Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Rotten fish

Wow. Just when it appeared that the 1972 Miami Dolphins were not, in fact, a bunch of pathetic old men clinging desperately to their fading moment in the sun, they go and reassert their sorry selves. For a team that won every game they played, they have proved themselves over and over during the ensuing 35 years to be an astounding pack of losers.

Exhibit A: In mid-December, as the New England Patriots were 14-0 and closing in on a perfect season of their own, Larry Csonka was taking part in ceremonies in Miami honoring the '72 Dolphins. (And it seems like they have those ceremonies about every six weeks down there. What else are they going to celebrate?) Csonka, the power runner on the early-'70s Dolphins teams before he chased the big money to the World Football League, commented that Patriots coach Bill Belichick was some kind of fool for playing his starters and playing to win even after New England had the No. 1 playoff seed locked up.

"He isn’t pulling his people out," Csonka said of Belichick. "He’s got a Super Bowl to worry about. Why would you even play Brady the next two games? Why would you even take a chance?" Well, Larry, perhaps because he has already won three Super Bowls, which is one more than ... um ... oh, I don't know ... you. (Hell, count the game plans he devised for Bill Parcells, and he's won five.)

This quote may well be the saddest I've seen all year. Every time any NFL team gets to 10-0, the '72 Dolphins -- led by Csonka's old backfield mate, former drug trafficker Mercury Morris -- take to the interview circuit to declare that all those wins don't mean nothin' if you don't win 'em all. As Morris famously declared, "Don't call me when you get to my neighborhood; call me when you get to my street." So here the Patriots were, driving up the Dolphins' street, and Csonka comes running out of the house in his bra and panties and his hair up and curlers, and he runs toward the Patriots' car waving his arms and screaming for them to turn around, turn around, for God's sake TURN AROUND.

(Despite what he says, I somehow suspect that Csonka had no problem with New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin's decision to play his starters for the whole game against the 15-0 Patriots, even though the Giants also had their playoff spot locked in. Perhaps Coughlin understood that when you have a shot at greatness, you take it. Greatness? Yes. Mention the "Miami Dolphins" and "undefeated season" to a football fan my age, and you're just as likely to hear 1985 mentioned as 1972. More likely, even.)

Exhibit B: Now that the Patriots have finished the regular season 16-0, Morris' teammates are crawling out of the woodwork to point out that New England hasn't in fact done anything yet. Guard Bob Kuechenberg probably sums up the entire team's feelings best when he pipes up from his rocker: "They’ve done a heck of a job thus far. But now the exhibition season is over and the real season begins."

In every other year since 1972, the Dolphins have made themselves feel good -- and relevant -- with the knowledge that whatever team had happened to win the Super Bowl really hadn't accomplished much because they'd still been beaten in the regular season. Lombardi Trophies are nice, they always say, but somebody gets one of those every year. WE, on the other hand, went undefeated in the regular season, and that's the hardest thing you can do. (Especially when punks like Larry Csonka are pissing all over you for playing to win.) In other words, in most seasons the '72 Dolphins are quick to point out that it's not the Super Bowl title that made them special, it was the 14-0 regular season before that. This year, the Patriots have finished an even longer regular season undefeated, and ... well, look at that. The regular season doesn't matter anymore!

Every small town has a few guys who set high school football records about 30 years ago. Some of them move away and make something of themselves, and they continue to live their lives with the tape deck set on "play." And then, decades later, when some kid breaks a record, the local paper will track down the guy who just got passed, and he'll offer hearty congratulations. He might even have assumed that the record was broken a long time ago. Over the course of his life, if the topic of high school football came up in conversation, and if it seemed relevant, he would mention that he set a record and that it felt good at the time and that he's proud of it, but that it was a long time ago, and he's got a lot more to be proud of (then he pulls out the pictures of his kids).

