by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

They can go ahead and book a moonlight cruise around Biscayne Bay and get ready for the annual popping of the champagne corks.

The 1972 Dolphins’ record of perfection is safe for another year.

By now, we all know the drill in south Florida. The remaining members of Don Shula’s 17-0 Miami team from 38 years ago always plan a get-together at some point each fall when the last NFL unbeaten falls by the wayside. Often in recent years, however, that wait has extended into the later stages of the season. Even as far as the playoffs and Super Bowl, as was the case three years ago with the 2007 Patriots. Eventually, however, Manny Fernandez, Bob Kuechenberg and the rest of the gang got together to pop the champagne that year, just as they have every season since 1972.

(Just how great the ‘72 Dolphins were remains an never-ending debate among NFL aficionados, many of whom, us included, actually believing the following 1973 Miami team could have been even better. Arguing the merits of those Shula Dolphins vs. other title winners will never come to a satisfactory conclusion...which is one of the reasons it remains an evergreen topic among old-time football folk. For the fun of it, and down the road just a bit, we’ll be discussing the merits of those ‘72 Dolphins vs. some of the other great teams from the modern era.)

This year, however, the ‘72 Dolphins didn’t have to wait as long to pop the corks. No team stayed spotless after four games; that the Kansas City Chiefs (?) were the last remaining unbeaten has to rate as one of the shocks of the still-evolving 2010 campaign. Indeed, when asking Las Vegas M Hotel sports book director Mike Colbert last week about what sort of odds he would have posted for the Chiefs to be the last unbeaten team of 2010, he had a quick response. “None, I wouldn’t have even posted it,” said Colbert.

The national sports media, however, has been making a deal the past week about this being the first season since 1970 when we didn’t have any team get as far as 4-0. As if it is something of a shameful development that no “super” teams are going to emerge this campaign.

But if we are about to embark upon a season like 1970, the fun has just begun.

In all of our years following and covering pro football, we’re hard pressed to find a season that intrigued like 1970. The fact there are no teams from that year mentioned among the all-time greats should not be held against the first post-merger campaign from forty years ago. Indeed, it was among the best seasons we can ever recall, perhaps due in part to the fact we didn’t have to endure any excessive hype about a team threatening an undefeated season past the fourth week, when the last unbeatens, Detroit, George Allen’s L.A. Rams, and Lou Saban’s surprising Denver Broncos were the only remaining 3-0 teams. And when all succumbed in Week Four, the fun and excitement only accelerated.

Of course, 1970 was full of intrigue because it was also the first post-merger season. Football fans whose appetite for interleague play in the late ‘60s had been whetted by a few Super Bowls and some preseason competition now had their long-awaited wish of a merged super league, which was especially exciting to fans of the 10 AFL teams. The “new” NFL had finally amalgamated those ten AFL franchises into one big, happy family. Prior to the previous 1969 season, it was determined that the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Baltimore Colts would jump from the old NFL, to be known as the NFC (National Football Conference) from 1970 onward, to join the ten AFL teams in what would be known as the AFC (American Football Conference) from 1970 forward.

That the Colts and Browns, two NFL powers who had met in the ’68 NFL title game just a few months earlier, would make the jump caught a lot of football fans by surprise. Especially since the Colts were a prized NFL commodity in those days, even though they had just been upset by Joe Namath’s Jets in the Super Bowl. The Colts and Browns, however, had not been charter members of the NFL, instead joining it in 1950 after jumping from the old All-American Football Conference, so their historic roots were not as deep in the league as were some other teams. As for the Steelers, 1969 was before they became “THE Steelers” in the 1970s, and before they had ever won a playoff game of any sort. Pittsburgh was the league’s lovable loser in those days, an NFL version of the Chicago Cubs, which was all taken in stride by gracious owner Art Rooney, who seemed to accept the fact in those days that if somebody had to be the league’s punching bag, why not him, as he could take the blows a bit better than other headstrong owners.

And in the late ‘60s, it was a given that Pittsburgh and Cleveland, nearby rivals who played an annual Saturday night regular season game on the shores of Lake Erie (a tradition that was discontinued after 1970), would be linked together in whatever reorganization of the league. Even so, the composition of that trio startled the football establishment, much of which had been led to believe that a Philadelphia-St. Louis-Minnesota trifecta would be more likely to make the jump.

