Ghosts of 1972 still haunt Miami Dolphins

The youngest are on Social Security. Many have turned 70. Others have passed away. The patriarch, Don Shula, is 82 now and doesn’t get around so well anymore.

The Perfectos are old men or getting there fast.

The best days of the Miami Dolphins are decades’ distant, feeling like yellowed photographs frozen in a dusty family album. When this franchise looks in the mirror it sees lined faces — gray ghosts — and another reminder came Wednesday.

No beleaguered Dolfan needs or wants reminding, of course, but this team keeps reminding its fans anyway.

How good it used to be.

And how it isn’t anymore.

The Dolphins gathered several members of Miami’s Perfect Season team at the club’s Davie headquarters Wednesday to reveal plans for a 40th anniversary celebration of the unblemished, still unmatched 17-0 Super Bowl championship of iconic 1972.

There were Bob Griese, Mercury Morris, Dick Anderson, Larry Little, Jim Kiick and others — all of them still perfect, as the commemorative hats will accurately, if immodestly, declare. The Dolphins have commissioned a documentary film about that team and season. A week’s events will culminate with an official recognition during the Dec.16 home game.

Can a celebration be both stirring and sad? This one might qualify.

What happened 40 years ago is worthy of perpetual respect and appreciation, sure. Don’t get me wrong on that. A celebration of some sort at five-year intervals is fitting, and surely none of what feels sad about this is the fault of the Perfectos. It’s just that praying to the deities Perfection and Past is bittersweet. No NFL franchise celebrates its past like this one, partly because it is worth celebrating — but dare I say mostly because nothing else has come along here to put the past in its place.

I asked Anderson after Wednesday’s event how tough it must be for these Dolphins to live in the 40-year shadow of Perfection.

“I would hope it might motivate them a little,” he said.

This is the burden of this franchise’s caretakers who have fallen short over the four decades since the halcyon days that we continue to desperately resuscitate.

This is a delicate balance for the club. It is proper and fine to worship past accomplishments to a point, but in this case that worship only underlines and magnifies how the club’s positive timeline has withered to a halt.

What would you think if you stopped for a bite to eat today and a certificate on the wall boasted of the place being named Best Restaurant of 1972? What-have-you-done-for-us-lately comes to mind.

Dolfans wait for new championships and new legends to make fresh memories, but instead we get the aging army of 1972, ever thinner, still marching stalwartly, carrying our flag because there is no one else.

We await a new grand marshal in a new parade, but the role is still cast to Shula, who serves it nobly, but for how much longer?

Heck, even the more recent franchise icon, Dan Marino, is 50 now, a spokesman for AARP no less! Next spring will mark the 30th anniversary of his being drafted. (Wonder if the Dolphins will celebrate that, too, and remind fans the club has not drafted anybody as good since.)

This is the broad challenge for the current regime, as the 2012 Dolphins prepare to play their first exhibition game Friday night here. These latter-day Dolphins are not just fighting opponents. They’re fighting ghosts. A big, bold sign in the team’s locker room today declares, ‘CHAMPIONS PRACTICE HERE.’

No. Used to. Not anymore. Not for a long, long time. That sign is as well meaning but as inadvertently mocking as when they still play that corny, old fight song that boasts, “… when you say Miami, you’re talkin’ Super Bowl!”

Owner Stephen Ross, general manager Jeff Ireland, new coach Joe Philbin and (hopefully soon) rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill must create a new product that wins big again and thrills fans again even as those same justifiably impatient fans look at their metaphorical watches and think, “Tick tock.” Oh, and as the ’72 Dolphins, many of them still in town, all but literally look over their shoulders, ever watching, ever judging.

Miami must find a way to overcome the stubborn division obstacle of the mighty Patriots while also overcoming its own smothering franchise history personified by the omnipresent (and occasionally preening) Perfectos.

And today’s Dolphins, whose best player is a tackle (Jake Long), must find a way to do that despite being largely bereft of star power pending the eventual hoped-for rise of Tannehill.

You see that starlessness reflected as fantasy-football projections begin to trickle out. ESPN, for example, lists running back Reggie Bush 51st overall on its fantasy list — and no other Dolphin in its top 110.

This is the problem for HBO Sports in its Hard Knocks training camp reality series focusing on Miami this year (after several others teams declined). A club that has not won a playoff game in more than a decade and is largely faceless is not your ideal subject for a national spotlight, as Tuesday’s debut episode made glaring.

Bush and colorful receiver Chad Johnson (nee Ochocinco) are the only Dolphins even close to star-caliber nationally, though not quite there. Philbin, mild of demeanor and visually accountant-like in the fashion of former Hurricanes coach Larry Coker, hardly commands a camera. Tannehill might be a guy to focus on, but it’s tough for HBO to hang its hat on a player presently No.3 on the depth chart.

Meanwhile, new betting odds out Wednesday show the Dolphins as 75-1 long shots to win the Super Bowl, tied for 26th among the 32 teams. Somehow worse, Miami is perceived fourth and last in the AFC East now, behind the reigning Patriots and the Jets but also now usurped by the once-lowly Bills.

So one franchise’s imperative to create an exciting new present struggles to inch forward while that same club’s distant past continues its merry, eternal parade. Hey, if the Dolphins’ renaissance doesn’t happen this season, well, there’s always next year. Which happens to be the 41st anniversary of the Perfect Season, by the way.

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