As the lowest scoring Super Bowl to date with a total of only 21 points (3 TDs and no Field Goals), the score indicates a much closer game than it actually was as the Dolphins' "No-Name Defense" dominated the game, allowing Washington to cross midfield only once in the first half and only four times overall. But Super Bowl VII is most memorable for the final two minutes of the game: Miami's quest for a perfect season was jeopardized when Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian picked up a blocked field goal, batted it in the air, and Redskins' cornerback Mike Bass caught it and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown. Indeed, it was the longest period in a Super Bowl to date for one team to be shut out, as Washington was held scoreless until 2:07 remained in the fourth quarter.
Dolphins safety Jake Scott was named Most Valuable Player. He recorded two interceptions for 63 return yards, including a 55-yard return from the end zone during the 4th quarter. Scott became the second defensive player in Super Bowl history (after linebacker Chuck Howley in Super Bowl V) to earn a Super Bowl MVP.
The Dolphins went undefeated during the season, despite losing their starting quarterback. In the fifth game of the regular season, starter Bob Griese suffered a fractured right leg and dislocated ankle. In his place, 38-year-old Earl Morrall led Miami to victory in their nine remaining regular season games, and was the 1972 NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Morrall had previously played for Dolphins head coach Don Shula when they were both with the Baltimore Colts, where Morrall backed up quarterback Johnny Unitas and started in Super Bowl III.
But Miami also had the same core group of young players who helped the team advance to the previous year's Super Bowl VI. (The only Dolphins starter in Super Bowl VII over the age of 30 was 32-year-old Nick Buoniconti.) The Dolphins still had a powerful running attack, spearheaded by running backs Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Eugene "Mercury" Morris. (Morris, who in previous seasons had been used primarily as a kick returner, took over the starting halfback position from Kiick, who had been the starter the previous four years. The more-experienced Kiick, however, would start in Super Bowl VII.) Csonka led the team with 1,117 yards and six touchdowns. Kiick contributed 521 yards and five touchdowns, and also caught 21 passes for 147 yards and another touchdown. Morris, a breakaway runner, rushed for 1,000 yards, caught 15 passes for 168 yards, added another 334 yards returning kickoffs, and scored a league-leading 12 rushing touchdowns. Overall, Miami set a record with 2,960 total rushing yards during the regular season, and became the first team ever to have two players rush for 1,000 yards in one season. Miami led the NFL in points scored (385).
Receiver Paul Warfield once again provided the run-based Dolphins with an effective deep threat option, catching 29 passes for 606 yards, an average of 20.9 yards per catch. Miami's offensive line, led by future hall of famers Jim Langer and Larry Little was also a key factor for the Dolphins' offensive production. And Miami's "No-Name Defense" (a nickname inspired by Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry when he could not recall the names of any Dolphins defenders just before Super Bowl VI), led by future hall of fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti, allowed the fewest points in the league during the regular season (171). Safety Jake Scott recorded five interceptions. Because of injuries to defensive linemen (at the beginning of the season the Dolphins were down to four healthy defensive linemen) defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger created what he called the "53" defense, in which versatile Bob Matheson (number 53) would be used as either a defensive end in the standard 4-3 defense or as a fourth linebacker in a 3-4 defense, with Manny Fernandez at nose tackle. As a linebacker, Matheson would either rush or drop back into coverage. Said Nick Buoniconti, "Teams would be totally confused."
The Dolphins' undefeated, untied regular season was the third in NFL history, and the first of the post-Merger era. The previous two teams to do it, the 1934 and 1942 Chicago Bears, both lost those years' NFL Championship Games. The Cleveland Browns completed a perfect season in 1948, including a Championship victory, when they were part of the All-America Football Conference.
