1970 Miami Dolphins: The Shula Era Begins

Pro football came to Miami in 1966 with the creation of the Dolphin franchise. After four losing seasons that were basically predictable, the organization hired Don Shula. Already a successful coach in Baltimore, Shula would make his legend in Miami. And he immediately turned the 1970 Miami Dolphins edition into a playoff team.

The success of the Dolphins in the first part of this decade started with defense. Even though the unit didn’t have any Pro Bowl players in 1970s, coordinator Bill Arnsparger still produced the fifth-stingiest D in the NFL. He did it with four rookies in the lineup. Middle linebacker Nick Buoniconti was the only starter older than 25-years-old. Strong safety Dick Anderson, age 24, led a ball hawking secondary with eight interceptions.

Howard Schnellenberger would become a legend in this town for winning a historic national championship with the University of Miami in 1983. Here in 1970, he was Shula’s offensive coordinator. The offense was built around Pro Bowl players at all the skill positions.

Bob Griese, an eventual Hall of Fame quarterback, completed 58 percent of his passes. While that can look low by our modern standards, in 1970, it was third-best in the league. Griese averaged 8.2 yards-per-attempt, second in the league. He had a fantastic big-play receiver in Paul Warfield, who caught 28 passes at better than 25 yards a pop. Larry Csonka ran for 874 yards in what was then a 14-game season to make the Pro Bowl at fullback.

Moreover, Miami had balance, especially in the running game. Jim Kiick ran for 698 yards. Kiick was also a good receiver out of the backfield. His 42 catches led the team, and an 11.8 yards-per-catch average is high for a running back. Mercury Morris ran for over 400 yards, and averaged nearly seven yards a carry. Howard Twilley was a reliable second wideout and Marv Fleming was steady at tight end.

So why then, did the Dolphins’ attack only rank 11th in a 26-team league for points scored? Turnovers were the problem. Griese’s TD/INT ratio was 12/17 and he was intercepted on 6.9 percent of his passes. In our own era, those numbers would have a quarterback benched by Week 3. And even in 1970, they were pretty bad. Griese ranked 21st among starting QBs in terms of making mistakes.

Miami opened the season on the road against the Boston Patriots (they wouldn’t be called “New England” until 1971). Playing in Harvard Stadium, the Shula era got off to a poor start. Griese was erratic. The Dolphins were outrushed 184-95. They lost 27-14 to a bad team.

Another bad opponent was up next in the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans). Griese played a much tighter game, going 10/17 for 138 yards and a couple touchdowns. Csonka ran for 84 yards, while Kiick added 52. The defense recovered three fumbles and a 20-10 road win evened Miami’s record at 1-1.

The home opener was a Saturday night affair against a good Oakland Raiders team that was a consistent contender in the AFC. And Miami got the big plays going on both sides of the ball. Warfield’s three catches produced 120 yards. The defense intercepted four passes, included two by Curtis Johnson. The Dolphins won 20-13.

Another Saturday night game followed at the New York Jets. A four-point underdog against a poor team, Miami played another good all-around game. Griese went 14/24 for 224 yards and two touchdowns. Warfield stretched the field with five catches for 122 yards. And the D produced three more picks in a 20-6 win.

The Dolphins went on to lowly Buffalo and were in a tough game, taking a 20-14 lead into the third quarter. But Miami was controlling the running game, eventually winning rush yardage 147-53. Griese threw a 43-yard TD pass to Warfield to open the lead up, and the Dolphins pulled away to win 33-14.

Miami was 4-1. They were riding high. They had it going on. No one could have guessed what the next three weeks would bring.

Cleveland, generally a decent team in this era, brought a mediocre 1970 edition into the Orange Bowl. Griese threw three interceptions, including a Pick-6. The Dolphins secondary was carved up by Browns’ QB Bill Nelsen in a bad 28-0 loss.

A road trip to Baltimore was expected to be difficult. The Colts were the class of the AFC East in the new alignment that followed the AFL-NFL merger prior to this 1970 season. In fact, Baltimore would win the Super Bowl this year. Miami would have to be at their best. And they were anything but.

