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Miami had pro football's most effective offense last year. The Dolphins were one of the NFL's highest scoring teams, yet they ran fewer plays than most. End zones, not opponents, stopped them. Of course, that was with Bob Griese at quarterback. Bud Goode's predictions were based on Griese directing the Dolphin offense, but now he has been lost for half a season with a knee injury. How will this affect Miami? Not disastrously. In fact, the Dolphins should be able to weather such a blow as well as any team in football. Backup Quarterback Don Strock is a 6'5", 220-pound former NCAA passing champion who has studied under Griese and Coach Don Shula for five years. At 27 Strock should be as capable as Earl Morrall was at age 38, when Morrall directed Miami to 10 straight wins while Griese recuperated from a broken leg during the Dolphins' perfect 1972 season. Strock has outstanding receivers in Nat Moore, who led the league with 12 touchdown catches last year, and Duriel Harris. Like Morrall, however, he will rely heavily on his ground game. Shula's off-season trade for San Francisco's Delvin Williams gives Miami the breakaway threat it has lacked since the days of Mercury Morris and a perfect complement to 220-pound power-runner Leroy Harris. More important, the Dolphins play an easy schedule in the first half of the season. Shula hopes that Griese can return in time for the first New England game, on Oct. 22.
New England is just the sort of overpowering, heavily penalized team that Miami is not. "We can beat any team in football with the players we have right now," says Coach Chuck Fairbanks. "And I don't mean beat them on any given day. I mean we can beat any team in this league consistently if we just get our act together."
On defense, New England is strongest where Miami is weakest—the pass rush. It was best in the league with 58 sacks. Still, the Pats' pass defense is only mediocre, not much better than that of the Dolphins despite all the sacks and the presence of Cornerback Mike Haynes, who has been in the Pro Bowl in both his NFL seasons. And passing is the only way to move the ball against New England. The Pats' 3-4 defense is murder against the run, particularly up the middle, where Nose Tackle Ray (Sugarbear) Hamilton and Inside Linebackers Steve Nelson and Sam Hunt discourage ballcarriers.
Offensively, the Patriots have not been able to pass as effectively as Miami. Quarterback Steve Grogan still throws too many interceptions despite the league's best protection. An indication that the Patriot air force is not fully developed is the fact that Tight End Russ Francis catches too few passes. But the Pats can cover a lot of territory when they do throw. Wide Receiver Stanley Morgan is a speedster who can get behind any secondary. Harold Jackson, acquired from the Rams to replace the injured Darryl Stingley, is an excellent route runner and can also go deep despite his advancing age; he is 32.
The strength of the Patriot offense is the line, particularly Guard John Hannah and Tackle Leon Gray. They spearhead a battering running game that should be more productive this year with the return of Halfback Andy Johnson, an all-purpose man who missed last season after knee surgery. Sam Cunningham may be the best blocking fullback in the NFL, and he is also a good enough runner to have gained 1,015 yards in 1977.
Baltimore Coach Ted Marchibroda has led the Colts to three division titles in the three years he has been in charge of the team. His record is a gaudy 31-11 and he is 5-1 against Miami's Shula. Still, this year may be a rocky one for the Colts, especially if Quarterback Bert Jones doesn't make a fast recovery from a shoulder injury suffered last week. With Jones the Colts have football's best passing game, but it is questionable whether they can run well enough to keep up with improving Miami and New England.
Despite all the controversy this summer over whether or not Lydell Mitchell would return to the Colts (finally last week he was traded to San Diego), he was not the primary reason for Baltimore's running effectiveness. "Anytime a running back gets 1,300 yards and never runs outside, you've got one hell of an offensive line," asserts Jones. "Any running back we put in that position will get a thousand yards." Yet the line does not open gaping holes for Colt runners. Jones himself is the key here; he keeps rival defenses from zeroing in on his backs because of his great passing skills.
Last year Jones, given excellent protection, completed more passes—224—than any other quarterback in football, but 135 of those passes went to running backs. Mitchell led the league with 71 catches, and Don McCauley, his replacement, caught 51 in part-time duty. Jones' passing game was hurt by the injury that limited his favorite deep receiver, Roger Carr, to just 11 catches. If Carr makes a full recovery from knee surgery, Jones will happily resume bombing.
The Colts' defensive line, the Sack Pack, has a well-deserved reputation for putting pressure on the passer. Defensive End John Dutton has been All-Pro, while the other end, Fred Cook, quietly led the team in sacks last year with nine. Meanwhile, Defensive Tackle Mike Barnes was voted the league's best lineman by his peers. The Sack Pack dropped opposing quarterbacks 47 times and helped account for Baltimore's 30 interceptions. Safety Lyle Blackwood led the NFL with 10. The mistake opponents made was not attacking Baltimore on the ground. When they did, the Sack Pack surrendered a whopping 4.25 yards a carry. The Colts sorely need a bigger, stronger middle linebacker than 6', 210-pound Ed Simonini.
Buffalo threw more than any other team last year, partly because O. J. Simpson was hurt. Now O.J. is gone—but the Bills will probably stay on the ground more. The reason is new Coach Chuck Knox, who won five straight division titles in L.A. but was canned for running the ball too often. Knox should develop a respectable running attack. To replace Simpson, he grabbed Terry Miller from Oklahoma State in the first round of the draft. With two good pulling guards—Joe DeLamielleure and Reggie McKenzie—in front of him, plus the blocking of Fullback Jim Braxton, Miller should do right well.