Don Shula doesn't like to admit it—in fact, he'll get very upset if you mention it to him—but he's got a nagging problem. Why do his MIAMI Dolphins play so poorly on the road against the other good clubs? The Dolphins have won only two of their last 13 road games against teams that finished with winning records. Youth? Inexperience? Not really. Lack of mental toughness? Not likely on a Shula-coached team. What, then?
No one seems to know what has afflicted Miami on the road, but Shula will find out very soon whether this season's Dolphins are better travelers. Before they're comfortably into October, the Dolphins will have faced the Vikings, Jets, Raiders and Patriots out of town. And to make matters worse, Shula has an iffy team, with an aging offensive line and a terrible recent injury history, but he's due for a change of luck. It could start with the resurgence of Larry Csonka, who returns after a four-year journey through Memphis of the WFL and the swamps of New Jersey where the Giants play. Zonk, who'll be paired with the talented Delvin Williams, has been working harder than ever, and Shula has rewarded him with the fullback job. Power is what the coach wants. No fumbles.
The offensive line situation is less clear-cut. The Dolphins limped into the playoffs last year minus guards Larry Little and Ed Newman—both had injuries requiring surgery. The tackles were 33-year-old Mike Current and 33-year-old Wayne Moore, who has been waived. In the draft Shula devoted a first-round pick (Jon Giesler), a second (Jeff Toews) and a sixth (Steve Lindquist) to the offensive line, but only Toews has offered a serious challenge—to Little at right guard.
Assistant Coach Bill Arnsparger's defense is an opportunistic one that gave up lots of yards but led the NFL in shutouts and takeaways, and allowed only nine points in the last three games. The secondary was—and is—ancient, but no one surpassed Miami's 32 interceptions. There are no weak spots in the line, which is led by Middle Guard Bob Baumhower and Right End A. J. Duhe, and the linebackers and cornerbacks are decent.
Somewhere in NEW ENGLAND there's a self-destruct mechanism. In the '76 playoffs, the Patriots had Oakland whipped 21-10 going into the final quarter, but it was the Raiders, not the Pats, who went on to win the Super Bowl.
In 1977, the John Hannah-Leon Gray holdout wiped out the first part of the season. And last year there was Coach Chuck Fairbanks' defection, followed by an el foldo in the playoffs against Houston. And now? Gray, the two-time Pro Bowl left tackle, has been traded to Houston for two draft choices. "I'll never sign another Patriot contract," says a depressed Hannah, the All-Pro left guard, setting the tone for what could be an interesting season.
Not that there's anything wrong with the guy who'll replace Gray; Dwight (Wimpy) Wheeler was rattling heads last year until he broke an ankle in the second game. But dealing away a 27-year-old All-Pro when you're going for the whole pot? Makes you wonder.
Things had been going so well, too. There had been no significant injuries during training camp. And no chilly looks from a cold, unemotional Fairbanks-type coach. Ron Erhardt, the new guy, is a player's man in the Red Miller mold, the Patriots say. Oh, sure, there had been a few contract hassles—Right Cornerback Mike Haynes announced he's playing out his option—but that's nothing new here.
Steve Grogan is coming back from off-season knee surgery, but he's tough. He has started 50 straight games, tops among NFL quarterbacks. And Erhardt says Grogan will call his own plays, something Fairbanks used to do for him. "At least now when they boo, I'll know it's for me," Grogan says. A return to health by Matt Cavanaugh makes New England deep at quarterback. The regular kicker, John Smith, is back, too, after missing most of 1978. Rookie Eddie Hare's punts are almost impossible to catch, say the coaches, and punting was a major Patriot failing last year. Julius Adams' return after a shoulder fracture bolsters a weak pass rush.
In BALTIMORE, they're praying that Bert Jones stays healthy, that the Sack Pack stays healthy, that Barry Krauss will be great. Pray hard enough, Colt fans, and maybe dreams will come true.