The perfect, undefeated Dolphins of ’72 knew what it felt like to be a loser

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) – Dick LeBeau has seen a lot in his football life. He spent six decades in the NFL as a player and coach. Entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Helped Pittsburgh Steelers win two Super Bowls as defensive coordinator.

And he helped beat the Miami Dolphins in 1972.

Yes, those perfect, undefeated Dolphins. They lost. Three times. All in the preseason, including the exhibition opener to the Detroit Lions — 31-23, a game in which 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 win.

That’s right. The team finished 17-0, but technically started 0-1.

“I remember a few things about that season,” said LeBeau, who admitted he doesn’t remember much about the preseason opener 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’s never been done again.”

The teams then played six preparatory games. The Dolphins lost to Detroit, then to Green Bay 14-13 the following week to go 0-2, plus they lost their preseason game in Week 5 27-24 to Washington – the team Miami would eventually beat in the Super Bowl for a game outside of a perfect season.

So, Miami was 3-3 in exhibitions. And then never lost again.

There have been several close upsets in the regular season — the Dolphins had to rally from a 10-point fourth quarter to beat Minnesota 16-14 in Week 3; had a 24-23 home win over Buffalo in Week 6; caught 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 by Jim Kiick in the fourth put Miami over Cleveland 20-14 in the divisional playoffs.

But they never lost a game. Anyway, it didn’t matter.

“It became fun to throw away,” said Scott Hunter, who played quarterback for Green Bay that season and helped the Packers win that preseason game. “You know, that’s kind of a tricky question. You walk past a crowd of football fans, and they start talking about that period and that season and so on. And you say, ‘OK, who beat the Miami Dolphins in ’72?’ That leaves everyone scratching their heads.”

Without fail, Hunter — now a financial planner and host of an Alabama radio show called “Talkin’ Football” — learned that the Dolphins remained undefeated.

“Not necessarily,” he replies.

Hunter completed just 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 close out the victory, and Green Bay rookie Willie Buchanon went against Dolphins punter Karl Noonan with 55 seconds left to set up a potential game-tying extra-point attempt on a botched punt that was never 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.

“The players would think it’s funny now, 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 tough to see quarterbacks, wide receivers and all that stuff sitting in preseason games. Nah. This is still happening today. That didn’t happen in those days.”

LeBeau, Hunter and Buchanon all share this belief: The Dolphins will be the last perfect team.

None of them can imagine the other team making it through the current 17-game regular season, then the playoffs and coming out unscathed.

“It’s about that mystique of not letting the team go undefeated anymore,” Buchanon said. “Any team will be gunning for you when you’re undefeated and any team can beat any team now on any Sunday. It is a matter of pride. Definitely something to be proud of.”

Added LeBeau: “You know, with free agency and the way people are moving now, I don’t know if anybody is going to build a team that can be damn hard to beat and be world champions and never lose a game. I don’t think it will ever be done if it hasn’t been done by now.”

LeBeau has a deep affinity for Shula, and for good reason. LeBeau was in his second season with the Lions when Shula was given his first NFL job in 1960, then as defensive backs coach. LeBeau had the first four of his 62 career interceptions that season, taking his first steps on the road to the Hall of Fame.

That interception against the Dolphins in 1972 is not in that total. Preseason games may have been taken a little more seriously back then, but LeBeau — now retired and focused on his golf game — also insists that an exhibition win wasn’t a big deal either.

The undefeated Dolphins, he said, really were undefeated.

“I don’t know if there’s a word for ‘exaggerate,’” LeBeau said. “But I don’t think you can overestimate that team and what they did. It was absolutely extraordinary.”

To use another word, perfect.


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