Nearly as big a part of Sunday night as the game itself between the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers was the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Dolphins’ perfect season.
Members of the ‘72 Dolphins and families of deceased teammates and coaches gathered for an on-field presentation at halftime at Hard Rock Stadium.
As the Dolphins took a 16-10 lead, which also ended up as the final score, into halftime, they were brought out onto the field in golf carts. They assumed their posts along the Miami sideline, lined up over 85 yards of the field, and were presented custom watches. Dolphins owner Steve Ross, who was back this week from league suspension over tampering penalties, was on the field for the ceremony.
A quartet of Hall of Famers from the ‘72 Dolphins — Larry Csonka, Bob Griese, Larry Little and Paul Warfield — participated in the pregame coin toss, flanked by current Dolphins captains in quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and linebacker Elandon Roberts. Mercury Morris, a tailback from the 1972 team, pumped up the crowd ahead of the opening kickoff with a “Let’s go Dolphins!” chant.
Videos honoring the Dolphins’ accomplishment from 50 years ago were played throughout the halftime and pregame ceremonies.
“Getting together as a group is very nice, and it’s nice for the Dolphins to do that to where we’re actually looking at each other, pressing flesh and able to talk, lean on each other, smile, smoke cigars and all of that,” Csonka said this past week.
The Dolphins wore throwback uniforms Sunday night and had retro designs painted on the end zones and with the Dolphin logo at midfield.
The historic Dolphins team carries an abundance of pride for its accomplishment as the only NFL team to go undefeated and untied over an entire season — and still haven’t been matched in 50 years since, despite close calls from teams like the 1985 Chicago Bears and 2007 New England Patriots.
“We’ve been often imitated but never duplicated,” Little said.
Said Csonka of the feat that the ‘72 team celebrates every year when the final NFL unbeaten goes down: “There’s a unity that goes on with the ‘72 team that goes on every year that it’s the most alive team that I’ve ever been affiliated with — I think anyone has ever been affiliated with — because it’s still competing.”
Added Griese: “As time has gone by, I think more people realize that that was something special. We didn’t realize [then] it was something special.”
Current players got to interact with the undefeated team, including the quarterbacks.
“Really awesome to kind of be around him and the other guys,” Tagovailoa said after the game. “It’s a great opportunity to be around a team and a group of guys like that.”
The Dolphins were without defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah and cornerbacks Kader Kohou and Keion Crossen, but most players that entered Sunday night’s game questionable were available to play.
That included All-Pro cornerback Xavien Howard (groin), left tackle Terron Armstead (toe), wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (shoulder), defensive tackle Christian Wilkins (hand), tight end Durham Smythe (hamstring) and right tackle Greg Little (Achilles).
Ogbah (back), Kohou (oblique) and Crossen (knee) were seen early on the field pregame out of uniform doing stretches and light exercise. Crossen was doubtful going into the game.
Without Kohou and Crossen, Miami went deep into its cornerback rotation again with Noah Igbinoghene and Justin Bethel elevated to more significant roles, but the Dolphins avoided a catastrophic scenario of going in without Howard, who reappeared on the team’s injury report on Friday with his lingering groin ailment. Miami already doesn’t have Byron Jones (PUP list) and Nik Needham, who is on injured reserve due to an Achilles tear.
Bethel and Igbinoghene each intercepted passes on Sunday, with Igbinoghene’s sealing the win with 18 seconds left.
The secondary was dealt a new injury blow, however, in the second half. Starting safety Brandon Jones left the game with a knee injury and was almost immediately ruled out. Reserve safety and special teamer Clayton Fejedelem played most of the snaps in his absence.
Armstead returned after missing last week’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings, going back to his left tackle post. Little started there with Armstead out last week but struggled. On Sunday, Miami started veteran Brandon Shell over Little at right tackle, where Little had been with Austin Jackson on injured reserve due to an ankle injury.
Other Dolphins inactives were quarterback Skylar Thompson, wide receiver Erik Ezukanma and running back Myles Gaskin. Thompson entered questionable with the cut on his right thumb, but he was likely bound to be inactive regardless with the team normally keeping two quarterbacks active.
Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, in his NFL career, has consistently said he doesn’t pay attention to outside criticism.
But ahead of Sunday night against the Steelers, he showed a different side in an interview with NBC’s Maria Taylor.
“I take receipts,” Tagovailoa said, using the recently popular phrase for keeping tabs on what others have said. “I handle that internally now. Whatever I can use as fuel, whatever I think, ‘Oh, I can use this as fuel for myself,’ I will. If not, I won’t.”
Tagovailoa, in his third season out of Alabama and returning Sunday from a two-game absence due to a concussion, entered the year one of the most polarizing figures in the NFL. He has his staunch group of supporters and devoted critics.
Tagovailoa, who said he hired a mental coach to deal with criticism, revealed he first started experiencing it when his Crimson Tide lost the national championship game to Clemson his sophomore season.
“When I was in college, it would definitely bother me,” said Tagovailoa, who labeled that the time he began trying to stay off social media.
“I had to find a way to where I was trying to strive for excellence and not perfection,” Tagovailoa said. “Because then, for me, I knew I’d be lying to myself because I was never going to be perfect and I was going to be chasing something that wasn’t going to be there for me.
“I know I’m going to make mistakes, but it’s always about knowing better and then doing better.”
Tagovailoa himself hasn’t had many nice things to say about his experience under the direction of former Dolphins coach Brian Flores in his first two NFL seasons. But, as Flores returned to Miami on Sunday night as a Steelers defensive assistant, several Dolphins players said this past week there are no hard feelings.
“It’s exciting, just to be able to see him in person,” safety Brandon Jones said. “I haven’t talked to him in a while, obviously, but I’m excited.”
“If I see him, I’ll say what’s up,” tight end Mike Gesicki. “I don’t know if we’ll cross paths, but I’ve got no ill will or anything towards coach Flo.”
Right guard Robert Hunt also indicated he would like to greet him.
Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins felt it wouldn’t impact the game.
“It’s just business as usual,” Wilkins said. “We’re preparing to play the Steelers and obviously there’s history there with Flo and everything, but we’re just preparing business as usual getting ready for the Steelers.”
Flores’ straightforward style was enough to maybe sometimes rub players the wrong way, but others appreciated it.
“One thing I’ll say about coach Flo was he always honest,” linebacker Jerome Baker said. “That was the one thing that never changed. He didn’t care if he hurt your feelings. He didn’t care if it got under your skin a little bit. You knew the guy just wanted to be honest and he was going to tell you the truth, and he wanted the best out of you.”
Gesicki described Flores as “super disciplined.”
Flores, who named the Dolphins in a class-action lawsuit against the NFL after his firing in January, told ESPN this past week he doesn’t view Sunday as any sort of revenge game for him.