Armando Salguero

Fins at 50: Redemption was at the root of the Miami Dolphins’ perfect moment

Don Shula is carried off the field after the Dolphins won Super Bowl 7 on Jan. 14, 1973. The 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins is the culmination of their perfect 17-0 season.
Don Shula is carried off the field after the Dolphins won Super Bowl 7 on Jan. 14, 1973. The 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins is the culmination of their perfect 17-0 season. AP file

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Don Shula is taking a triumphant ride from his sideline to the middle of the Los Angeles Coliseum field atop his players’ shoulders. The scoreboard is wildly flashing “The Dolphins are Super” and “World Champion Dolphins.”

The Miami Dolphins have defeated the Washington Redskins 14-7 to win Super Bowl 7.

They are the world champions.

They are the undefeated world champions.

They have completed a perfect season.

And, yes, this is it. This sunny Sunday ball game on January 14, 1973, and all it means, all it represents, is the most memorable moment in the franchise’s 50-year history.

So what are the players thinking?

What is that locker room like after this feat?

Is everyone celebrating winning a game ... or a championship ... or perfection?

“The thing I thought about was redemption,” Manny Fernandez said of that fateful game. “I wasn’t thinking about anything except we got a big monkey off our backs. We had lost in the Super Bowl the year before and all and we did that year was work to get back to the Super Bowl to get the bad taste of Super Bowl 6 out of our mouths.

“That’s what was so important about it to me. We redeemed ourselves.”

Obviously, that is not how history paints Super Bowl 7. It wasn’t supposed to be about redemption or revenge for a previous super failure. It was supposed to be about a chase for a championship and a reach at an undefeated and untied 17-0 record.

But that simply wasn’t what got the 1972 Dolphins to that game. It wasn’t their motivation. It wasn’t their driving force.

“One of the interesting parts of the perfect season was that no one when we won the Super Bowl no one cared or thought about it,” Dick Anderson said. “The best word I can say describes how we felt is relief. We got it done. Everybody was certainly pleased and happy that we accomplished what we set out to do. But we were also happy we didn’t have to think about the year before anymore.”

Some present-day motivational experts or psychologists would argue positive reinforcement is the only way to get move a group of men to accomplish a great feat. Those experts probably never met Don Shula.

He used fear in 1972. He conjured ghosts from the dark recesses of his players’ minds and used them to drive a team. He used a bitter failure to move his men to a great success.

“From Day One that season Shula reminded us how we lost the Super Bowl the year before,” Anderson says.

Anderson is not kidding. It was a Day One exercise.

“We came in the first day of camp in ’72, Shula was real nice and he’s, ‘Hey, how you doing? You guys all right? OK, we’re going to sit down and watch this film.’ So we sit down and the first thing we see is us getting our [butts] kicked in Super Bowl 6.’

“So he turns off the projector at the end of it and he goes, ‘You see how sick you feel now? You see how sick and sorry you feel now? Well, just think how sick and sorry you’ll continue to feel if you don’t go back and redeem yourselves for what you did last year.’

“Then he says, ‘I forgot to tell you, it was as much my fault as yours.’ So we had this meeting that we were going to make this climb together so we could get back to that one game.”

The perfect season and all the mythology that surrounds it was, it seems, just a passenger on a rolling locomotive bound for redemption.

“We just happened to go unbeaten,” running back Mercury Morris said. “For us it was about the efficiency of how we got there. We were No. 1 in offense, No. 1 in defense, No. 1 in special teams, fewest giveaways, most takeaways, least penalized, scored the most points, gave up the least points, ran seven out of ten times in a league that ran three out of every five and we broke the rushing record that year. And when we had the games wrapped up, we never padded the score because our goal was simply to win.

“We lost our starting quarterback for 11 weeks and the guy who replaced him was throwing touchdown passes back in 1957 when I was 10. So we used all that because we had a report card marked with an F from the previous year. And we used it to get redemption.”

So that was the motivation that day. That was the intangible driver that day.

The tangible?

Fernandez playing better than perhaps any defensive tackle had played a game before.

“Washington coach George Allen made the mistake of believing [Redskins center] Lenny Hauss could block Manny one-on-one,” Anderson says. “Manny was strong as a horse and just threw Lenny around the entire day.”

Jake Scott intercepting two passes — including one in the end zone, which he returned 55 yards to the Washington 48-yard line.

“That’s the kind of guy Jake is,” Shula said afterward. “A lot of guys wouldn’t have tried to run it out because they’d be afraid to fumble.”

Scott was voted MVP by Sport Magazine’s Dick Schaap, who later admitted he missed much of Fernandez’s work and wasn’t aware the defensive tackle had 17 tackles. Scott got a truck for winning the MVP.

“We used to tell Jake that Manny should get your truck,” Anderson says. “We’d tell Manny that Jake’s driving your truck. Look, if Manny doesn’t put pressure on them, Jake doesn’t make interceptions.”

Nick Bouniconti also had an interception.

Miami quarterback Bob Griese was 6 for 6 passing in the first half, including a 28-yard TD pass to Howard Twilley.

And, of course, this moment was about living, and surviving, the blocked field goal and ensuing Mike Bass touchdown when Miami kicker Garo Yepremian picked up a loose football and tried a, well, what was supposed to be a pass.

“Garo’s Gaffe,” the moment was dubbed in the press.

“I guess I thought I was a quarterback,” Yepremian said after the game.

“I remember standing on the sideline with about six or seven minutes left to play and we’re lining up for that field goal,” Fernandez said. “I’m thinking, ‘This is perfect. It’s going to be 17-0 and we’re going to have a 17-0 season.”

It didn’t quite work out that way. But it did work out in the end.

Rarely a day goes by when some member of that Super Bowl team, that championship team, that perfect team, isn’t asked about what it still means today.

“For me that day is right up there with the birth of my two children, my marriage and the day I made the team my rookie year,” Fernandez said. “Those five things are the most important days, the most memorable days of my life.”

“Well,” Morris added, “It gave me bragging rights forever.”

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