All week long America's unemployed armchair quarterbacks kept phoning Don Shula collect to volunteer their services to the Miami Dolphins, who suddenly needed a quarterback more than New York City needs money. The Dolphins had lost Bob Griese for the season two weeks ago when he suffered a ruptured tendon in the big toe of his right foot, and 41-year-old stand-in Earl Morrall is sidelined for the remainder of the schedule, too, after tearing ligaments in his left knee during Miami's 20-7 torture of the New England Patriots last Monday night.
Now, with the Dolphins leading Baltimore and Buffalo by just one game in the AFC's Eastern Division and the Bills heading for Miami, someone named Don Strock had moved up from chief sandwich boy to No. 1 quarterback and Slingin' Garo Yepremian—remember his famous Super Bowl passing caper?—was probably next in line. Trouble was, in his three seasons with the Dolphins, Strock had attempted only four more passes than Yepremian.
" Tom Matte even called and left a message for me," said Shula, who started to smile as he recalled that year in Baltimore when his Colts lost Johnny Unitas and Gary Cuozzo with disabling injuries in successive games and had to use Halfback Matte at quarterback for the playoffs. Shula did not return Matte's call, but he did persuade onetime Dolphin backup Jim Del Gaizo, a subsequent bust with both Green Bay and the New York Giants, to leave his insurance business and take Yepremian's place behind Strock.
Meanwhile, Strock, who at 6'5" and 220 pounds looks more like an NBA forward than an NFL quarterback, hardly seemed bothered by his new status. "I've always looked forward to my first start," he said, "but I hate to see it happen the way it has. I'm here to play quarterback, though, and that's what I'm going to do." Around Miami, Strock is known as the Mad Bomber because, unlike the methodical Griese and the ancient Morrall, he actually likes to throw the football at any time, not just on third-and-long. "We've spent the last three years trying to settle Don down," Shula said, "and show him what a running game is."
Shula paused, then added a few words for Buffalo's consumption. "If people expect Strock to draw plays in the dirt, making them up each time, and then just hand the ball off," he said, "they will be surprised. We think Strock can throw the ball against them."
Strock had the same impression, although he insisted that he would be happy to "nickel-and-dime Buffalo to death on the ground if that's the best way to beat them. I've taken game films home every night this week and I'm ready." Strock also displayed a genuine sense of humor. "Before you ask," he announced to a battalion of reporters, "my answers are 'no' and 'yes.' 'No,' I'm not nervous. 'Yes,' I think I can do the job." Asked if he had ever watched the minor-league Pottstown (Pa.) Firebirds and their celebrated Quarterback Jim (King) Corcoran when he was growing up in that town, Strock cracked, "I learned from watching King Corcoran that I couldn't learn from watching King Corcoran." Then he jogged over to the mess hall to get a couple of tuna fish sandwiches for Griese and Morrall. "No rush," Morrall said, "but we're hungry."
As the game began before 78,701 fans packed into the Orange Bowl, both Miami and Buffalo were aware that Baltimore had trounced the New York Giants earlier that afternoon. The Dolphin defense stopped the Bills on Buffalo's first series, but Strock could not move the Dolphins, either. Then, after the Dolphins stopped the Bills again, Strock went to work, armed with the information that Morrall had whispered to him on the sidelines and that the coaches upstairs had phoned down.
He completed a flareout to Don Nottingham, a look-in to Nat Moore, a down-the-middle bullet to Freddie Solomon, another dart to Howard Twilley and the Dolphins had a first down at the Buffalo five. Mercury Morris jammed the middle for a yard, then Strock—doing something Miami quarterbacks have rarely attempted—ran a bootleg around right end for a touchdown. Moments later the Dolphins got the ball back, and Strock smartly moved them 52 yards for another touchdown, this time hitting Twilley from eight yards out.
Strock was rolling now. On Miami's next two possessions he threw four more completions in a row—giving him 10 for 11—and the Dolphins moved ahead 21-0 on another Miami innovation, the one-yard touchdown pass, Strock to Twilley. During the stretch Strock ran a second bootleg, this one a naked reverse for 13 yards, and on another play he had Solomon, a former quarterback at Tampa, throw a bomb off an end-around. It worked for 44 yards when the Bills were penalized for pass interference.
Buffalo rallied to make the score 24-21, but then Strock, helped by a questionable call—the Dolphins appeared to fumble the ball away, but Buffalo's recovery was nullified—quickly moved Miami 75 yards for the decisive touchdown, Nottingham bolting 56 yards to set up Norm Bulaich's one-yard plunge.