Saturday, January 13, 2024

This Day in Football History (Dolphins Vanquish Vikings in Super Bowl VIII)

Jan. 13, 1974—Taking its cue from fullback Larry Csonka (pictured), the Miami Dolphins ran roughshod over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl VIII.

The 24-7 final score was not remotely indicative of just how thoroughly Miami dominated Minnesota, which had gone 12-2 in the regular season (and had given the Dolphins one of their most hotly contested victories early in 1972, in a bruising 16-14 come-from-behind win).

Vikings head coach Bud Grant had made front-page news in the run-up to the game with his complaint about sparrows in the locker-room shower at Houston’s Rice Stadium.

When it was all over, he had two more persistent headaches: how the Dolphins’ offense had pushed around his legendary “Purple People Eaters” defense, and how Miami’s “No Name Defense” had, in the words of Miami Herald sports columnist Edwin Pope, “pounded Minnesota's runners into such terror that the Vikings did not get a first down rushing for an astounding 44 minutes and 17 seconds.”

Among head coach Don Shula’s 347 career triumphs, few could have been sweeter than his Super Bowl victory at Rice Stadium.

His Super Bowl win the year before may have capped an undefeated season and at least temporarily quieted complaints that the veteran coach couldn’t win The Big One.

But this one proved that the earlier success was no fluke. It also put Shula among the elite circle of coaches who have won two consecutive Super Bowls, along with Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll, Jimmy Johnson, Mike Shanahan, and Bill Belichick—giving the Dolphin coach a fair claim to have forged the closest thing that the National Football League has to a dynasty.

Dolphins dominate

Over the years, the surviving members of Dolphins have been justly proud of their undefeated 1972 season, particularly when the New England Patriots achieved a perfect 17-0 season in 2007 before falling to the New York Giants in Super Bowl LXII.

But, even though the Dolphins’ 12-2 record-season record in 1973 might suggest a slight falloff from their prior magical year, some observers believed that the team was stronger than the undefeated squad.

Unlike the year before, with the Dolphins’ 14-7 win over the Washington Redskins (an outcome suddenly threatened a few minutes before the end when placekicker Garo Yepremian’s inept pass on a broken play led to a Redskin touchdown), the Dolphins never loosened their choke hold over their opponents. Their advantage in time of possession (33:45 versus 26:15) tells only part of the tale.

On both sides of the ball, the Dolphins set the pace early, capitalizing on the Vikings’ inability to get momentum. Miami scored twice in the first quarter on touchdowns by Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick, a rushing pair that, like the Green Bay Packers’ Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung (“Thunder and Lightning”), had earned their own nicknames—in this case, the more colorful (and given their close friendship, more appropriate) catchphrase, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

A Yepremian field goal in the second quarter put Shula’s squad up 17-0 by halftime.

On the other side of the ball, the “No Name Defense” was throttling the Vikings. The major hope that Minnesota had to get within striking distance was crushed when, with fourth and one with a minute left in the half, Miami middle linebacker Nick Buoniconti knocked the ball loose from Viking running back Oscar Reed and the Dolphins’ Jake Scott recovered (one of two fumble recoveries that the free safety had that day).

Another, two-yard touchdown run by Csonka in the third quarter only added to the Vikings’ woes.

Head On, the title of Csonka’s 2020 memoir, tells you most but not all of what you need to know about the running back’s take-no-prisoners rushing style.

First, his initial pattern of running was even more physically confrontational—with more potential for long-term physical injury—before Shula taught him how to lead with his forearm rather than his head.

Second, “head on” doesn’t convey the sheer futility of trying to tackle Csonka. You’d have a better chance of bringing down a Sherman tank.

The Vikings’ plight in Houston, as he rumbled on 33 carries for 145 yards for a Super Bowl MVP designation, was best expressed by linebacker Jeff Siemon:

“It's not the collision that gets you. It's what happens after you tackle him. His legs are just so strong he keeps moving. He carries you. He's an immovable weight.”

The Vikings’ Fran Tarkenton could take only meager satisfaction in becoming the first quarterback to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl. The score came in the fourth quarter with his team down 24-0. With the running game going nowhere, he was under continual pressure all day, dumping off short passes to tight ends and running backs who were immediately surrounded and stopped by a sea of green uniforms.

My rooting interest in the Dolphins

You might wonder how I became interested in this game and this team.