There were unique changes in the national TV landscape for the 1970 season, too. In particular, the addition of a weekly Monday night game, to be aired by ABC, immediately caught the nation’s fancy. CBS and NBC had both experimented with occasional Monday night football specials in the previous few years, but each balked at picking up the whole package for the 1970 season. After briefly considering the syndicated Hughes Sports Network (which in those days featured college hoops and a few far-flung college football bowl games), commissioner Pete Rozelle was able to convince ABC’s Roone Arledge to take the challenge. Although some still rue the day that Howard Cosell became a household name because of it, the fact is that it was perhaps the most important TV move in the history of the league, with Monday Night football still a staple of television fare forty years later.

(In the early ‘70s, Cosell’s halftime highlights from games of the previous day also became staples of the production and provided the first looks most fans had at the games outside of their TV markets from the previous day. During the course of that season, a couple of Muhammad Ali fights, including his comeback bout vs. Jerry Quarry on October 26 and later vs. Oscar Bonavena on December 7, causing Cosell to miss that night’s Browns-Oilers game, took place at the same time as Monday games, with results of those fights being given on the air during those games.)

CBS and NBC continued with their coverages of the NFC and AFC, respectively. For interconference games, NBC had rights to AFC road games, with CBS holding rights to NFC road games. Frank Gifford was still with CBS in 1970, working as a color analyst and hosting what would be a precursor to the "NFL Today" with his half-hour preview show, featuring highlights from the previous week's games, as he had done the previous few years before the merger. The legendary Ray Scott was CBS's number one play-by-play man, while Curt Gowdy was in the saddle as NBC's top play-by-play announcer.

The playoff format was also altered to include the best second-place team in each conference, henceforth to be known as the wild card. The concept had been introduced the previous year in the AFL, when “wild cards” were awarded to second-place finishers in the East and West; many might not realize that the Chiefs were a “wild card” (though not so designated at that time) when they won the Super Bowl after the 1969 season, when the Raiders actually finished atop the old AFL West.

The pro football map was further altered due to division realignment in 1970, with particular excitement in the AFC with some new alliances formed. Especially the mod-looking AFC Central, which brought together Cincinnati from the old AFL West, Houston from the old AFL East, and Pittsburgh and Cleveland from the NFL’s Century Division (remember that designation between 1967-69?). The new AFC East would feature AFL East holdovers Boston, Buffalo, Miami, and the Jets plus the NFL exile Colts, with the prospects of Namath’s Jets and the Colts now meeting twice annually further teasing the palates of football fans. The AFC West would look a lot like the old AFL West prior to the Bengals joining in 1968; Oakland, San Diego, Denver, and Kansas City would remain united.

In the NFC, the East brought together what was left of the old Eastern Conference prior to 1967, with the Giants, Philadelphia, Washington, St. Louis, and Dallas forming a familiar fivesome. The “new” NFC Central was the same in configuration (Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, and Minnesota) and in name (from the old NFL Central) from its 1967-69 look. The oddball division was the curiously-designated NFC West which featured entries from the Eastern (Atlanta) and Central (New Orleans) time zones along with two west coast reps, the San Francisco 49ers and L.A. Rams. This configuration, however, made a slight bit more geographical sense than the previously-named NFL Coastal, which included the Rams, 49ers, Falcons, and Colts. It had effectively swapped the Colts for the Saints in its new look as the NFC West, at least getting the two southern, recent NFL expansion entries together. Sportswriters of the day, however, said they would all prefer to cover games in this division with stops in such lively ports of call.

These were also exciting times with several new stadia appearing around the league, though for the most part the teams were still sharing space with Major League Baseball franchises in the same cities. Eventually, the era of “cookie-cutter” stadiums in Washington, Atlanta, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia would be met with scorn by fans, but in 1970 those stadiums were all considered upgrades from previous, less comfy facilities. In 1970, the Cincy and Pittsburgh stadiums made their debuts, with Philadelphia to follow the next year. Dallas’ futuristic Texas Stadium was still more than a year away (October 1971), which meant that the Cowboys were still playing in the old Cotton Bowl in 1970. Other stadiums in Oakland, San Diego, and Houston had been built within the previous five years.