Washington was led by 33-year old quarterback Billy Kilmer, who completed 120 out of 225 passes for 1,648 yards and a league leading 19 touchdowns during the regular season, with only 11 interceptions, giving him an NFL best 84.8 passer rating. Kilmer had started the first three games of the season, was replaced in game four by 38-year-old Sonny Jurgensen, then replaced Jurgensen when he was lost for the season with an Achilles tendon injury. Their powerful rushing attack featured two running backs. Larry Brown gained 1,216 yards (first in the NFC and second in the NFL) in 285 carries during the regular season, caught 32 passes for 473 yards, and scored 12 touchdowns, earning him both the NFL Most Valuable Player Award and the NFL Offensive Player of the Year Award. Running back Charley Harraway had 567 yards in 148 carries. Future hall of fame wide receiver Charley Taylor and wide receiver Roy Jefferson provided the team with a solid deep threat, combining for 84 receptions, 1,223 receiving yards, and 10 touchdowns.
Washington also had a solid defense led by linebacker Chris Hanburger (four interceptions, 98 return yards, one touchdown), and cornerbacks Pat Fischer (four interceptions, 61 return yards) and Mike Bass (three interceptions, 53 return yards)
Meanwhile, the Redskins advanced to the Super Bowl without allowing a touchdown in either their 16-3 playoff win over the Green Bay Packers or their 26-3 NFC Championship Game victory over the Cowboys.
Still, many favored the Redskins to win the game because of their group of "Over the Hill Gang" veterans, and because Miami had what some considered an easy schedule (only two Dolphin opponents, Kansas City and the New York Giants posted winning records, and both of those teams were 8-6) and had struggled in the playoffs.
Allen had a reputation for spying on opponents. A school overlooked the Rams facility that the NFL designated the Dolphins practice field, so the Dolphins found a more secure field at a local community college. Dolphins employees inspected the trees every day for spies.
Miami cornerback Tim Foley, a future broadcaster who was injured and would not play in Super Bowl VII, was writing daily stories for a Miami newspaper and interviewed George Allen and Redskin players, provoking charges from Allen that Foley was actually spying for Shula.
Allen was extremely uptight and prickly dealing with the press Super Bowl week, and accused the press of ruining his team's preparation. Allen pushed the team so hard in practices that the players joked among themselves that they should have left Allen in Washington.
During practice the day before Super Bowl VII, the Dolphins' five foot seven, 150 pound kicker, Garo Yepremian, relaxed by throwing 30-yard passes to David Shula, Don Shula's son. During the pre-game warmups, he consistently kicked low line drives and couldn't figure out why.
This was the first Super Bowl to be televised live in the city in which it was being played. Despite unconditional blackout rules in the NFL that normally would have prohibited the live telecast from being shown locally, the NFL allowed the game to be telecast in the Los Angeles area on an experimental basis when all tickets for the game were sold. The league then changed its blackout rules the following season to allow games sold out at least 72 hours in advance to be televised in the host market. No subsequent Super Bowl has ever been blacked out under this rule, as all have been sold out.
The pregame show was a tribute to Apollo 17, the sixth and last mission to date to land on the Moon and the final one of Project Apollo. The show featured the crew of Apollo 17 and the Michigan Marching Band.
Washington's priority on defense was to disrupt Miami's ball-control offense by stopping Larry Csonka. They also intended to shut down Paul Warfield by double-covering him.
As they had in Super Bowl VI, Miami won the toss and elected to receive. Most of the first quarter was a defensive battle with each team punting on their first two possessions. Then Miami got the ball on their own 37-yard line with 2:55 left in the first quarter. Running back Jim Kiick started out the drive with two carries for eleven yards. Then quarterback Bob Griese completed an 18-yard pass to wide receiver Paul Warfield to reach the Washington 34-yard line. After two more running plays, on third and four Griese threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to receiver Howard Twilley (his only catch of the game). Twilley fooled Fischer by faking a route to the inside, then broke to the outside and caught the ball at the five-yard line, dragging Fischer into the end zone. "Griese read us real good all day," said Fischer. Yepremian's extra point gave the Dolphins a 7-0 lead with one second remaining in the period. (Yepremian noticed that the kick was too low, just like his practice kicks).
