By: Randy Campbell (Old Dolfan)
GAME 1: San Francisco @ Miami, Sept. 16, 1973
The 1972 Miami Dolphins did what no other NFL team had ever done before AND what no other NFL team has done since. They ran the table. They were perfect. They were 17 and 0! It WAS and IS considered the greatest achievement by any team in the storied history of the National Football League.
What to do for an encore? The concept of back-to-back perfect seasons seemed totally out of reach, even for this team. But some fans (including your author) wondered aloud “Could the ’73 Dolphins be as good, or BETTER, than last year’s team?
Some veteran NFL experts claimed the ’72 Dolphins were incredibly lucky. Others said they played a weak schedule. Still others pointed out Miami’s narrow margins of victory in games 15, 16 and 17 proved they were NOT a dominant team. While I disagreed with all of these criticisms, I did agree with the old saying which says “there’s always room for improvement.”
Improvement? On perfection? You’ve got to be kidding me!! Fact is,I really thought this team could get even BETTER. Young quarterback Bob Griese missed most of the ’72 regular season with a broken ankle. When he returned, he sometimes showed signs of rust. I was convinced that if Griese stayed healthy throughout 1973 the offense, ranked #1 in ’72, could get EVEN BETTER!!
The Dolphins defense suffered a rash of injuries during the 6-game 1972 exhibition season. This necessitated the creation of the 53 defense wherein Miami could change from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense frequently during the game. I believed a couple less injuries in 1973 would propel this defense to a historically GREAT season. (In fact, Miami’s 1973 defense gave up only 150 points — 10.7 points per game — during the 14 game regular season, an ALL-TIME NFL RECORD!!)
First up for the Dolphins as they prepared to defend their Super Bowl Championship was the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers first entered pro football as a founding member of the All-America Football Conference in 1946. During the four year history of that league the Niners established themselves as the league’s second best franchise behind the perennial champs, the Cleveland Browns. in 1950, when the AAFC disbanded, the Browns, the 49ers and the first team to be known as the Baltimore Colts (the former Miami Seahawks franchise) were invited to join the NFL. In the 1950 season, the Browns shocked the established teams by winning the NFL title. The 49ers struggled to a 3-9 record while the first Baltimore Colts team disbanded. Winning seasons followed from 1951 through 1954 as the NFL’s first “Million Dollar Backfield,” 49ers QB Y. A. Tittle and Hall of Fame running backs Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny paced a very productive offense. In 1960, innovative head coach Red Hickey invented the still used shotgun formation for the 49ers.
In the late 1970’s the 49er franchise was struggling. In 1979 they finished 2-14 under new owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., and new head coach Bill Walsh, a former offensive coordinator under Paul Brown in Cincinnati. In 1980, legendary quarterback Joe Montana replaced Steve DeBerg. Dwight Clark assumed the tight end position. Next season, defenders Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Dwight Hicks and Fred Dean joined the defense. Other stars would follow. This franchise would go on to win FOUR Super Bowls in the decade, earning the moniker “Team of the ’80’s.” In 1994, paced by Hall of Famers Steve Young and Jerry Rice, the 49ers defeated San Diego to claim their 5th Super Bowl title.
In 1973, the Super Bowl was just a dream for 49er fans. But they did have hope. In 1970, 1971 and 1972 the Niners reached the playoffs. The 1972 team won the NFC West under the leadership of star QB John Brodie. But, for the third consecutive season, San Francisco was eliminated from the playoffs by the Dallas Cowboys. Nonetheless, San Francisco came into Miami as a highly regarded team that was expected to compete for the 1973 NFC title. Miami was only a 4-point favorite in this season opener.
Every single seat in the historic Orange Bowl was sold out for this game. But when I arrived at my seat I realized something was very, very, different. There were empty seats at this game! The league’s anti-blackout policy had just gone into effect. Games sold out more than 72 hours before kickoff (like this one) could be shown on local TV. So a handful of Dolfans chose to stay home and watch it on free TV.
Something far more troubling was different. The heat. It was unlike any game I had ever attended. The official temperature at kickoff (1 PM) was 86 degrees. But that was several miles away at the airport. There was NOT a breath of air coming off Biscayne Bay. I guessed it was AT LEAST 92-95 degrees between the walls of the huge stadium! And, down on the field covered by artificial grass, the temperature reached close to 120 degrees, according to Miami’s team physician, Dr. Herbert Virgin. I saw this as a medical catastrophe in the making, especially in the sun-baked stands where retirees in their 70’s and 80’s sat in the deadly open sun for 3-4 hours. Humidity readings near 100 per cent only made things worse.
Miami’s offense sputtered for nearly all of the first three quarters. Two Yepremian field goals (one of 53 yards) produced Miami’s paltry six points heading into the final quarter. Meanwhile, San Francisco’s offense had some success early on. A Bruce Gossett field goal and a three yard touchdown run by Vic Washington gave the Niners a 10-6 halftime lead. But, early in the third quarter, star QB John Brodie staggered back to the huddle and COLLAPSED! “I felt like someone pulled the plug …. I couldn’t move,” said a dangerously dehydrated Brodie. Brodie was DONE! So were the 49ers! By early in the fourth quarter, about 7-8 starters had been removed from the game. “We died out there,” said Dolphin defender Manny Fernandez, “but NOT as fast as THEY DID!” Shula’s grueling summer conditioning program was the difference.
Back up QB Steve Spurrier replaced Brodie and completed the drive that produced another Gossett field goal, putting San Francisco ahead 13-6. But, in the final moments of the third quarter, the Dolphins finally got their offense rolling. A 25-yard rumble by Larry Csonka was followed by several on-target passes by Bob Griese. Early in the fourth quarter Griese hit Paul Warfield with a 10-yard touchdown strike and the Dolphins finally had tied the game at 13-13. But, in the searing heat, many had already gone home!
On the next Dolphin series Garo Yepremian lined-up a 45 yard field goal. Everyone who could stand up was standing in silence. The kick was in the air – – – it was GOO-O-O-OD!! A roar from the Fin Faithful celebrated Miami taking a 16-13 lead!! But about six rows in front of me, an older fan tilted over to his left and collapsed on the seat next to him. Medics arrived with a stretcher. But they were too late. This poor fan had died on the spot!
The Dolphins dominated the last few minutes of the game, forcing a safety and adding Garo’s record breaking (at the time) 9th consecutive successful field goal during the regular season over a two-year span. Final score: Miami-21, Niners-13. Garo’s four field goals and Csonka’s 104 yards rushing grabbed the headlines. But, in truth, the biggest player of this game was the deadly heat. The Forty Niners’ flight home from Miami to San Francisco was detoured to Denver. Approximately a dozen players were taken off the flight and kept in Denver over night so they could be treated for dehydration and heat exhaustion. One report said a player had to have CPR to save his life. That report was denied by team officials.
John Brodie was never the same after this game. By mid-season, he was benched in favor of Steve Spurrier. Years later, while broadcasting a football game, Brodie admitted he could remember very little from the last half of that game in Miami.
The 1973 Miami Dolphins were now 1-0.