Well, in the early 1970s, when I started watching pro football on a regular basis, the Green Bay Packers had fallen off the high standard set under Vince Lombardi. My area’s New York Giants were even worse, still less than halfway through a 17-year absence from the playoffs. I abominated their divisional rivals, the Dallas Cowboys.

I ended up gravitating to the up-and-coming Dolphins. Their thrilling double-overtime victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1971 Championship game sealed the deal for me.  Their loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl VI only made me pull all the harder for them to surmount their last hurdle to glory.

I was glad beyond measure when the Dolphins break through against the Redskins, then again against the Vikings. Great times seemed to stretch far into the future.

The Dolphins didn’t have long to enjoy their victory. Less than a month later, Csonka, Kiick, and receiver Paul Warfield announced that they would be jumping to the upstart World Football League for the 1975 season.

That left only one more season when quarterback Bob Griese could count on his chief rushing and receiving threats. The Dolphins’ loss in the divisional playoffs to the Oakland Raiders, on Dec. 31, 1974—the famous “Sea of Hands” game in which Clarence Davis snared a Ken Stabler TD pass in the final seconds—was dismaying and, in terms of their period of dominance, final.

Changes since Super Bowl VIII

Younger readers who come across this post may have no idea what pro football was like a half century ago, while older ones might have forgotten some details. I can tell you that the Super Bowl was far different then from now, both in how it was played and how it was viewed by a mass audience.

Even by 2004, the ambiance of the “ultimate game” as we know it now was set. So here are the major contrasts between Super Bowl VIII and Super Bowl XXXVIII. (God, save me from this plague of Roman numerals!):

*Passing is a more central part of the game. Testifying to the respect in which he was held across the league, Griese was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but in Super Bowl VIII he attempted only seven passes, completing all but one. Bill Walsh’s implementation of the “West Coast offense” with the San Francisco 49ers and NFL rules protecting quarters gave passers more room to operate—and, in parallel fashion, decreased the importance of running backs. The last back to be named Super Bowl MVP was the Denver Broncos’ Terrell Davis, back in January 1998.

*Players grew in size. The biggest man on the Dolphins’ offensive line, Hall of Famer Larry Little, weighed 265 pounds. Thirty years later, the heaviest offensive lineman for the Patriots, Wilbert Brown, tipped the scales at 320 pounds.

*The game occurs later in the year. With 17 regular-season games starting in 2003 versus 14 in 1973, along with an additional round in the playoffs, the season is longer. The 2004 Super Bowl, featuring the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers, was the first to take place in February. The additional games increase the possibility of injuries that can affect the outcome.

*The game occurs later in the day. Kickoff time for Super Bowl VIII was 3:30 pm ET; 30 years later, it was 6:25.

*The game has become a de facto secular national holiday. Over time, the NFL has realized that, to increase viewership, the inherent drama of the game would not be enough, so it added entertainment elements. The halftime entertainment at Super Bowl VIII, "A Musical America," featured the University of Texas band, along with Miss Texas Judy Mallett. In contrast, the entertainers at Super Bowl XXXVIII were P. Diddy, Nelly, Kid Rock, and the controversial pair that ended up giving rise to the phrase “wardrobe malfunction,” Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson. Even ads from America’s biggest companies made the game “must-see TV” for more casual football fans, and the average cost of these 30-second commercials skyrocketed, from $103,500 in 1974 to $2.3 million in 2004.

There is one other major difference in football—certainly not apparent in 1973, and only starting to surface in 2003: the danger that players faced with concussions. The NFL first released the results of a five-year study on mild traumatic brain injuries in October 2003.

It was already too late for several members of the 1974 Super Bowl champions. Kiick, Scott, Buoniconti, Bob Kuechenberg, Bill Stanfill, and Earl Morrall were identified as having C.T.E. (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). 

These cases, as well as so many others from the era when I watched football avidly week to week, have made me reevaluate how I think about the sport and its ultimate game.

In reading Homer’s Odyssey in college, I don’t think that I properly appreciated the traumas experienced by Odysseus and his comrades in arms as they made their way home after the greatest battle of their lives. 

Now, thinking of them in relation to the Dolphins, it all seems far more understandable to me.

After all, who can bear to watch aging warriors as they prove all too mortal far from the site of their greatest victory?

1 comment:

john said...

Mike, only you can draw an analogy between the Dolphins and The Odyssey. Bravo