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Hold the flowers. Scrap the black armbands. Forget the moments of silence. All those funereal reports proclaiming the death of the Miami Dolphins may be greatly exaggerated. Despite the flight of Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield to the WFL and the loss of All-Pro Safety Dick Anderson and Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti because of injuries, the Dolphins are alive and mostly well in Miami, maybe even alive enough to win their fifth straight title in the NFL's toughest division. This time, though, Miami's Dol-fans will not be waving their white handkerchiefs so often. Indeed, the Buffalo Bills, with O.J. Simpson and his bodyguard Reggie McKenzie; the New York Jets, with Joe Willie Brut; and even the New England Patriots, if Jim Plunkett's shoulder heals quickly, could ease the Dolphins but of first. Only Baltimore cannot finish at the top.
But don't worry too much about Miami. In the past Coach Don Shula has always been a masterful adapter in the face of sudden personnel crises; remember Tom Matte at quarterback for the Colts in 1965? "What we'll do this season is anyone's guess," says Shula. "We're keeping our options open. Without that big Csonka, though, it's pretty obvious that we won't be able to play ball control for long periods like we used to and, as a result, we'll probably have to throw a lot more."
Barrel-bodied Don Nottingham, rookie Stan Winfrey and old hand Norm Bulaich will provide Miami with at least adequate power from Csonka's position; they all run faster than Csonka but lack his bullishness and block-reading ability. Miami's other running spot is in good feet with power sprinters Mercury Morris and Benny Malone. However, if Bob Griese is forced to throw long too often, Miami may indeed be in trouble. Swift Nat Moore caught 37 passes for 605 yards as a rookie last year, but now he will inherit the double coverage that Warfield attracted. Barring a likely early-season trade, veteran Howard Twilley, strictly a short threat, and Rookie Fred Solomon, an outstanding quarterback at Tampa but now a receiver in Miami, will share the other wide receiver spot; Solomon also will specialize as a kick-and-punt returner. What all this means is that Griese's principal target most likely will be Tight End Jim Mandich, who caught 33 passes and scored six touchdowns last year.
Otherwise, the Dolphin offense is secure. All-Pros Jim Langer at center and Larry Little at guard anchor the game's best offensive line, and rookie Darryl Carlton provides needed backup strength at tackle. After battling Pittsburgh's L.C. Greenwood in the College All-Star Game, Carlton said, "With a little coaching, L.C. knows I'd run him off the field." Defensively, Miami went AWOL too frequently last season after master tactician Bill Arnsparger left to coach the Giants. "We made twice as many errors as we did the year before," Shula admits. If Tackle Manny Fernandez stays healthy and if Mike Kolen can handle Buoniconti's job at middle linebacker, the defense should snap back.
Nevertheless, the Dolphin defections understandably stirred considerable optimism in Buffalo, primarily because the Bills had not defeated a Csonka-powered team in 10 straight games. But disaster struck the Bills during the exhibition schedule: a broken collarbone sidelined All-Pro Safety Tony Greene all of the preseason, and All-Pro Cornerback Robert James was lost for the season with torn ligaments in his right knee. Even when Greene and James were available, and counting the addition of Defensive End Pat Toomay from Dallas, the Buffalo defense was semi-suspect because of a lack of quality linebackers. Coach Lou Saban traded away starters Jim Cheyunski and Dave Washington, apparently planning to replace them with top drafts Tom Ruud and Bob Nelson of Nebraska. Trouble is, Saban did not sign Ruud or Nelson until the middle of the exhibition season, by which time they had missed valuable learning sessions, as the coaches like to say. So Buffalo's only experienced linebacker is John Skorupan.
On a cheerier note, O.J. Simpson is taking a vacation from his movie, television, endorsement and Superstars careers and will concentrate strictly on carrying a pigskin for the next few months. O.J., who slumped from a record 2,003 rushing yards in 1973 to just 1,125 yards last year, was unusually testy in training camp; one day, in fact, he threw both a football and a quick jab at a rookie who had grabbed him during a workout. All winter Saban insisted that Joe Ferguson would open as his regular quarterback despite the fact that he played poorly at the end of last season. If Ferguson continues to perform erratically, Saban may shift to second-year pro Gary Marangi. Marangi, from Boston College, may prove less reluctant to put the ball into the air. Last year two outstanding wide receivers, Ahman Rashad and J.D. Hill, were almost wasted, catching only 36 and 32 passes respectively and unfortunately Rashad won't be catching any this year since he's injured and out for the season. Up front the Bills are solid, led by O.J.'s irrepressible escort, McKenzie, at guard. O.J. goes where Reggie goes. "We're going for 2,000 yards again," McKenzie says.
One thing's for certain in New York: Joe Willie Namath will never stink out Shea Stadium, not even if he throws a dozen interceptions in a game that the Jets lose by 10 touchdowns. Namath, remember, signed a multimillion-dollar promotional contract with a cosmetics firm a few days before he signed his new two-year $900,000 contract with the Jets. Once again Joe will work with what Don Shula calls "the quickest strike force in football," as the Jets try to prove that last season's six straight wins in the final six weeks were not so much cologne. The Jets have lost David Knight, who caught 40 passes for 579 yards a year ago, for at least the first four weeks because of a knee injury, but Jerome Barkum (41 receptions) and Richard Caster (38) both know how to smell out a football in traffic. In the past, New York has had strong inside running from both John Riggins and Emerson Boozer but lacked the threat of the breakaway jaunt; newcomers Bob Gresham, Steve Davis and Carl Garrett may introduce some quickness to the Jets attack.
Coach Charley Winner has drastically changed New York's defensive philosophy. No longer will the Jets try to contain the opposition with a front four so small that it could pass for a high school line. Winner beefed up the defense by acquiring 6'5", 260-pound Billy Newsome and 6'6", 255-pound Jim Bailey in trades, and they will team with 6'6", 280-pound Carl Barzilauskas and other behemoths to give the Jets a pro-sized front. Godwin Turk strengthens the linebacking on the left side, and the secondary is sound.
For seven weeks last fall New England's victory-starved football addicts were checking plane schedules to New Orleans, but the 6-1 Patriots folded like the Red Sox had a few months earlier and finished with a 7-7 record. Actually, the Patriots still could have made the playoffs if they hadn't lost two games to Buffalo by a total of three points. Now the Pats are back with their three-man line and their blitzing linebackers and their hit-and-run offense, and if injuries don't decimate them again, they could be in the playoffs. Coach Chuck Fairbanks still needs relief for Defensive Linemen Sugar Bear Hamilton and Julius Adams; they both gave out from overwork toward the end of last season when injuries sidelined their substitutes. However, Fairbanks has bolstered his linebacking corps with Steve Zabel from Philadelphia, Rodrigo Barnes from Dallas and No. 2 draft Rod Shoate from Oklahoma, but the secondary has been weakened by the unexpected retirement of Safety Jack Mildren.
Second-year man Neil Graff, with about 2.5 minutes of NFL experience but a perfect one-for-one completion record, fills in for the injured Plunkett, and the Patriots get most of their important attackers off the injured list. Running Back Sam Cunningham (broken leg), Wide Receiver Darryl Stingley (broken arm) and Tight End Bob Windsor (shattered knee) all were lost at critical times last year, leaving the offense to Plunkett and Running Back Mini Mack Herron. Herron had to return kicks and punts, rush the ball and catch it, too, and he set an NFL record of 2,444 yards. For added offensive effect, the Patriots have top draft Russ Francis, a 6'6", 240-pound tight end with sprinter's speed. However, they have lost their best offensive lineman, Tackle Tom Neville, who broke a leg.