The Miami Dolphins (AFC) came into the 1972-73 NFL season looking for a do-over after a miserable Super Bowl performance against the Dallas Cowboys the year before (they lost 24-3 in a seemingly unmatched game). On the opposite side of the field sat a team brand new to the championship stage, also looking to capture its first title: The Washington Redskins of the NFC.
January 14, 1973, was not only the hottest Super Bowl on record (a steamy 84 °F in sunny California), but it was also the first time an NFL team laced up for the big game with an undefeated regular-season record. By the time you're done reading this article, you'll know whether the Miami Dolphins kept their undefeated streak, how long it took for the winning team to make their White House visit and the temperature difference between this Super Bowl and the previous one.
The 1972-73 Miami Dolphins football season was deep-seated in retribution. Former Colts quarterback Earl Morrall stepped in for Bob Griese after a devastating leg injury left him out of commission, with Morrall helping the team hold onto its undefeated streak for the rest of the regular season.
Alongside Morrall, the Dolphins lineup boasted many standouts from its previous Super Bowl run, including running back Larry Csonka (1,117 yards), receiver Paul Warfield (averaging 20.9 yards a catch), and linebacker Nick Buoniconti (allowing just 171 points all season). With a previously unheard of 14-0 record before the AFL-NFL merger, Miami was the favorite to win Super Bowl VII.
The Washington Redskins went into Super Bowl VII with a unique strategy spearheaded by head coach George Allen: Get rid of the rookies and send the veteran players out on the field. This strategy earned the Redskins the moniker "The Over-the-Hill Gang" and increased the average player age on the team to 31.
In its experienced starting lineup, the Redskins had stars like quarterback Billy Kilmer (19 touchdowns on the season), running back Larry Brown (1,216 yards), and linebacker Chris Hanburger (four interceptions). Washington ended the 1972-73 NFL season with a regular-season record of 11-3, two wins more than the previous season.
Miami didn't just go into Super Bowl VII leading the league in points (385) and rushing yards (2,960) — they also stepped onto the field with plenty of doubters. Coach Don Shula was secretly sick with the flu the week of the big game and was unsure whether to start Griese (who spent most of the season sidelined due to a broken leg) or Morrall (who led the team to its unprecedented 14-0 season) at quarterback.
The Redskins also secured their spot in Super Bowl VII with much greater ease than the Dolphins. Additionally, Miami's regular-season schedule was far less rigorous than anticipated (only two teams had winning records), leading many to believe their undefeated record wasn't as ground-breaking as it seemed.
On January 14, 1973, about 90,182 loyal NFL fans trickled into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — the site of the first Super Bowl — to watch Miami and Washington duke it out on the gridiron. Fans in the sold-out stadium spent an average of $15 for a seat (valued at $87.93 in today's money) to sit in the unbearable California heat, with Super Bowl VII being 45 degrees warmer than the previous year.
Following a pre-game show honoring the moon-bound astronauts on Apollo 17, a National Anthem performance by the Little Angels children's choir, and a coin flip landing on heads, Super Bowl VII took off without a hitch.
Despite Miami choosing to receive the kick after winning the coin flip, they couldn't make good on their quest for a strong start to the game. Both teams struggled to find their footing early in quarter one, trading two punts each before the Dolphins began a strategic drive with hardly three minutes left in the quarter.
After a series of successful plays by Jim Kiick (11 yards) and Paul Warfield (a snatched 18-yard pass), Griese connected with receiver Howard Twilley who bolted into the end zone after his only catch of the game. The Dolphins ended the first quarter of Super Bowl VII with a 7-0 lead over the Redskins.
Washington began the second quarter with possession and a desire to make its comeback early in the game. Still, Kilmer effortlessly lost control on the third play with an interception to Dolphins' safety Jake Scott.
After trading punts — again — and a negated Miami touchdown resulting from a penalty by receiver Marlin Briscoe, Miami linebacker Nick Buoniconti caught a pass intended for Washington's Jerry Smith. With just 18 seconds left in the first half, Miami's Kiick caught a 1-yard bullet in the end zone and brought Miami to a 14-0 lead.
As the two teams went into the locker room for halftime, fans in the Coliseum got to enjoy a stellar performance by jazz musician Woody Herman, Grammy-winning singer Andy Williams, and the Michigan Marching Band.
The Redskins returned to the field during the second half, desperately looking to find their place on the scoreboard. However, Kilmer was unable to complete a pass to Charley Taylor at the 2-yard-line, lost yardage on the next few plays, and resorted to a field goal attempt that went far wide. The third quarter of Super Bowl VII concluded with the Dolphins still up 14-0 and an impressive near-record run (49 yards) by Csonka.
After finding themselves on the 34-yard-line on fourth down early in the final quarter, Miami coach Don Shula had a seemingly brilliant idea: Go for the field goal to end both their season and Super Bowl VII 17-0. Dolphins' kicker Garo Yepremian kicked far too low for the ball to find the uprights, instead of meeting the hands of Redskins tackle Bill Brundige.
After recovering the loose ball, Yepremian unintentionally sent the ball into the hands of Washington cornerback Mike Bass. For the first time in Super Bowl history, a team (Washington, in this case) scored a touchdown following a fumble. With a little more than two minutes left in the game, the Redskins only trailed 14-7.
The Redskins delivered a deep kick to Miami after the touchdown, a surprising play in many sports commentators' and fans' eyes. The Redskins had no other option than to waste their timeouts as Miami attempted to run down the clock in Super Bowl VII.
Washington miraculously forced a turnover with barely a minute remaining but could not secure a game-tying touchdown to bring the game into overtime. Super Bowl VII ended 14-7, with Miami holding onto its undefeated record.
Many expected Dolphins' nose tackle Manny Fernandez to walk out of the Coliseum with the "MVP" award after his incredible on-field performance (17 tackles) during Super Bowl VII.
However, Dick Schaap, the man responsible for choosing the MVP, later revealed that a long night out led him to overlook Fernandez's performance on the D-line. Instead, safety Jake Scott (63 yards and two interceptions) earned the title, making him just the second defensive player in Super Bowl history to accomplish this feat.
NBC held sole broadcasting rights to Super Bowl VII, a championship game that amassed over 67.7 million viewers across America and received a Nielsen rating of 42.7.
Interestingly, Super Bowl VII wasn't supposed to be the only hot television event aired on the network that day. NBC scrapped its original plans to air its global broadcast of Elvis' Aloha from Hawaii concert after a scheduling conflict with the Big Game.
Coming off a previous appearance at Super Bowl VI and with an undefeated regular-season record, it's not surprising that the Miami Dolphins were "favorites" to win Super Bowl VII. Miami successfully covered the 1-point spread.
With a final score of 14-7 and an over/under of 33 points, those betting under walked home with cash.
The aftermath of Super Bowl VII was one that broke tradition. Given Richard Nixon's involvement in the Watergate Scandal, the Super Bowl champions (the Miami Dolphins) held off on their White House visit until 2013, four decades after winning.
Super Bowl VII wasn't the last time the Dolphins or Redskins would qualify for the main stage, nor would it be the last time they met again on the biggest stage in the NFL. One of these franchises would return for another shot at the world title the following season.