The Dolphin special teams were awful, giving up TDs on both punt and kickoff return. Griese, along with backup John Stofa threw three interceptions. They were penalized for 117 yards. Even though Miami outrushed Baltimore 201-82, this still ended up a 35-0 debacle.

A home game with the lowly Philadelphia Eagles was the ideal antidote to this bad stretch of play. So it seemed. Instead, Griese and Stofa threw four more picks. Miami was down 24-0 after three quarters. This completed an 11-quarter stretch were the Dolphins were outscored 87-zip. At last, in the fourth quarter, Stofa tossed a couple TD passes and the final score ended up 24-17. But Miami was 4-4 and reeling.

With six games left, and a playoff format that allowed for just one wild-card, there are a lot of seasons in this era where Miami would have been done. But the AFC was top-heavy and there was a lot of mediocrity surrounding that final playoff berth. The only question was whether the Dolphins could get it going on again.

Miami hosted a bad New Orleans Saints team in mid-November. Dolphin defensive back Lloyd Mumphord opened the scoring with a 32-yard Pick-6. Griese played his best game of the year, going 15/19 for 225 yards and no mistakes. Kiick ran for 82 yards, while Csonka powered for 67. A comfortable 21-10 win got the Fish back on track.

It was time for a rematch with Baltimore. After spotting the Colts a field goal, rookie Jake Scott returned a punt 77 yards to the house. Griese ran for one touchdown, then threw a 27-yard scoring pass to Warfield. The Dolphins were up 21-3 and coasted home 34-17.

This new era of the NFL had also introduced this innovation called Monday Night Football. Miami made its first appearance on the novel show in Atlanta. Against a mediocre opponent, the Dolphin ground game muscled up. A 218-111 edge in rush yardage was keyed by Csonka’s 108 yards on 19 carries. Miami won 20-7.

That was followed up by a dismantling of the Patriots. Morris opened the home game with Boston by returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Then Mumphord scooped up a blocked field goal and took it home. Csonka had another 100-yards-plus outing in the 37-20 win.

At 8-4, the Dolphins were rolling. The wild-card would come down to Miami and the runner-up in the Oakland/Kansas City fight in the AFC West. The Raiders and Chiefs were both 7-3-2 (ties were much more common, with overtime not existing until 1974). That boils down to the same winning percentage, since you assume a tie is a half-win and a half-loss for such purposes. The Raiders and Chiefs were about to play head-to-head, so if Miami could keep winning, they would grab the wild-card.

Miami hosted the New York Jets on a rainy late afternoon. The weather made the game sluggish, and it was tied 10-10 after three quarters. But the Dolphins pieced together a couple drives, both ending with Garo Yepremian field goals. They won 16-10.

Kansas City lost in Oakland, which worked against Miami. The Dolphins would have had the tiebreaker against the Raiders because of their Week 3 win, meaning the playoff spot would have been clinched. But the Chiefs, with a superior conference record, had the tiebreaker against Miami. That meant the Dolphins still needed to win the finale to seal the deal.

That wouldn’t be a problem. They were playing well. Buffalo was doing anything but. Kiick and Csonka both ran for early touchdowns. Griese threw a 21-yard TD pass to Twilley. The score was 21-0 at the end of the first quarter and the afternoon could be one long party for the fans. The final was 45-7.

Miami fans had reason to be hopeful going into the AFC playoffs. They had the conference’s second-best record behind Baltimore. They had beaten the Colts head-to-head. They had also beaten the Raiders head-to-head. But could this young team go west and win at Oakland in the postseason?

Oddsmakers were skeptical and slotted the Raiders a six-point favorite in the divisional round, a spread that well exceeds the advantage that might be given simply based on home field. Miami played Oakland evenly, but were on the wrong side of a couple big plays. In a 7-7 game in the third quarter, Griese threw a Pick-6. Shortly after, the young secondary gave up an 82-yard TD pass. Those plays were the difference in a 21-14 loss.

If you wanted to look at this game and feel like it was just the mistakes of youth in a pressure situation, that would be reasonable. The good news is this—now, the Dolphins had playoff experience. And they would make the most of it. In 1971, they reached the Super Bowl. In 1972, they won it all with the only undefeated season of the Super Bowl era. In 1973, they won a repeat title. 1970 was the start of some great things in Miami.