On the third play of the Redskins' ensuing drive, Miami safety Jake Scott intercepted quarterback Billy Kilmer's pass down the middle intended for Taylor and returned it eight yards to the Washington 47-yard line. However a 15-yard illegal man downfield penalty on left guard Bob Kuechenberg nullified a 20-yard pass completion to tight end Marv Fleming on the first play after the turnover, and the Dolphins were forced to punt after three more plays.
After the Redskins were forced to punt again, Miami reached the 47-yard line with a 13-yard run by Larry Csonka and an 8-yard run by Kiick. But on the next play, Griese's 47-yard touchdown pass to Warfield was nullified by an illegal procedure penalty on receiver Marlin Briscoe (Briscoe's first, and only, play of the game). Then on third down, Redskins defensive tackle Diron Talbert sacked Griese for a 6-yard loss and the Dolphins had to punt.
The Redskins then advanced from their own 17-yard line to the Miami 48-yard line (their first incursion into Miami territory) with less than two minutes left in the half. But on third down and three yards to go, Dolphins linebacker Nick Buoniconti intercepted Kilmer's pass to Brown at the Miami 41-yard line and returned it 32 yards to the Washington 27-yard line. From there, Kiick and Csonka each ran once for three yards, and then Griese completed a 19-yard pass (his sixth completion in six attempts) to tight end Jim Mandich, who made a diving catch at the 2-yard line. Two plays later, Kiick scored on a 1-yard blast behind Little and Csonka with just 18 seconds left in the half, and Yepremian's extra point gave the Dolphins a lead of 14–0 before halftime (once again, Yepremian noticed the kick was too low).
Miami's defense dominated the Redskins in the first half, limiting Washington to 49 yards rushing, 23 yards passing, and four first downs.
The Redskins had more success moving the ball in the second half. They took the second half kickoff and advanced across midfield for only the second time in the game, driving from their own 30-yard line to Miami's 17-yard line in a seven-play drive that featured just two runs. On first down at Miami's 17-yard line, Kilmer threw to Charlie Taylor, who was open at the 2-yard line, but Taylor stumbled right before the ball arrived and the ball glanced off his fingertips. After a second-down screen pass to Harraway fell incomplete, left tackle Manny Fernandez sacked Kilmer on third down for a loss of eight yards, and Washington's drive ended with no points after kicker Curt Knight's ensuing 32-yard field goal attempt was wide right. "That was an obvious turning point," said Allen. Later in the period, the Dolphins drove 78 yards to Washington's 5-yard line, featuring a 49-yard run by Csonka, the second-longest run in Super Bowl history at the time. However, Redskins defensive back Brig Owens intercepted a pass intended for Fleming in the end zone for a touchback.
Early in the fourth quarter, Washington threatened to score by mounting its most impressive drive of the game, driving 79 yards from its own 11 to Miami's 10-yard line in twelve plays. On second down at the Miami 10-yard line, Kilmer threw to tight end Jerry Smith in the end zone. Smith was wide open, but the ball hit the crossbar of the goalpost and fell incomplete. Then on third down, Scott intercepted Kilmer's pass to Taylor in the end zone and returned it 55 yards to the Redskins 48-yard line.
After Miami moved the ball to the 34-yard line on their ensuing drive, kicker Garo Yepremian attempted a 42-yard field goal in what is now remembered as one of the most famous blunders in NFL lore: "Garo's Gaffe". As had been the case all day, Yepremian's kick was too low, and it was blocked by Washington defensive tackle Bill Brundige. The ball bounced to Yepremian's right and he reached it before holder Earl Morrall. But instead of falling on the ball, Yepremian picked it up and, with Brundige bearing down on him, made a frantic attempt to pass the ball to Csonka, who blocked on field goals. Unfortunately for Miami, the ball slipped out of his hands and went straight up in the air. Yepremian attempted to bat the ball out of bounds, but instead batted it back up into the air, and it went right into the arms of Redskins cornerback Mike Bass, who easily avoided Yepremian's feeble attempt at a tackle and returned the fumble 49 yards for a touchdown to make the score 14-7 with 2:07 left in the game.
