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NFL morning after: The ’72 Dolphins deserve to celebrate

<> on August 20, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Alex Wong

If the 1972 Dolphins celebrated yesterday following the Panthers’ loss to the Falcons, I say good for them.

Members of the ’72 Dolphins contend that their celebrations have been overstated, and they don’t really get together for champagne every year when the NFL’s last remaining undefeated team loses. But what we saw yesterday when the Panthers fell from 14-0 to 14-1 with a loss to the Falcons is a good reminder of just how special a team the ’72 Dolphins were.

It’s really, really hard to finish an NFL season undefeated. The Panthers looked like they were the team with the best chance to do it since the Patriots came thisclose in 2007, but yesterday they simply had an off day while the Falcons had a good day, and Atlanta won 20-13. That’s the thing about life in the NFL: You’re going to have some off days, and your opponents are going to have good days. The gap between a very good team like Carolina and a mediocre team like Atlanta is really not that great, which means that if you’re not playing your best every single week, you’re going to lose at some point.

Unless you’re the ’72 Dolphins.

The ’72 Dolphins weren’t the only undefeated, untied champions in the history of the NFL because they never had a day like the Panthers had yesterday. The ’72 Dolphins were the only undefeated, untied champions in the history of the NFL because even when they had bad games like the Panthers had yesterday, they found a way to win. They were an incredible football team that always found a way to win. In Week 3 of the 1972 season, the Dolphins trailed 14-6 in the fourth quarter at Minnesota. They won 16-14. In Week 6, the Dolphins trailed the Bills 13-7 at halftime. They won 24-23. In Week 10, the Dolphins trailed the Jets 24-21 in the fourth quarter. They won 28-24. In the playoffs, the Dolphins trailed the Browns 14-13 in the fourth quarter. They won 20-14.

You can argue that the ’72 Dolphins weren’t the best team in NFL history precisely because they were involved in a lot of close games. The ’72 Dolphins weren’t a dominant team like the ’85 Bears, a wrecking crew that crushed the opposition, but the ’72 Dolphins were the only team in NFL history that found a way to win, every single week.

That’s a special thing, and a hard thing to do, as the Panthers found out yesterday. If the ’72 Dolphins want to celebrate their status as a unique team in the history of football, let them celebrate.

Here are my other thoughts from Sunday:

Johnny Football can run, but can he play quarterback? Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel had 108 rushing yards yesterday, the second-highest total for a quarterback in the NFL so far this year. But we’ve always known Manziel is a good athlete. The question is whether he’s a good quarterback, and that question remains unanswered. Manziel completed just 13 of 32 passes for 136 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception. That’s just not good enough. I like Manziel because he’s an exciting player to watch, but I’m just not convinced he has what it takes to be an NFL passer.

The rest of the season just got a lot more interesting. I thought heading into yesterday that we might be in store for a boring end of the season, but the results of yesterday changed all that: The Patriots lost, which means they don’t have home-field advantage wrapped up yet. The Jets won and the Steelers lost, which makes the AFC wild card race more competitive. The Chiefs won, which means the Broncos don’t have the AFC West wrapped up yet. We’ve got a good game tonight when the Broncos play the Bengals, and we’re in for a good Week 17.

Brandon Marshall has had a heck of a career. Marshall helped the Jets beat the Patriots yesterday and in the process recorded the sixth 100-catch season of his career. He’s the only player in NFL history with six 100-catch seasons, and he’s done it for three different teams, the Jets, Bears and Broncos. No one else has even had 100 catches with two different teams. Marshall has also had a 1,200-yard season with four different teams and is the only player to do so; only Terrell Owens has even managed 1,200 yards with three different teams. Marshall hasn’t always been the best presence in the locker room (which is why he’s been on so many different teams) but from all indications he’s been a good teammate as a Jet. He’s a special player.

Two big trades for the Jets. The Jets traded a fifth-round pick for Marshall and a sixth-round pick for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick this offseason, and those two have been arguably the two most important players on a Jets team that’s now one win from the playoffs. It’s remarkable how much the Jets improved themselves by trading two late-round picks.

We should have a measured conversation about human growth hormone. Peyton Manning is strongly denying a report that he took HGH, which is banned by the NFL. If he’s telling the truth, it’s terrible that his reputation is being smeared. If he’s lying, it’s going to catch up to him eventually, as lies about PEDs caught up to Lance Armstrong, Mark McGwire, and hundreds of other PED cheats in sports history. But I wish we could have a discussion about HGH that isn’t about Manning so much as it’s about what HGH does and whether it should be banned. There’s very little evidence that HGH actually enhances performance for a quarterback like Manning: Researchers studying the effects of HGH say the only athletes it seemed to help were sprinters, and if there’s one thing we can say about Manning over the last few years it’s that he doesn’t seem to have done anything that boosted his speed. Some people think HGH can help an athlete recover from an injury, but if that’s what it does, why should it be banned? We don’t ban vitamin supplements or cortisone shots.

The Lions can no longer justify Calvin Johnson’s salary. Johnson had 77 yards for the Lions in yesterday’s win over the 49ers, which is one of his best recent games. But that’s just the problem: Johnson has reached a point in his career where 77 yards is one of his best games. And yet at $20.6 million, Johnson’s cap hit is by far the biggest for any wide receiver in the NFL. That cap hit rises to more than $24 million next year, and there’s simply no way to justify paying a declining player anything close to that kind of money. There’s no way any other team would trade for a contract like Johnson’s, so unless Johnson is willing to take a massive pay cut next year, the Lions are going to have to cut him in the offseason. It sounds crazy to say Detroit would cut the great Megatron, but that’s life in the NFL.

Cam Newton runs like no other quarterback, ever. Newton scored the 41st rushing touchdown of his career yesterday, taking him one step closer to the NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. The current record of 43, by Steve Young, will surely fall to Newton, likely some time early next season. This despite the fact that Newton has only played 77 games in his career, while Young played 169 games. Newton is a unique player in NFL history, even though he’s disappointed today that his team failed to accomplish something unique in NFL history.