One of the most annoying annual traditions in the National Football League generally takes place in South Florida some time in October or November and involves a bunch of old men and several bottles of champagne.
No, it’s not an AARP special at the Doll House in Ft. Lauderdale, it’s the fawning media coverage given to members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins when the last undefeated team in the NFL loses its first game of the year.
The 1972 Dolphins are the only undefeated championship team in the modern era of the NFL, capping off a 17-0 season with a win in Super Bowl VII. Each year when the last undefeated team in the NFL falls, members of that team celebrate and get their 15 annual minutes of fame when TV crews cover the “story” of a bunch of old guys drinking champagne. Hooray.
Many think the 9-0 New England Patriots represent the best chance since 1972 for a perfect season. They won their first eight games in decisive fashion, scoring more than 34 points in each contest and outscoring their opponents by an average of more than 26 points a game. They won their ninth game last Sunday with a fourth-quarter comeback on the road against the undefeated defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts.
Perhaps feeling his legacy and his record threatened, Don Shula – the coach of the 1972 Dolphins – made news this week by saying that if New England runs the table, history should mark their accomplishment (which, with a Super Bowl title would be a 19-0 season) with an asterisk because New England head coach Bill Belichick was busted earlier this season violating NFL rules prohibiting teams from videotaping opposing coaches giving signals.
I have but one thing to say to Mr. Shula: “Shut up and go away, Al Bundy.”
Shula and his fellow 1972 Dolphins are guilty of the oldest and saddest failing of former athletes – refusing to leave gracefully. (Note: this does not apply to former Dallas Cowboys, whose oldest and saddest failing is getting caught with 213 pounds of pot in their car).
Did New England’s coach cheat? Yes.
Did he get caught? Yes.
Did he get punished? Yes. (The NFL fined Belichick $500,000 and stripped the Patriots of their first-round pick in the 2008 draft).
Do Belichick’s actions have any impact whatsoever on what his players have been doing each week on the field? Hell no.
All Shula has done with his recent comments is reveal himself to be the saddest sort of sports legends – the kind who won’t let go. Like Al Bundy getting himself through the day by flashing back to his high school glory on the gridiron, Don Shula obviously lives for that day each fall when he gets to wax poetic about his 1972 title and bask in the glow of a few more minutes of sports relevance.
Needless to say, I am rooting for the Patriots to complete a perfect season, if for no other reason than to get Al Bundy and the rest of 1972 Dolphins off my TV for good.
But perhaps Shula’s desperation to stay in the spotlight is understandable. After all, it was the Belichick-led Patriots who broke the 1972-1973 Dolphins’ record of 18 consecutive wins when they won 21 straight games in 2003-2004 and the Dolphins organization Shula once led has become the laughingstock of the NFL.
Miami is currently winless at 0-8, starts some guy named Cleo at quarterback and many of the same experts who think New England has a chance to go undefeated this year believe Miami could make history of their own by losing their last eight games and finishing the year winless.
One of those last eight games will be a trip to Foxboro, Massachusetts to play the New England Patriots. Yes, the same Patriots their legendary former coach ticked off by suggesting the use of a typographical symbol to preserve his own personal place in history. As a result, what was likely going to be a run-of-the-mill 45-3 Patriots rout could well rival the historic 73-0 beating the Chicago Bears put on the Washington Redskins in the 1940 NFL title game. Thanks, Coach!
In addition to a perfect season for New England, I’m also rooting for a perfect season for Miami – 0-16.
The last NFL team to go an entire season without a win was the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Ironically, for my purposes, the closest they came to a win that year was a 23-20 loss to the Don Shula-coached Dolphins). Maybe someone will send a TV crew to film members of that Tampa team popping open the bubbly in celebration if Miami succeeds in supplanting them as the worst team in NFL history. And maybe someone will ask Don Shula to comment – we know he loves seeing himself on TV.
A FINAL WORD ABOUT COACH SHULA: I do wonder how he balances his ownership of a chain of steakhouses (you can see his website here, including a welcome video of footage from a contest to see who could eat a three-pound steak fastest) with his role as a celebrity weight-loss pitchman for Nutrisystem. Even if New England knocks his perfect season out of the record book, he’ll still hold the title for undefeated celebrity dietary hypocrisy, no asterisk needed.
UPDATE – THURSDAY MORNING: Don Shula is evidently a reader of Atomic Trousers. Moments ago, he started the damage control/backtracking on ESPN Radio. Kneel before the power of this blog!