Although there was still a throwback-feel about the stadia circa 1970, as several teams were still playing in outdated facilities, or historic ballparks. Along with Dallas at the Cotton Bowl, the 49ers were still at old, dilapidated Kezar Stadium, the Rams at the venerable L.A. Coliseum, the Saints at Tulane Stadium, Bears at Wrigley Field, Lions at Tiger Stadium, Giants at Yankee Stadium, Eagles at Franklin Field, Chiefs at old K.C. Municipal Stadium, Browns at the old Cleveland Stadium on the lakefront, Bills at ancient War Memorial Stadium, Dolphins at the Orange Bowl, and, for 1970, the Patriots at old Harvard Stadium in Cambridge after playing 1969 at Boston College’s Alumni Stadium following several years at Fenway Park. Indeed, 1970 still linked to a much-earlier era in pro football thanks to many of the stadiums. Forty years later, only Oakland's Coliseum (which has experienced several upgrades and expansion) and San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, also upgraded, are still being used by NFL teams, with only a handful of those stadiums still left standing.

As was the case throughout much of the 1950s and 1960s, there were still a number of Saturday night games played in the early season weeks, and even a Friday nighter which opened the season on September 18 in Los Angeles, where the Rams beat the Cardinals 34-13. After 1970, however, the Saturday games would almost exclusively be played late in the season following the conclusion of the college regular season schedule.

And if the 2010 campaign treats us to some of the same excitement of 1970, we’re in for a treat these next few months. Although there were still class distinctions between the haves and have-nots in the 1970 NFC, only a couple of entries were really out of the race from the early going (Philadelphia and New Orleans), while in the AFC, the distinctions became blurred very early. Namath’s Jets struggled, beginning with losing the Monday night opener at Cleveland, 31-21. But the Browns, heavily favored to win the Central, were having trouble gaining traction. Meanwhile, Denver’s quick early break, combined with some ongoing indifferent form from the favored Raiders and defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs, suddenly made the West a lot more competitive than it had been in the late ‘60s. The Broncos’ quick start was highlighted by their first win over the Chiefs since 1964 in a 26-13 triumph in Week Three, holding the defending champs to a mere 121 yards of offense.

Indeed, almost every team seemed to have a shining moment or two in 1970. Even the lowly Saints, who limped home at 2-11-1 and fired original HC Tom Fears at midseason, replaced by former minor league coach J.D. Roberts. And it was Roberts on the sidelines when PK Tom Dempsey booted a record 63-yard FG on November 8 vs. Detroit that stands to this day. That was also not just a record kick, but a dramatic game-winner at the final gun for the Saints in a 19-17 win over Detroit in which the Lions thought they had won on an Errol Mann FG with just 11 seconds to play. The giant-killer Saints had also managed a 20-20 tie with eventual NFC West winner San Francisco, which also dropped a 21-20 decision at Atlanta. Even the lowly Eagles managed to hit a crescendo in a memorable 23-20 Monday night win over the Giants during Thanksgiving week, a result that eventually cost the G-Men the NFC East. Not to mention earning notoriety in the MNF Hall of Fame when Cosell became ill in the booth and had to leave Franklin Field, with Don Meredith and Keith Jackson left alone to call the second half. It was said at the time that Cosell had come down ill with the flu at halftime, although many years later, director Chet Forte revealed that Cosell had actually been drinking too much that night courtesy of liquor provided by Eagles owner Leonard Tose.

To no one’s surprise, the NFC, despite losing the previous two Super Bowls to the then-known AFL, was the stronger of the two conferences in 1970, confirmed in the opening weekend when the Vikings struck a blow for the NFC by avenging their Super Bowl loss from eight months earlier against the Chiefs, winning the featured opening-day battle 27-10. Although the Vikings were missing some of their personality from 1969, as QB Joe Kapp, the reigning NFL MVP, continued as a holdout from Minnesota. Meanwhile, the Lions, who emerged as a menacing contender in a 9-4-1 1969 season, opened more eyes when routing the Packers, 40-0, in the opener at Lambeau Field. The result seemed to confirm the demise of the aging Packers, still with several of the same components (includng QB Bart Starr) from Vince Lombardi’s last Super Bowl winner three years earlier. But the Pack even had a few high moments during the season, including a shock 13-10 win over the Vikings in Week Three at Milwaukee, a result keyed by Dave Hampton’s 101-yard kick return TD in the 4th Q.

Meanwhile, for much of the season it appeared as if the St. Louis Cardinals might be the league’s best team. During a General Sherman-like march at midseason, the Cards pitched three shutouts in a row, blanking the Oilers 44-0, the Patriots 31-0, and then Dallas by a 38-0 count in a memorable Monday night game in which Meredith moaned constantly about the beating his old team was absorbing. Another trio of non-playoff teams from 1969, the Giants, 49ers and Lions, were now full-fledged contenders as well, with San Francisco, led by QB John Brodie in what would be an MVP campaign, finally appearing to fulfill the promise it had failed to realize in previous seasons.

