GRAND RIVER, Ohio -- The Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins played in the Hall of Fame Game Sunday night, of course, and those two teams used to represent something in the NFL. Well, they still represent something, though it tends to be something like confusion or underachieving or … well, everyone knows about the Cowboys' rise and fall. There’s no escaping the Dallas Cowboys.
And the Dolphins? Well? What? Unless you happen to live south of Palm Beach do you ever even think about the Dolphins? What do they represent?
If you are of a certain age, then these little Dolphins facts will make you feel impossibly old: The Miami Dolphins have not won a Super Bowl in 40 years. Forty. They have not BEEN to a Super Bowl in almost 30. The Dolphins have reached the playoffs just once in the last 11 seasons and have not reached even an AFC Championship Game in more than a quarter century.
To someone who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, these numbers make no sense at all. That’s because if you grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, you grew up when the Miami Dolphins were ALWAYS good. They were as overwhelming and everpresent as disco and Ronald Reagan, Pacman and bellbottoms, gas lines and The Cosby Show, Farrah Fawcett posters and Luke Skywalker.
The Dolphins didn’t always win Super Bowls like the Steelers did or the 49ers did. They did not have a dominant theme like the America’s Team Cowboys or the Bad Boy Raiders. You could not even say those Dolphins had a consistent style. The Steelers slammed you with great defense. The Cowboys came from behind. The 49ers punctured teams with a blizzard of short passes. The Raiders played dirty and threw the deep ball.
The Dolphins? Well, for a long time they won with a plodding running game and a no-name defense. Then for a while there they had a running quarterback and a defense that bent, but did not break. Then they won with the highest flying passing attack the game had ever seen. The Dolphins were, well, whatever they were -- it was different all the time.
No, the Dolphins only enduring theme was this: They … won … every … year.
And it was a man from this little town in Ohio who made it so.
You can still see Don Shula’s childhood house next to Sammy’s Restaurant here on River Street in Grand River, about 25 miles Northeast of Cleveland, right along Lake Erie. His father, Dan was born in Hungary (he changed the family name from Sule -- two dots above the U -- to Shula when before Don was born) and he wanted his son Donald to be a fisherman on Lake Erie. But Don Shula got seasick.
Sammy’s Restaurant used to be a grocery store owned by the Shulas. Don would often talk about the lessons he learned from his family’s grocery store. Lessons like: Work hard; be on time; don’t blame anyone else; words matter little, actions matter a lot. He had a knack of picking up lessons throughout his life that he could easily translate to football. It was a part of his genius.
He wasn’t an especially gifted athlete. But through a series of coincidences and connections, he ended up playing football at John Carroll (he began on a partial scholarship and earned a full one before he was through). He was drafted in the ninth round by Cleveland, where he played for the legendary Paul Brown.
Well, no, he didn’t play much. But he watched. He studied. “Learn from everyone,” Shula would say, “but copy no one.” Shula made enough of an impact on Brown that the old man once said that young Don was “never a comedian.” For as serious a man as Paul Brown to note Shula’s ultra-seriousness might give you an idea of the younger man’s drive. The young Don Shula made an impression. After a year, Brown included Shula in a 15-player trade with Baltimore.
There, Shula developed a reputation for being an outspoken leader. The Colts were terrible every year he was on the team (they did not have their first winning record until Shula went to Washington). But Shula impressed the Colts with his instincts, his sense of the game and, perhaps more than anything else, his intense work ethic. He was the guy shouting plays on the field. He was the guy pushing and prodding teammates. Seven years after he left Baltimore as a player, the Colts hired him to be head coach. He was just 33 years old -- or three years older than quarterback John Unitas.
Shula has often said those early years as Colts coach were learning years -- he was barely older than the players, some of them had been his teammates, he tried to mask his insecurity with bluster. Shula made few friends in those early years. “Here, you do it,” Unitas told him once after an outburst, and he flipped the ball to Shula and walked off.
On the other hand, the Colts were very good under Shula, this after three mediocre seasons before he arrived. In Shula’s second year, the Colts went 12-2 and reached the championship game (where they were upset 27-0 by the Cleveland Browns).
It was like that in Baltimore for Shula -- remarkable teams, year after year, but always there was a disappointing finish. The 1965 team reached the playoffs and were beaten in overtime by Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.
The 1967 team was undefeated going into its last week, but lost to the Rams and, impossibly, missed the playoffs entirely (the Rams and Colts both finished 11-1-2, the Rams had the tiebreaker).
