards for a touchdown that brought them up to 14-9, and they would eventually drive 65 yards for a touchdown that would bring them up to 21-16. Overall, they outgained Miami, they did a commendable job of containing Larry Csonka (68 yards in 19 carries) and they could say, if it was any consolation, that they gave the Dolphins 14 points, which Bob Griese got on a couple of lobs to his tight ends, Jim Mandich and Marv Fleming.
Whether any of this is evidence that Miami is not so fantastic anymore or that Buffalo is enormously better and a serious contender for the playoffs, is something no one can yet be sure of. Most likely, there is truth in both suppositions.
When last Sunday's game was over, Csonka and most of the other Dolphins walked off the field looking as dejected as the Bills. Heading up the tunnel toward the dressing room, Csonka said to no one in particular, "I'm glad that's over."
Don Shula was not especially happy. He neither smiled nor joked much about anything. Better than anyone, he knew the Dolphins had not played with their old perfection. They, too, had fumbled, had blown assignments, had been caught holding, had not controlled the game at all in terms of how they like to hog the ball.
"We were more aggressive this week," Shula said, "but anything would have been an improvement."
With slightly more than seven minutes to play it was still a football game either team could win. At that point, Ferguson, who had another splendid day with 17 completions out of 22 passes for 188 yards—and who looks like one of the best quarterbacks around—had brought the Bills back up to 21-16 with a 25-yard scoring pass to J.D. Hill. The 80,020 citizens in Buffalo's Rich Stadium were right to dream about another celestial ending, for Ferguson had beaten Oakland just six days before with hardly any time at all left on the clock. If Buffalo could kick off deep, hold the Dolphins, get the ball again...well, Ferguson had those wraiths, Rashad and Hill, to throw to. And he had time.