It’s a good thing Don Shula didn’t have a trade partner for Larry Csonka. If he had, the Miami Dolphins’ legendary fullback wouldn’t be presenting the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the winner of Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday night.
It’s been 50 years since Csonka capped off the Dolphins’ successful title defense with an MVP performance in Super Bowl VIII. It was the defining moment in what was a Hall of Fame career for Csonka, who recently wrote a book about his fascinating life. It includes his first meeting with Shula and how their partnership nearly ended before it started.
“It was one of those things where you’re really glad how you felt three days ago didn’t overrule what dropped in your lap,” Csonka said in a one-on-one interview with CBS Sports. “I stayed where I was at, and that’s where I should have been. … I’m glad that he couldn’t get much for me because I stayed where I belonged.”
It’s crazy to think that the engine behind the NFL’s only perfect team was nearly traded before he had even played a game for Shula, who arrived in Miami in 1970 after a run with the Colts that is mostly known for his historic Super Bowl loss to the Jets. In Miami, Shula was heading to a team that had won just 15 games during its first four years of existence.
The Dolphins made the playoffs that first season under Shula, and went to the Super Bowl the following year. Miami lost that game, but proceeded to win the next two Super Bowls while compiling a 32-2 record.
Nearly 50 years after their first meeting, Shula and Csonka were together again to celebrate the Hall of Fame coach’s 90th birthday. It was a full circle moment for the two men who nearly broke up before they had barely gotten to know each other.
So, what was said in that first meeting between the two? And how did the two go from nearly splitting up to winning back-to-back titles and being integral parts of the NFL’s only perfect team? Csonka explained that and much more during our conversation ahead of Super Bowl LVIII.
Despite Shula’s success in Baltimore (running up a 71-23-4 regular-season record), Csonka wasn’t very impressed with his new coach heading into the 1970 season. Specifically, Csonka didn’t like Shula’s history with power backs, which was basically a nonexistent one.
Csonka didn’t think it was a good fit. He quickly learned that his new coach felt the same way.
“I don’t like you very much,” Csonka recalled telling Shula during their first one-on-one meeting.
“Well, that’s good,” Shula responded, “because we have something in common, because I don’t care much for you either.”
Csonka quickly got to the matter at hand. He asked Shula if he had looked into trading him.
“Yes, I have,” Shula said, “and I can’t get much for you.”
If the meeting left Csonka dejected, it didn’t last long. In fact, Csonak’s thoughts about his situation changed as soon as he saw Miami’s new offensive line coach, Monte Clark, the Monte Clark who blocked for Jim Brown, the ultra power back whom Csonka idolized as a kid growing up near Cleveland.
“Had I had any inclination that Monte Clark was going to be there and that was going to be set up, I would not have said what I said to Shula on that first meeting,” Csonka said, “because that made the difference.”
Clark’s philosophy fit the Dolphins’ offensive personnel like a glove. Along with Csonka, the Dolphins featured an immensely talented offensive line, led by Larry Little, Jim Langer and Bob Kuechenberg.
Csonka made the Pro Bowl that season, and the Dolphins won 10 games while capturing the franchise’s first playoff berth. What followed was one of the most incredible three-year runs in the history of professional sports.
While they were a good team in 1970, not many people considered the Dolphins to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender heading into 1971. But that’s why they play the game.
Miami rolled to a 10-3-1 regular season. In the playoffs, the Dolphins shocked the Chiefs in the longest game in NFL history before shutting out Shula’s old team — the Colts — in the AFC title game, punching the franchise’s first ticket to the Super Bowl. It was an incredible feat that the Dolphins probably enjoyed a little too much.
In retrospect, Miami couldn’t have picked a worse opponent to face in Super Bowl VI. While the Dolphins were happy to be in the Super Bowl, the Dallas Cowboys were anything but after basically giving away the previous year’s Super Bowl. Add in the fact that they had lost several other championship games in recent years, the Cowboys were as hungry to win Super Bowl VI as a starving lion.
If the Cowboys were a lion, the Dolphins were a giraffe. Dallas took control early, and never let go. Csonka fumbled in that game after 238 straight carries without one. The Dolphins became the first Super Bowl team to not score a touchdown. The Cowboys scored 24 points while burying their legacy as a team that couldn’t win the big one.
The 24-3 loss hit the Dolphins like an anvil. They quickly realized that getting to the Super Bowl is one thing; winning it is an entirely different thing.
Over the following months, Shula never let his players forget how they felt that day in Tulane Stadium. It was the driving force behind the greatest season in NFL history.
