Fins at 50: Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula reflects on ‘perfection’
Bob Kuechenberg, an All-Pro guard on the Dolphins’ Super Bowl offensive lines of the 1970s, died Saturday night at the age of 71, the team announced Sunday.
Kuechenberg came out of Northern Indiana -- born in the Chicagoland city of Gary, played at Hobart High School, then at Notre Dame. He signed with the Dolphins as a free agent in 1970, the year Don Shula took the head coaching job, after being a Philadelphia third round pick in 1969 and quitting to play semi-pro football for a season. He quickly became a key piece of one of the great offensive lines in NFL history, as the Dolphins powerful running game led the team to three consecutive Super Bowls and two Super Bowl wins in Shula’s first four seasons.
Over a 15-season career, Kuechenberg started in the franchise’s first four Super Bowls, made the Pro Bowl six times and was first or second team All-Pro three times.
In a statement released by the Dolphins Sunday morning, Shula called Kuechenberg, “not only one of the best players I coached, but one of the toughest as well” and noted “Kooch” got called for holding only 15 times in 14 seasons of playing. (Kuechenberg’s final season was spent on injured reserve.)
Shula also reiterated a call for Kuechenberg to be honored with the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction denied Kuechenberg for the 29 years of his eligibility.
The 1970s Dolphins offensive line was the first to the first to block for two 1,000-yard rushers in a single season (Mercury Morris and Larry Csonka on the 17-0 1972 Dolphins Super Bowl champions). The following season, the line so completely dominated in the 1973 playoffs, the Dolphins threw only 13 passes combined while winning the AFC Championship and Super Bowl, each by 17 points.
Kuechenberg’s death came one day short of the 45th anniversary of what’s arguably the greatest performance by an offensive line in a Super Bowl. Exactly 45 years before Sunday, the Dolphins mauled the Minnesota Vikings 24-7 in Super Bowl VIII with an overwhelming rushing performance that required quarterback Bob Griese to throw only seven passes all day.
Despite playing with a broken arm, Kuechenberg owned Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page, then considered one of the NFL’s top two defensive tackles along with Pittsburgh’s “Mean Joe” Greene. Fullback Larry Csonka trucked the Vikings for 145 yards. The Dolphins took a 14-0 lead after two possessions and rumbled home.
In a nod to the Dolphins’ offensive line’s performance, NFL Films official Super Bowl VIII highlight film actually focused on the line’s blocking schemes.
Langer said, “Bob was my roommate for 10 years. He was like a brother,” center Jim Langer said. “You always hear about what kind of man you want to have next to you in the foxhole and it was Kooch. (Offensive line coach) Monte [Clark], Larry Little, the whole offensive line, we were pretty intense guys. There was no one more intense on what that team was about than Kooch.”
From that line, Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors picked Little and Langer for induction while repeatedly rejecting Kuechenberg at either the finalist or semifinalist level. That became a source of humor for some journalists, grumpiness from Kuechenberg and disgust from some former teammates and opponents.
“Kooch, along with Larry Little and Jim Langer, were the three biggest reasons for my development and many others as better players,” said Dolphins nose tackle Bob Baumhower. “They were absolutely the best interior offensive line in the NFL. Kooch was a tough, talented and smart leader playing offensive guard. After practicing against Kooch everyday, playing in the games was a picnic.”
When longtime pro football writer Paul Zimmerman talked to several coaches and players for a 1981 Sports Illustrated story on still-active New England Patriots’ guard John Hannah possibly being the best offensive lineman ever, he reached out to Shula:
“Don Shula, who coached (1950s Colts Hall of Famer Jim) Parker for five years and has coached against Hannah for eight, gives Parker a slight edge, but then he whispers, “Don’t forget about our own guy, Bob Kuechenberg.””