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WEEK NINE CRYSTAL BALL - WEEKEND: Chiefs-Dolphins a Reminder of an Epic NFL Day
My friends, THE GURU is excited about Kansas City (6-2) and Miami (6-2) in Frankfurt as two AFC contenders battle today at 9:30 am ET on the NFL Network.
Reid. McDaniel. Mahomes. Tua. Kelce. Hill. It’s got all the makings of a classic and I’m expecting a tremendous football game.
Of course, it’s unlikely to be the best in the history of this rivalry, which dates to the Dolphins’ inaugural season of 1966. In fact, to find the seminal game in this series, you have to go all the way back to Christmas Day, 1971, and the divisional playoff round, a contest that remains the longest day in NFL history.
Back in 2020, I wrote that, if there were a Mount Rushmore of pro football games, this one would merit strong consideration for inclusion. I say that because it wasn’t just the postseason and it wasn’t just the longest game ever played. It also signaled the end of a dynasty and the birth of another while kick-starting pro football’s most enduring – and winningest - coaching career.
The Chiefs and Dolphins held identical records (10-3-1) entering the playoffs but AFC West champion Kansas City, with three recent American Football League titles, carried more cache in the National Football League, which had merged with the AFL in advance of the 1970 season.
Meanwhile, Miami, winner of the AFC East, was a virtual football nobody with no playoff wins – and one appearance – in its first five seasons. The 1971 campaign was Don Shula’s second as head coach of the franchise and the 41-year-old was itching to get that first postseason victory.
Actually, it was more than an itch as Shula, the former Baltimore head coach, needed a playoff win. Needed it, as 50 Cent might say, “Like a fat GURU needs cake.”
Let’s back up for a moment.
Shula began his football odyssey at Ohio’s John Carroll University – a Division III school that counts former NFL Pro Bowl linebacker London Fletcher and recently deposed Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels among its esteemed alums – and carved out a solid seven-year NFL career. He intercepted 21 passes as a defensive back and, critically, had the chance to learn from coaches like Paul Brown and Weeb Ewbank.
From there, he coached college ball for a couple of years but was quickly back in the League, serving as defensive backs coach and then defensive coordinator for Dee-troit from 1960-62. Next came a big break when, at age 33, Baltimore made Shula one of the youngest head coaches in NFL history.1
His seven-year run as Baltimore’s leader (1963-69) was a smashing success on paper with a record of 71-23-4, seven winning seasons and a victory in the 1968 NFL championship over Cleveland and coach Blanton Collier, Shula’s old boss at the University of Kentucky in 1959.
However, some onlookers actually viewed Shula as a disappointment for one big reason: two weeks after winning that ’68 title, his Colts, an 18-point favorite, lost Super Bowl III to the AFL’s New York Jets in a game that shamed the NFL. His conqueror was Ewbank, the man who coached Shula, the player, with Baltimore just a few years earlier.
So, as Shula’s young Dolphins prepared to take the field vs. Kansas City on Christmas Day 1971, the coach was three seasons removed from his latest playoff win and, also, three years removed from a great – and very public – humiliation. He needed a victory.
Let’s further set the stage here.
The game featured two former Purdue stars at quarterback with future Hall of Famers Len Dawson and Bob Griese piloting the Chiefs and Dolphins, respectively. Miami (Ohio) churns out legendary coaches, Lehigh produces Rubenesque linemen, and the Boilermakers make terrific quarterbacks.2
Interestingly, Dawson not only shares a lineage with Purdue’s august list of QBs; he also is linked with another Hall of Fame quarterback, the late Colts legend Johnny Unitas. Both men were cut loose by Pittsburgh - once the league’s laughingstock - before landing with the franchises that shaped their Hall of Fame careers.
Dawson was drafted #5 overall by the Steelers in 1957 but was stuck behind star Bobby Layne and got shipped to Cleveland two years later. The Browns kept him for a couple of seasons before releasing him and, as fate would have it, he was rescued by the AFL’s Dallas Texans in 1962 and led the team to the AFL title. The Texans relocated to KC, became the Chiefs a year later and Dawson was a KC fixture until passing away in August 2022.
Unitas was selected by Pittsburgh in the ninth round two years before the Steelers picked Dawson and didn’t make it to opening day before being discarded. Their loss was the Colts’ gain as Baltimore picked him up in 1956 and he was their starter by midseason. Two years later, he led the team to its first title in “The Greatest Game Ever Played” vs. the Giants, and the rest is history.
If you wonder why the Steelers were longtime NFL losers until Chuck Noll showed up to coach in 1969, look no further than these two player mis-evaluations. With glaring errors like these, it’s safe to assume the team made plenty of personnel mistakes over four decades of suffering.
Miami’s run as an NFL punching bag wasn’t nearly as long as Pittsburgh’s walk in the desert, largely due to the Dolphins’ prescient decision to hire Shula in year five. In fact, they earned their first playoff bid in the new coach’s inaugural season, losing a tough game to Oakland, and setting the stage for their matchup with the Chiefs on Christmas 1971.