To the surprise of some, the Redskins did not try an onside kick, but instead kicked deep. The Redskins were forced to use up all of their timeouts on the Dolphins' ensuing five-play possession, but forced Miami to punt (nearly blocking the punt) from its own 36-yard line with 1:14 remaining in the game, giving themselves a chance to drive for the tying touchdown. However, Miami's defense forced two incompletions and a 4-yard loss on a swing pass, and then defensive end Bill Stanfill's 9-yard sack on fourth down as time expired ended the game.
Griese finished the game having completed 8 out of 11 pass completions for 88 yards and a touchdown, with one interception. Csonka was the game's leading rusher with 15 carries for 112 yards. Kiick had 38 rushing yards, two receptions for six yards, and a touchdown. Morris had 34 rushing yards. Manny Fernandez had 11 solo tackles and six assists. Kilmer completed six more passes then Griese, but finished the game with just 16 more total passing yards and was intercepted three times. Said Kilmer, "I wasn't sharp at all. Good as their defense is, I still should have thrown better." Washington's Larry Brown rushed for 72 yards on 22 carries and also had five receptions for 26 yards. Redskins receiver Roy Jefferson was the top receiver of the game, with five catches for 50 yards. Washington amassed almost as many total yards (228) as Miami (253), and actually more first downs (16 to Miami's 12).
Manny Fernandez was a strong contender for MVP. Wrote Nick Buoniconti, "It was the game of his life–in fact, it was the most dominant game by a defensive lineman in the history of the game, and he would never be given much credit for it. They should have given out two game balls and made Manny Fernandez the co-MVP with Jake Scott." Larry Csonka also said he thought Fernandez should have been the MVP. The MVP was selected by Dick Schaap, the editor of SPORT magazine. Schaap admitted later that he had been out late the previous night, struggled to watch the defense-dominated game, and was not aware that Fernandez had 17 tackles.
When Garo Yepremian went back to the Dolphins' sideline after his botched field goal attempt, Manny Fernandez said to him, "We lose this game, I'm gonna kill you." Nick Buoniconti told him that if they lost he would "Hang you up by one of your ties. Yepremian was so traumatized by his botched field goal attempt that he had to be helped from the post-game party by his brother because of a stress-induced stabbing pain down his right side. Depressed, he spent two weeks in seclusion until he was cheered up by a letter, apparently from Shula, praising him for his contributions to the team and urging him to ignore criticism. Yepremian kept the letter and mentioned it to Shula in 2000, but Shula had no knowledge of it. They concluded the letter was actually written by Shula's wife Dorothy, who died from breast cancer in 1991. She had signed her husband's name to it. Nevertheless, "Garo's Gaffe" made Yepremian famous and led to a lucrative windfall of speaking engagements and endorsements. "It's been a blessing," says Yepremian.
|Paul Warfield||WR||Charley Taylor|
|Wayne Moore||LT||Terry Hermeling|
|Bob Kuechenberg||LG||Paul Laaveg|
|Jim Langer||C||Len Hauss|
|Larry Little||RG||John Wilbur|
|Norm Evans||RT||Walt Rock|
|Marv Fleming||TE||Jerry Smith|
|Howard Twilley||WR||Roy Jefferson|
|Bob Griese||QB||Billy Kilmer|
|Jim Kiick||FB||Charley Harraway|
|Larry Csonka||RB||Larry Brown|
|Vern Den Herder||LE||Ron McDole|
|Manny Fernandez||LDT||Bill Brundige|
|Bob Heinz||RDT||Diron Talbert|
|Bill Stanfill||RE||Verlon Biggs|
|Doug Swift||LOLB||Jack Pardee|
|Nick Buoniconti||MLB||Myron Pottios|
|Mike Kolen||ROLB||Chris Hanburger|
|Lloyd Mumphord||LCB||Pat Fischer|
|Curtis Johnson||RCB||Mike Bass|
|Dick Anderson||SS||Brig Owens|
|Jake Scott||FS||Roosevelt Taylor|
Note: A seven-official system was not used until 1978