But some of those old record breakers never leave town and never make something of themselves. Their tape deck goes stop-rewind-play, stop-rewind-play. You know the guy: He sits up at the top of the bleachers at every game, and he looks out at the current players -- kids who dare to be young and able while his body just gets older and saggier -- and he's filled with resentment. And when one of those kids starts getting close to one of his old records (or, better yet, to the last of his old records), he starts quietly rooting against him. Wishes for an injury, even. The kid gets closer, and he's not so quiet anymore. Nothing against the kid, he'll say, but it was harder in my day. And he'll go on to talk about the better equipment and the better field and the better conditioning, and it will be clear that he's doing just what the 1972 Dolphins are doing right now: Moving the goalposts every which direction, so that no matter what that kid does -- or the New England Patriots do -- the record will always stay intact, if only in his mind.

More from Kuechenberg: "If (the Patriots run the table in the playoffs, too), they will have earned it. But my heart is dead set against it. The ’72 team is uniquely immortal in American sports, and I don’t want us to lose that special place." Now, if he'd just stopped there, it'd be OK. Even being the asshole that I am, I do understand melancholy. We all want to feel special for the rest of our lives, and there's a certain sadness in seeing our achievements surpassed. But he goes on: "We will forever be immortal, and if they win every game in front of them, then they will join us among those ranks. They will have deserved, it and I will congratulate them. But something in my heart makes me feel that we accomplished something so special that it forever sets the standard of excellence in sports. Imperfect is mortal. Perfect is immortal.”

Well, no, God is immortal. You're just a fucking football team. But between the lines, it's obvious what he's saying: Even if the Patriots finish undefeated, even if they do it in a league that's 10 times tougher and 10 times more competitive, even if they do it by beating four playoff-caliber teams from their own conference (Colts, Chargers, Steelers, Browns) and three from the NFC (Cowboys, Redskins, Giants) while the 1972 Dolphins' best opponents were two 8-6 teams, even if they shatter every NFL record along the way, it won't matter -- because Miami went undefeated first. The Dolphins are saying they will always be Neil Armstrong, and the best the Patriots can aspire to be is Buzz Aldrin. What they don't get, though, is that while they were the first to walk on the moon, the Patriots are now walking on fucking Mars, and they're thinking maybe they could stroll on the surface of the sun and not even break a sweat.

So as the '72 Dolphins hunch over the toilet tonight (I hear it's taco night at the elder-care facility), they'd do well to consider the example of another Miami legend: Dan Marino. In 2004, when Peyton Manning was closing in on the record for touchdown passes in a season that Marino had held for 20 years, Marino admitted feeling wistful, admitted hoping that he could keep the record. But he didn't bitch about how the rules nowadays go out of their way to protect quarterbacks and prevent contact with receivers. He didn't insist that the record he set in 1984 was only meaningful because the Dolphins went to the Super Bowl that year. (They didn't win, though, so Mercury Morris wants you to know that the '84 Dolphins are pussies.) But he didn't do any of that. He sighed a little, shrugged his shoulders and congratulated Manning. A few years later, when Brett Favre started approaching all of Marino's career passing marks, Marino could have intimated that Favre was hanging around the league past his due date just to break his records. He could have -- and before this season, a lot of people would have thought he was right. (Just like Jim Brown was right about Franco Harris but didn't have any problem with Walter Payton breaking his records.) But he didn't. He sighed a little, shrugged his shoulders and congratulated Favre. Marino knows he's in the Hall of Fame. Knows that he was one of the greatest quarterbacks in history. Knows that he has carved out a successful second career as a broadcaster and that that's where his energy belongs.

What Marino understands, and what the '72 Dolphins have failed to grasp after more than three decades, is that while the record books may play a zero-sum game, the history books do not. The fact that someone broke your records does not mean that you never held them. Babe Ruth and Roger Maris are still with us, after all, just as Jack Nicklaus will be with us long after Tiger Woods wins his 20th major. The fact that someone matches or even surpasses your accomplishments does not diminish your accomplishments.

Next time he crosses paths with Mercury Morris down in Miami, Marino could try explaining that. Good luck.

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