The 1968 Colts were one of the greatest football teams ever -- they went 13-1 and outscored opponents an absurd 402-144 over the season. But you might remember what happened to that team. They lost to Joe Namath and the Jets in Super Bowl III.
After the 1969 season, a series of strange events changed pro football. Shula was still under contract with the Colts, but he sensed that owner Carroll Rosenbloom had grown tired of him and his constant near-misses. Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins -- a sad sack organization that had never won more than five games in its short history -- desperately needed something to turn around the franchise.
Miami owner Joe Robbie blatantly broke league tampering rules and offered Shula a big contract that included a piece of the team. Shula accepted. Rosenbloom raged -- he may not have wanted Shula as coach, but he felt like the Dolphins had made him a fool. The league charged the Dolphins a first round pick, which turned out to be running back Don McCauley.
You could argue the Dolphins got the better of the deal.
So look at who has tried to turn around the Dolphins since Shula retired in 1995. It’s a cavalcade of stars. First, it was the great Jimmy Johnson -- fresh off back-to-back Super Bowl victories with the Cowboys. Johnson was returning to the place where he had led the University of Miami Hurricanes to glory, and it seemed like the partnership could not miss. And it missed. Johnson kind of flailed around for four years, resigning twice (he came back the first time), feuding with Dan Marino, seemingly losing energy by the minute. He finally stepped down and his longtime assistant Dave Wannstedt led the Dolphins to a couple of playoffs before fading out.
The Dolphins then made a big splash by signing up college football’s best coach, Nick Saban. Talk about can’t miss! He missed too. Saban had a mediocre year and then a dreadful one before denying that he would go to coach at Alabama and then going to coach at Alabama. He was replaced by offensive genius Cam Cameron, whose team went 1-15.
The legendary Bill Parcells came in to save the day as the team’s new president, he fired Cameron, brought in Tony Sparano, the Dolphins signed a bunch of young players, got rid of a bunch of old ones, went 11-5 and made the playoffs. This seemed like the old days. Then it all disintegrated. The team flailed, Parcells left. Sparano was fired. The Dolphins started over with the Packers' offensive coordinator Joe Philbin. And that’s where we are.
None of them have been able to come close to replicating what Don Shula did. Well, that’s an impossible standard. Still, it has been a long time since the Dolphins mattered at all. There are some who believe things are about to change for the Dolphins. Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill showed promise last year. The defense, sparked by pass-rushing force Cameron Wake, was seventh in the NFL in points allowed. With the Patriots facing so many questions and the Jets and Buffalo continuing to baffle everyone, this could be the year.
But who knows? When people talk about Shula, they inevitably bring up his undefeated 1972 Dolphins, the no-name defense, his two Super Bowl champions, the way Marino set records under his guidance. But these achievements are just that, achievements, and don’t get to the heart of what Don Shula meant to Miami.
The Dolphins were always good under Shula. That was the point. In 26 seasons, they had two losing records. They made the playoffs 16 times. They reached the Super Bowl five times. Eight Hall of Famers -- Nick Buoniconti, Larry Csonka, Bob Griese, Jim Langer, Larry Little, Dan Marino, Dwight Stephenson and Paul Warfield -- all developed under his coaching.
Bill Curry played for Don Shula and Vince Lombardi, and he said something about Shula that seems contradictory. He said that Shula’s practices were harder than Lombardi’s (“Not even close”) and at the same time they were also more fulfilling and enjoyable than Lombardi’s (“Not even close either.”) Why?
“Because Coach Shula inspired you,” Curry said. He said Shula was a hard man -- players have many stories about getting singled out in practice -- but he was scrupulously fair. Everybody understood their role. Everybody knew the rules. There was a sense that you didn’t have to worry about anything or anybody else; if you did your job, others would do their job, and the Dolphins would win.
There’s an interactive display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame where Csonka is talking about a particular moment when the Dolphins needed to make a play. And Csonka looked around and noticed that every player in the huddle was saying or thinking the same thing: “I’ll make the play.”
That was Don Shula’s coaching at its crest. It didn’t matter if they were built around Bob Greise’s precision passes or Marino whipping the ball downfield, if it was Buoniconti or A.J. Duhe or John Offerdahl stuffing the middle, if it was Larry Csonka bulldozing up the gut or Tony Nathan running and catching passes and blocking the blitzer. This was what made Shula different. Other coaches had a way. A system. A pattern. Lombardi was running the sweep come hell or frozen tundra. Chuck Noll was going to make the game a brawl. Bill Walsh was going going to break you down one X and one O at a time.
But Shula? The players changed, the style changed, the strategies changed. So what? He used to say that there was one football command that trumped all others: Get the job done.