The NFC playoff chase eventually settled into a 7-team dogfight for the four available postseason slots, right up to the final weekend. George Allen’s Rams and the 49ers were going toe-to-toe in the West, the Vikings clear in the Central but the Lions very much in the wild card picture, with the Cardinals, Giants, and Cowboys all thundering down the stretch in the East. The latter looked to be St. Louis’ to lose until the Big Red stumbled in December, losing at Detroit, at home to the Giants, and by 1 point at Washington to close the campaign and eliminate it from the postseason.

For a while, it seemed as if the Giants, led by QB Fran Tarkenton, were going to win the East; a penultimate 34-17 win at Busch Stadium over the fading Cards in Week 13 opened the door for the G-Men to win the division as long as they could beat the Rams at Yankee Stadium on the final day of the regular season. But George Allen’s team, needing a win to stay alive in the West, throttled the Giants, 31-3, effectively ending New York’s playoff hopes. At 9-5, the Giants were thus bypassed by Detroit, a 20-0 winner over the Pack (the second Detroit blanking of Green Bay that season) to claim the wild card, and Dallas, which had been surging since the 38-0 loss to the Cardinals but won the East by winning five in a row to close the regular season, with depleted Houston not offering much resistance to Dallas in a 52-10 Cowboy win on closing day. Rather incredibly, the Cowboys’ Doomsday Defense had not allowed a TD in its final four regular-season games. Meanwhile, after beating the Giants earlier in the day, the Rams needed the Raiders to beat their cross-bay rival 49ers on the final day to give them, and not San Francisco, the NFC West title, but the 49ers took away most of the mystery in the early going en route to a 38-7 romp to sew up the West.

There was also great concern heading into the last week of the regular season that a coin flip might have to determine the NFC wild card rep. All it would have taken was a win by the Giants to force Dallas and Detroit into a coin flip for the wild card spot. Fortunately (though maybe not for the Giants), we didn’t have to endure that scenario. In subsequent years, more extensive tiebreaker procedures were set in place to prevent the possibility of a coin flip deciding a playoff participant.

Although not quite a vintage year in the AFC, it was an exciting one, thanks in part to the Raiders and Chiefs, as mentioned earlier, having slipped a bit from their lofty 1969 perches, and not dominating as they had the previous few years. Hank Stram’s Kansas City was showing signs of age and generally unable to ignite on the offensive end as it had consistently done in previous years. Meanwhile, the Raiders stumbled a couple of times early vs. the Bengals (on opening day in Cincy’s debut at new Riverfront Stadium) and in Week Three at improved Miami. At 0-2-1, Oakland faced an early must-win vs. the aforementioned, quick-starting 3-0 Broncos, who jumped to a 17-7 lead at the Coliseum and took a 23-21 lead into the 4th Q. The Raiders, with benefit of a tipped 20-yard TD pass from Daryle Lamonica to Warren Wells, rallied for a 35-23 win and set the stage for a series of miracle finishes authored by “the old man” George Blanda, who bailed out the Raiders in five memorable consecutive weeks, most of those in the final seconds, with his foot and arm.

Blanda’s run of miracles really began with his last-second, 48-yard FG that tied the Chiefs at Kansas City, 17-17, in what might have been the wildest of all Raiders-Chiefs games of that memorable era, with a melee ensuing Ben Davidson’s spearing of a prone Lenny Dawson late in the game. Dawson’s bootleg run had given the Chiefs a first down inside the Oakland 30 and likely locked up the game for K.C. until Otis Taylor took umbrage at Davidson’s cheap shot and instigated a wild brawl. Rules of the day required personal fouls to be assessed both ways, but also nullified the previous play. With the Chiefs forced to try again on 3rd down, they failed to convert, and with one more chance in the final seconds, Lamonica moved the Raiders to the edge of Blanda’s FG range, and his last-second kick barely cleared not only the crossbar but the outstretched hands of KC’s 6'10 TE Morris Stroud, of whom Stram liked to position just in front of the goal post (then on the goal line) as a last line of defense to perhaps block a FG as Wilt Chamberlain would a shot in the key.