“I tend to feel if we win or do much better against Dallas in Super Bowl VI, I don’t know if Super Bowl VII and the undefeated season would have been there,” Csonka said. “I don’t know if we would have had the rededication had we not gotten defeated by Dallas so badly.
“I think that was the starting point, if you will. Instead of covering that up and forgetting it, Shula dug that corpse up and dragged that rotten body on the field with us day in and day out. I know that’s very graphic, but it illustrates just how graphic he was about it. He said, ‘We’re going to pay attention with every game, starting with Week 1 all the way through the rest of the season. Our objective is not just to win, our objective is to win every week, get back to the playoffs and get back to the Super Bowl.'”
The perfect season
There are a lot of reasons why the 1972 Dolphins went undefeated. They were loaded on both sides of the ball, which was evident in the fact that they led the NFL in both scoring and in fewest points allowed.
Offensively, the ’72 Dolphins were the first team that featured two 1,000-yard backs in Csonka and Mercury Morris. That, Csonka said, gave the Dolphins an advantage that is hard to put into words.
“I think the strength of our team in the ’70s,” Csonka said, “was the fact that we controlled the game by controlling the clock by getting first downs and making that third and short yardage, which was consistently almost perfect during that perfect season.”
Miami’s appropriately nicknamed “No Name” defense was also a huge part in the Dolphins’ success. The unit, which boasted just one future Hall of Famer (linebacker Nick Buoniconti), did not have a weakness. They allowed just three opponents to score over 20 points. In the playoffs, Miami’s defense gave up 31 points that included a shutout of Washington’s offense in Super Bowl VII.
Manny Fernandez led the Dolphins with 17 tackles in Super Bowl VII. Safety Jake Scott won MVP by virtue of his two balletic interceptions.
“It came right down to the wire,” Csonka said while recalling Miami’s final game of the ’72 season. “Our defense had played superb ball. They weren’t just tough, they were tough and smart. They did not make mental errors, and that made the difference in going the distance in winning those final games.”
Miami was a perfect team on the field, but that wasn’t the only area where it reached perfection. The team’s selfless attitude played a huge role in going undefeated.
Consider that the Dolphins had Paul Warfield, who in 2019 was named to the NFL’s 100th All-Time Team. Warfield caught 29 passes that season, but you’d never know it if you were his teammate back then.
Csonka, who agreed that Miami’s team-first spirit was a big factor in its success, alluded to the selflessness of fellow running back Jim Kiick and quarterback Earl Morrall. Kiick accepted a reduced role in the offense to make room for Morris. Morrall went 10-0 as the Dolphins’ starting quarterback that year, but didn’t blink when Shula took him out of a tied AFC championship game in Pittsburgh in favor of Bob Griese.
“Morrall had seen a lot of battles with Shula,” Csonka said. “They both knew what the other was thinking. Far before either of them confronted each other, both of them had it on their mind. They knew that Pittsburgh was prepared and was ready for what we had to offer, so we changed what we were offering by changing the quarterback.
“It was a great moment and a great compliment to both the personalities of Don Shula and Earl Morrall. They rose above it, because they both knew it was the right thing to do.”
Miami defeated Pittsburgh, 21-17, on the strength of a big completion from Griese to Warfield that set up Kiick’s game-winning touchdowns. That’s right, the quarterback who started that game on the bench and two players who sacrificed all year came up with two of the game’s biggest plays. The third notable play in that game was punter Larry Seiple’s fake punt that people of a certain age in Pittsburgh are still talking about.
“I was coming out as Seiple was coming into punt,” Csonka recalled. “Seiple turned to Shula and said, ‘They’re not pressuring me. They’re turning and running.’ Shula said, ‘Do what you will, but you better make it if you’re going home with us.'”
Super Bowl VII
In the 33-minute phone call I had with Csonka, I can count on my hand the amount of times he mentioned himself. Whenever he did talk about himself, it was to convey the fact that he was a simple, hard-charging runner who seldom broke for long gains.
Csonka is humble, so I reminded him that he did have a 49-yard run in Super Bowl VII, which is still the sixth-longest run in Super Bowl history. As you can guess, Csonka made a self-depreciating joke about that run. He did reveal which one moment from Super Bowl VII sticks with him most.
That moment occurred in the locker room shortly after Miami’s 14-7 win, before the media or anyone from the outside came in. Scott, fresh off becoming the first defensive back to win Super Bowl MVP, spoke to his teammates, who had just accomplished a feat that had not been done to that point and has not been duplicated since.
