MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Dick LeBeau has seen plenty in his football life. He spent six decades in the NFL as a player and coach. Made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Helped the Pittsburgh Steelers win two Super Bowls as a defensive coordinator.
And he helped beat the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Yes, those perfect, unbeaten Dolphins. They lost. Three times. All in the preseason, including the exhibition opener to the Detroit Lions — 31-23, a game where LeBeau jumped in front of a pass intended for Miami tight end Jim Mandich and made a one-handed interception in the final moments to seal the victory.
That’s right. The team finished 17-0 but technically started 0-1.
“I do remember several things about that season,” said LeBeau, who confessed he didn’t recall much about the preseason opener from that year, which was his last in the NFL as a player. “And I know what the Dolphins did, not only has it never been done since, it will never be done again.”
Teams played six preseason games back then. The Dolphins lost to Detroit, then to Green Bay 14-13 the following week to go to 0-2, plus lost their Week 5 preseason game 27-24 to Washington — the team that Miami would wind up beating in the Super Bowl to cap off the perfect season.
So, Miami went 3-3 in the exhibitions. And then never lost again.
There were some close regular-season calls — the Dolphins needed to rally with 10 fourth-quarter points to beat Minnesota 16-14 in Week 3; eked out a 24-23 home win over Buffalo in Week 6; got a 14-yard touchdown run from Mercury Morris in the fourth quarter of Week 10’s 28-24 win over the New York Jets; and an 8-yard run from Jim Kiick in the fourth carried Miami over Cleveland 20-14 in the divisional playoff.
But they never lost a game. Not one that mattered, anyway.
“It has become a fun thing to drop,” said Scott Hunter, who played quarterback for Green Bay that season and helped the Packers win that preseason matchup. “You know, it’s kind of a tricky question. You get around a bunch of football fans, and they start talking about that period and that season and so forth. And you say, ‘OK, who beat the Miami Dolphins in ‘72?’ That gets everybody scratching their head.”
Without fail, Hunter — now a financial planner and the host of an Alabama radio program called “Talkin’ Football” — gets told that the Dolphins went unbeaten.
“Not necessarily,” he replies.
Hunter completed only three passes in that game, but two went for touchdowns to Dave Davis — one for 79 yards to open the scoring, one for 10 yards to put the Packers up 14-0. But they needed some heroics at the end to finish off the win, and Green Bay rookie cornerback Willie Buchanon tackled Dolphins holder Karl Noonan with 55 seconds left to ensure the potential tying extra-point attempt after a botched snap never got attempted.
Buchanon remembers that play. He also remembers how seriously the sides took the game; Dolphins running back Larry Csonka, he recalled, ran through Green Bay safety Al Matthews with such force that Matthews didn’t know where he was for a moment.
“Players now would think it’s ridiculous but we played six games and it was pretty tough, or brutal,” said Buchanon, who now works in real estate and is a uniform inspector for the NFL on game days. “It was hard to see quarterbacks, wide receivers and all that stuff sitting out in preseason games. Nah. That happens nowadays. It didn’t happen in those days.”
LeBeau, Hunter and Buchanon all share in this belief: The Dolphins will be the last perfect team.
None of them can envision another team going through what now is a 17-game regular season, then the playoffs, and emerging unscathed.
“It’s about that mystique of not letting a team go undefeated anymore,” Buchanon said. “Every team will be gunning for you when you’re undefeated, and any team can beat any team now on any given Sunday. It’s a pride thing. Definitely a pride thing.”
Added LeBeau: “You know, with free agency and the way people move around now, I don’t know if anybody’s going to build a team that can be pretty damn tough to beat and be world champions and never lose a game. I don’t think it’ll ever be done if it hadn’t been done by now.”
LeBeau has deep affinity for Shula, for good reason. LeBeau was in his second season with the Lions when they gave Shula his first NFL job in 1960, then as a defensive backfield coach. LeBeau had the first four of his 62 career interceptions that season, taking his first steps along the path to the Hall of Fame.
That interception against the Dolphins in 1972 isn’t in that total. Preseason games might have been taken a bit more seriously back then, but LeBeau — now retired and focusing on his golf game — also insists that winning an exhibition wasn’t a big deal, either.
The unbeaten Dolphins, he said, were indeed unbeaten.
“I don’t know if there’s a word ‘overcelebrate,’” LeBeau said. “But I don’t think you can overcelebrate that team and what they got done. It was totally remarkable.”
To use another word, perfect.