Blanda did himself one better the following week at home vs. the Browns, tossing a tying TD pass to Warren Wells deep in the 4th Q before winning another game at the final gun with his foot, this time a miraculous 52-yard FG to win the game, 23-20. If that weren’t enough, he came off the bench again late the following week in Denver, where the Broncos were about to get back into the AFC West race when rallying for a 19-17 lead deep on the 4th Q. Blanda saved the day again when driving Oakland downfield to a winning TD on a 20-yard pass to WR Fred Biletnikoff. Again the following week at home vs. the Chargers, Blanda saved the day, with a 16-yard FG in the final seconds to beat San Diego, 20-17. (Ironically, Blanda’s recent passing featured media tributes and recalled his great run of results during that never-to-be-forgotten stretch in 1970.)

If that weren’t enough, the Raiders authored another miracle a few weeks later at Shea Stadium, when Lamonica hit Wells with a 33-yard TD pass with just :01 remaining to down the Jets, 14-13, and set up an AFC West showdown in the penultimate week vs. the Chiefs. Which Oakland won convincingly, 20-6, sewing up the division crown and ending the Chiefs' reign as champions.

Meanwhile, several interesting things were happening in the Central Division. Terry Bradshaw made his debut at QB for the Steelers, although in a losing effort vs. Houston in the opener, 19-7. On October 11, Cincinnati HC Paul Brown returned to Cleveland to face the Browns, whom he had founded in 1946 and coached until 1962 when unceremoniously dismissed by new owner Art Modell. Brown lost in his emotional return to Cleveland by a 27-6 count, but as the season progressed the Browns were finding ways to lose a number of close decisions. And the Bengals, in only their third year of existence, had caught fire at midseason behind QB Virgil Carter, with a 43-14 win at Buffalo triggering an unlikely 7-game win streak on the heels of a seemingly-debilitating 6-game losing skid. A closing-day 45-7 romp over the collapsed Patriots gave the Bengals a highly-unexpected division crown at 8-6.

There was not much drama in the East with the Colts going wire-to-wire, though rarely looking dominant. Namath’s Jets started slowly, and when Broadway Joe broke his wrist in Week Five vs. the Colts, his season was over. As was the Jets’ campaign, although they did manage a couple of memorable upsets behind 2nd-year Duke QB Al Woodall, stunning the Rams in mid November in L.A. and then beating the powerful Vikings two weeks later. Even lowly Buffalo and Boston, in the theme of the season, had their highlights, with the Bills tying the eventual champion Colts 17-17 and the Patriots opening their season with a rousing 27-14 win over Miami, which would emerge as a surprise contender under HC Don Shula, who was imported from Baltimore in the offseason.

Miami, along with Cincinnati, ended up as one of the league’s surprise teams and qualified as the first-ever AFC wild card at 10-4. As for the Patriots, their last game as the “Boston Patriots” came in a 45-7 loss on closing day at Cincy that sewed up the AFC Central for Paul Brown's Bengals. QB Joe Kapp, acquired from the Vikings in an early-season trade, failed to ignite the Boston offense and ended up with some miserable stats that included just 3 TDP and 17 picks, and never played another down in the NFL after that season-ending debacle vs. the Bengals.

The playoffs were pretty interesting, if not filled with fireworks, in 1970. Dallas and Detroit waged one of the great defensive playoff wars at the Cotton Bowl before the Cowboys finally prevailed by the odd score of 5-0 in the first-ever NFC playoff game. The Colts had shut out the Bengals, 17-0, earlier that December 26. The next day, the 49ers shocked the favored Vikings, considered the odds-on pick to win the Super Bowl, by a 17-14 count at frigid Bloomington, while the Raiders prevailed over Miami in the Oakland mud, 21-14. In the conference finals, Blanda was not able to save the day for the Raiders vs. the Colts in a 27-17 Baltimore win on the AFC side. Meanwhile, in the final game ever played at old Kezar Stadium, the 49ers squandered several opportunities and lost to Dallas and its rugged defense, 17-10. San Francisco would move a few miles south to Candlestick Park the next year.

Although the first post-merger Super Bowl did not feature the old AFL vs. NFL because the Colts won the AFC, it still ranks as one of the all-time best finishes in title games. The Colts won a memorable 16-13 decision over Dallas on PK Jim O’Brien’s 32-yard FG with 5 seconds to play, an exciting climax to a game filled with turnovers and mistakes and often dubbed the “Blunder Bowl” by gridiron historians. But it was the first Super Bowl with a dramatic finish, and one most old-timers have no problem recalling.

In retrospect, lots of 1970 resonates in pro football history. The first post-merger year was landmark enough. But the wild playoff chases, heroics by Tom Dempsey and George Blanda, and the introduction of Monday Night Football really did make 1970 a season for the ages. And if 2010 can produce the same sorts of thrills, buckle your seat belts the next few months!

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