The weather was unusually warm in the City of Fountains3 that holiday afternoon with the mercury clocking in at 63 degrees. Heck, if the Cuban sandwiches were any good in western Missouri, Shula might’ve felt as if he were still in Miami. The temp, by the way, was 78 in south Florida that day. The internet remains undefeated.
After the game kicked off, KC grabbed an early 3-0 lead on a field goal by Jan Stenerud, the first kicking specialist to make it to the Hall of Fame and one of the central players in the drama that would play out at Kansas City Municipal Stadium. The Chiefs then went up by 10 late in the first quarter when Ed Podolak, the day’s biggest star, scored on a seven-yard pass from Dawson.
Podolak, a former dual-threat QB at the University of Iowa, went nuts on Miami that day and set an NFL playoff record that still stands with 350 total yards. Eighty-five yards rushing, eight receptions for 110 yards and three kickoff returns for 154 yards, a 51-yard average. In fact, if you include the regular-season, Podolak’s effort is still #5 all time.4
Down 10-0, the Dolphins charged back in the second quarter with another future Hall of Famer, Larry Csonka, punching in a one-yard run and Garo Yepremian hitting a field goal. It was 10-10 at the half.
Kansas City’s Jim Otis, who eventually starred with Terry Metcalf in St. Louis, started the second half-scoring with a one-yard rush. It was 17-10, Chiefs, until Miami’s Jim Kiick added a one-yard run of his own. The score: 17-17 after three periods.
In the fourth quarter, Podolak ran three yards for his second touchdown of the game as KC took its third lead of the day. Alas, Griese hit tight end Marv Fleming,5 the former Packer, for a five-yard score and, after Yepremian’s extra point, we were tied at 24.
As regulation neared an end, the normally reliable Stenerud missed a 31-yard chip shot that would’ve won the game, sending the contest to overtime. The star kicker’s bad luck continued in the first OT when he tried another game winner, from 42 yards, that was blocked by future Canton resident Nick Buoniconti.
Finally, in the second overtime, Yepremian drilled a 37-yarder to end the game and advance Miami to the AFC Championship game where they’d beat Baltimore, 21-0. After 82 minutes and 40 seconds of game clock. Still an NFL record.
Two weeks later, Miami lost to the Cowboys in Super Bowl VI, but Shula & Co. would redeem themselves in 1972 with an unblemished 17-0 campaign that culminated in a Super Bowl VII victory over Washington, the first of two straight titles for Shula and the Fins.
As we said, the win over the Chiefs kick-started a Dolphins dynasty.
It was a tough end to 1971 for Stenerud, who missed a career-high 18 field goal attempts in the regular season, including eight tries of less than 39 yards, perhaps a foreshadowing of his Christmas Day struggles. However, the resilient Norway native bounced back to have 14 more productive seasons for the Chiefs, Packers and Vikings, earning his yellow jacket in 1991.
Life was not as kind to the Kansas City organization following the Miami loss as the three-time AFL champions – and Super Bowl IV winners - embarked on a 22-year playoff victory drought. The team wouldn’t break the sorry streak until the year Stenerud was inducted into the Hall and, as if to underscore the desperation that such a sad stretch can bring, that was also the year that McDonald’s unveiled the ill-fated McLean Deluxe.6
During that same luckless span for KC, the Dolphins won 14 postseason games and appeared in four Super Bowls, winning two, as Shula established himself as one of the great coaches in the long history of the sport. Redemption personified.
One could write a year’s worth of columns about Shula’s many NFL accomplishments but far be it from me to drone on and linger too long on a topic. That’s just not me. 😊 I’ll just hit a few highlights instead.
Thirty-three seasons with 20 double-digit winning campaigns. Nineteen playoff trips and five Super Bowl appearances. Three NFL titles and a jaw-dropping 347 combined regular season and playoff victories, first all-time. Belichick may catch him, but, even with all of his rings, I don’t think he outshines Shula.
Numbers aside, one argument for Shula as football’s greatest coach is his unique ability to adapt. While he was blessed with strong defenses through his early career in both of his head coaching stops, he had to be nimble offensively. To wit: he ran a balanced offense in Baltimore and then shifted to a more run-heavy scheme in Miami when he was gifted Csonka, Kiick and Mercury Morris, a trio so good they were collectively tabbed “The Perfect Backfield.” It wasn’t hyperbole.
After things ran their course with the fabulous early-to-mid 1970s squads, Shula somehow coaxed Miami back to the Super Bowl in the strike-shortened 1982 season with an eighth-round draft choice named David Woodley at quarterback. The Dolphins lost to Washington in SB XVII, but the year was another great example of the coach’s ability to adapt and thrive.
A few months later, the team drafted Dan Marino to be their QB and Shula changed course again, moving to a pass-first offense that set the NFL on its ear and helped to usher in the modern throwing game. In his first full season as a starter, 1984, Marino threw 48 TD passes, setting a record that would stand until Peyton Manning broke it two decades later.