“Before the celebration started, he [Scott] stood up and looked at all of us and said, ‘I don’t believe any of us realize what we just did,'” Csonka recalled. “We just finished the only perfect season in the history of the league. That moment rings in my mind. That’s why I always go to the Super Bowl celebrations and see the guys jumping around, and it flashes me back to that moment. I can see the look on Jake Scott’s face when he’s standing there saying, ‘I don’t think any of us realize what the hell we just did.'”
Csonka openly acknowledged that the ’73 Dolphins didn’t quite have the same desire that the ’72 team had. While that may have been true, an early-season loss to the Raiders quickly got them back on the path toward successfully defending their title. A second perfect season may have been out the window, but repeating as champions was very much still in play.
“I don’t think we were willing to sacrifice enough to have back-to-back undefeated seasons,” Csonka said. “That shakeup that we had early in the season woke us up to the fact that people could beat us if we didn’t rise to the occasion. That gave us a little jolt, if you will. We had to earn it again, and we did.”
Miami lost just one more game the rest of the season. It blew out playoff foes Cincinnati, Oakland and then Minnesota in Super Bowl VIII. The win against the Vikings saw Csonka win MVP honors after rushing for a then-Super Bowl record 145 yards and two touchdowns.
Csonka won MVP, but he deflected a lot of the praise to his offensive line, especially Kuechenberg, who had a massive advantage against his former college teammate and Vikings Hall of Fame defensive tackle Alan Page.
Years earlier, during their time together at Notre Dame, Kuechenberg noticed that Page had a “tell” which indicated where he was going before the snap. When the two teams played during the ’72 season, Kuechenberg noticed that Page still had a “tell,” which came into play in a big way in Super Bowl VIII.
“He put only a couple of fingers down when he was going to his left or right,” Csonka said of Page, a stoic player who uncharacteristically lost his cool during Super Bowl VIII.
Upon seeing Page’s hand, Csonka said that Kuechenberg relayed the message in code to Griese, who called an audible to a play that attacked the area that Page was vacating. The result was Csonka running unscathed through the line and straight into Vikings’ defensive backs that gave up 60 to 70 pounds to Csonka’s 237 pounds.
“You can’t do things like that as a defensive lineman, particularly one as professional and great as Page was,” Csonka said. “For Kuechenberg to notice that as a freshman at Notre Dame, and then keep it in his mind all that time, that gives you an indication of how smart my offensive linemen were.”
While six other teams have repeated as champions (the Chiefs will try to become the ninth team to do so vs. the 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII), no other team has been able to match the Dolphins’ perfect season.
Csonka has his thoughts on why no other team has done so, despite a few close calls.
“The key to it is have somebody that wants it so badly that they’ve got something to prove by coming back to do it,” he said. “That’s what we were cast into. Until that arena is entered into and is something to aspire towards, I think that is the prerequisite. If you get slammed in the Super Bowl and want to come back, that may lead to that kind of intensity. It’s hard to imagine that kind of intensity going down
“I look at some of the teams (that came close). Certainly New England, the Chicago Bears, way back, came within one game. Those were real cliffhangers. But you see how the anticipation and the emotional part of it builds and builds, it’s almost just a flip of the coin. To be dominant enough to do it and overcome all of that takes a great a deal. I don’t see it happening in the near future, particularly with the added games.”
Csonka likes the 49ers’ chances of winning on Sunday, largely because of the fact that they have a dominant running back Christian McCaffrey, who could allow the 49ers to control the clock by converting on third-and-short situations. The same way he and his Dolphins team won back in the day.
When looking back at that time, Csonka specifically remembers when he first realized that the Dolphins could be on their way to something special. It came shortly after that first meeting with Shula, the coach he continues to revere to this day.
“It came to me in some of those early huddles,” Csonka said. “When I got into that huddle and I started to realize that my offensive linemen were looking straight across at me, eyeball to eyeball.
“None of us were allowed to talk; only the quarterback spoke in the huddle. But as the play is being called, they’re raising their eyebrows and nodding yes to me. What a feeling for a power running back! That means that they like what they’re hearing and they dig the play. They’re into it. That’s what they want to do.
“That teamwork, that feeling and being a part of that, is something that you can’t regain. I don’t know if it’s still on the field today. … When you’re so powerful, you know what you’re gonna do, the opposite defense knows what you’re gonna do, but they can’t stop it. That’s when you dictate terms and you control the clock. Back then, that won football games.”
It not only won football games. It was the blueprint for the first and only perfect season in NFL history. And the reason why Csonka will present the Lombardi Trophy to the winner of Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday night.