As the New England Patriots inch ever closer to becoming the first team since the 1972 Dolphins to complete a perfect season, many football fans are rooting hard for the Pats to join the Dolphins in perfection. Some of those fans are longtime New England partisans, but a surprisingly large number of them cheer on the Pats for a strange reason: so they will no longer have to hear from or about those cranky, bitter, old men who suited up for Miami back in ’72. Now is it true that the perfect Dolphins are cranky, bitter, bad sports who openly celebrate the losses of others with a champagne celebration, alienating football fans by the dozens with their bad sportsmanship? Not really. The champagne celebrations are a myth promulgated by our ignorant sensationalizing sports media. Snopes busts the myth here.
To boil it down, just two guys, Dick Anderson and Nick Bunoconti, toast each other in a parking lot with champagne after the last undefeated team loses every year. That’s it, only two men, not every surviving member of the team, and I’m pretty sure the little ritual of Dick and Nick isn’t nationally televised. Honestly, I blame ESPN and Chris Berman for blowing that all out of proportion. Each year, when that last undefeated team loses, NFL Primetime/The Blitz shows the highlights, we hear the sound effect of a champagne cork popping, Berman mugs, makes a big show of the whole thing (“What’s that I hear Tommy? The 1972 Dolphins celebrating?”), and congratulates the Fins again for being the only NFL team to accomplish perfection. Now the champagne myth had to predate Berman’s shtick for that tired bit to have ever been generated, but I’m pretty sure the shtick popularized the whole thing in the minds of fans who are convinced this mythical team celebration is both real and in poor taste.
Now, here’s the crux of the problem. The 17-0 mark is a unique record that stands alone among all other records. You know in baseball every single game starts out as a potential no-hitter. Something similar happens with every new football season. Every team’s got a shot at an undefeated season until they lose. So the story of Miami’s record comes up every single year. Nobody really cares all about that much about any team records, a la most points, fewest points allowed, etc., other than winning them all. When Brett Favre breaks another one of Marino’s records, it’s a one-time story (just as Manning breaking Favre’s records one day will be). Nobody cares anymore, nobody will be asking him about it in the future, we all move on. But the 17-0 mark is a completely different animal. After 34 years the 1972 Miami Dolphins still remain the only undefeated team in NFL history. So for 34 years we’ve had sportswriters calling 1972 Dolphins players and coaches to ask those players and coaches what they think about somebody’s chances of going undefeated. And in years where a team appears to actually have a shot at doing it, we get lots and lots of attention paid to those 1972 players and coaches, attention that gets exponentially worse over the years with the rise of sports-talk radio and 24 hour cable sports channels. And who are the players and coaches most likely to be asked for their thoughts? Why, controversial opinionated types like Eugene “Mercury” Morris and cranky high-profile former head coaches like Don Shula. The sports media want to fan the flames of controversy and the likes of Morris and Shula are all too happy to help them.
And what should an undefeated Dolphin answer when asked how he feels about the 2007 New England Patriots? Does any football player want their record tied or beaten? Of course not and if they say they the opposite then they’re lying and we all know it. Honesty does not equal poor sportsmanship. And those old Dolphins really, really do not want anybody to join them in the pantheon of perfection. The greatness of the 1972 Miami Dolphins is inextricably intertwined with that team remaining as the NFL’s only perfect team. When fans and football experts debate who the greatest team of all time is, the arguments get complicated. Points scored, points allowed, margins of victory, strength of schedule, Hall of Fame players, clutch performance--all factors to be considered. But the1972 Miami Dolphins claim to greatness is the simplest argument of all: They won ‘em all. Nobody else can say that. Nobody else ever failed to put forth at least one losing effort. Everyone else cracked under the pressure of trying to win every time out. But not the 1972 Dolphins. Maybe there were other more dominant teams, but alone the 1972 Dolphins succeeded every time they stepped on the football field. Should the 2007 Patriots also go undefeated, the ’72 Miami Dolphins forever lose their unique claim to fame. Understandably, none of them wish that to happen and several of them aren’t shy about letting that be known. And the media constantly sticking microphones in their faces allows us to repeatedly be bombarded with this vital information, negatively coloring the perceptions of those old players.
But you cannot let the words of a few men from an entire football team stand in for the whole. It’s totally unfair. Fine, Dick and Nick celebrate, Shula think the Pats cheat, and Merc is kind of a jerk. That’s hardly the whole story. Former Dolphins tight end Jim Mandich said this recently to the New York Daily News: “You guys put forth the myth that we are pathetic losers down here clicking champagne glasses and clinging desperately to a record set 35 years ago…Somehow we've been portrayed as being evil. We don't ever blow our own horn. It's a great record, but the record doesn't get beaten. The Patriots have assembled a powerhouse of a team. They are a classy bunch of guys and play ball the right way. If they want to join the unbeaten club, come on aboard."
Now get off the Dolphins’ backs already!