In their 13 years together – Shula retired after the 1995 season – Marino led the league in completions and yards passing five times apiece and set the standard in touchdown tosses three times. He also averaged about 35 pass attempts per game. Meanwhile, Shula’s other star quarterback, Griese, threw about 21 passes a game and only led the NFL in any single passing category a handful of times in his career. Evolve and adapt.
Though the post-1971 stretch was comparatively brutal for the KC faithful, the struggles are now a distant memory with the two-headed monster of Reid and Mahomes leading the way. Five conference title game appearances, three Super Bowl trips and two championships. And it’s possible they’re just getting started. Almost feels like a Shula-Marino redux, taken to another power.
Today the Kansas City quarterback’s counterpart is Tua Tagovailoa, a man who earned Mahomes’ admiration early on. He’s at - or near - the top of the heap in very passing category this season and, truth be told, has probably been the better of the two QBs to date this season.
Of course, in 5 1/2 seasons with KC, Mahomes has only lost back-to-back games three times and it’s easy to imagine him coming up big in this marquee game. Yes, former Chief Tyreek Hill plans to put on a show but I’ll take Kansas City. CHIEFS, 27-24
The season mark at 78-45 (.634) following last week’s 10-6 (.625) performance. Let’s take a look at the rest of the slate with Dee-troit (6-2), Denver (3-5), Jacksonville (6-2) and San Fran (5-3) on the bye.
With as little confidence as possible, I’m picking…
…The Rams (3-5) over the host Packers (2-5) in the 99th meeting between these former intra-division foes.
…Atlanta (4-4), at home, against a Vikings (4-4) team that’s going to miss Kirk Cousins desperately. Thoughts turn to the 1998 NFC Championship game, fond memories for Atlantans but not so much for Minnesotans.
…My beloved Commies (3-5) get a win at the Patriots (2-6) in a matchup of two franchises that originated in Beantown. Washington started its NFL life as the Boston Braves in 1932, became the Redskins in 1933 and moved to DC in 1937. Meanwhile, the New England franchise was founded as the Boston Patriots in 1959 as a charter member of the American Football League.
…The host Ravens (6-2) to squeak by the Seahawks (5-2). Seattle’s Pete Carroll (166) and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (153) rank in the NFL’s top-25 coaches all-time in regular-season victories with Carroll 17th and Harbaugh 23rd. And they’re also tied for 10th, along with four others, in playoff wins with 11.
…New Orleans (4-4) to topple the visiting Bears (2-6) in a matchup of teams once coached by Michael Keller Ditka.
…Tampa Bay (3-4) to get a road win in Houston (3-4) in just the sixth game in this non-rivalry.
…Host Cleveland (4-3) to bounce the Cardinals (1-7). These teams first met in 1950 when the Browns thumped the Cards, then based in Chicago
…The Colts (3-5), on the road, over the Panthers (1-6) in the Frank Reich Bowl.
…Philly (7-1) to pummel the Cowboys (5-2) at The Linc in the 129th edition of this series.
…Las Vegas (3-5) to topple the Giants (2-6) in Las Vegas as Aidan O’Connell makes that aforementioned first start…
…Cincy (4-3) to beat the visiting Bills (5-3) in a game where we’ll see Damar Hamlin on the sidelines and remember life is more important than football.
…the Jets (4-3) to beat the Chargers (3-4) at MetLife on Monday night in this meeting of former AFL rivals.
That’s it for this week, folks! Enjoy the games and don’t be afraid to spend the next 14 hours glued to your TVs.
Interestingly, this means that like Bill Belichick, the Don’s first two pro football jobs were with the Lions and Colts.
In addition to Dawson (who played at Purdue from 1954-56 where Stram was an assistant) and Griese (1964-66), the list includes, in part, Mike Phipps (1967-69), Gary Danielson (1970-72), Mark Hermann (1977-80), Jim Everett (1981-85) and another future HOFer in Drew Brees (1997-2000). That’s pretty darn impressive. Phipps and Everett were both the #3 overall pick in the NFL Draft and each of the aforementioned gentlemen played at least 11 seasons in the league. Next up is rookie Aidan O’Connell, who starts for the Raiders this week, replacing recently benched Jimmy Garoppolo.
Yes, it’s true – KC is known as the City of Fountains as it is reported to have more fountains than any city besides Rome and was purposefully designed to have fountains like that fine city, along with boulevards like Paris. Having lived there with THE FAIR CLAUDINE for a couple of years, I can attest that the city is about a heck of a lot more than barbecue.
When he retired after the 1977 season, Podolak was Kansas City’s all-time leading rusher with 4,451 yards, a mark that would stand for 15 years until Christian Okoye surpassed it. He was also first in punt return yards and his 288 receptions were third. Most importantly, he wore #14, which looked pretty cool on a running back’s jersey and the football card I still own.
Fleming, by the way, was a four-time Super Bowl champion, earning two rings apiece with Green Bay and Miami, tied for third all-time behind Tom Brady (six) and Charles Haley (five). That’s heady company.
This sandwich had promise with fewer calories and less fat than the Quarter Pounder but, man, it tested awful, even when slathered in Ketchup.