The Cleveland Browns had an exemplary season in 1972, but practically none of their long-time fans ever talks about it anymore. That is unfortunate because that team managed to fight back against numerous injuries all year long to make the NFL playoffs with a 10-4 record. Despite not going any further than the first round of the postseason tournament, however, Cleveland supporters nationwide would still be talking in a glowing fashion about the Browns’ 1972 season today…if it were not for just one game.
Cleveland’s Christmas Eve visit to the Orange Bowl to play the undefeated Miami Dolphins was somewhat akin to David taking on Goliath. That is the way it appeared before the opening kickoff of that contest. All the numbers and all the facts were firmly held in Miami’s favor. The only factor that one might have pointed to ever so slightly where Cleveland had an edge was at the quarterback position. The Browns were led by Mike Phipps, a strong-armed three-year veteran signal-caller from Purdue University. The Dolphins were led by Earl Morrall, a journeyman quarterback who was filling in for injured starter Bob Griese. Morrall would go on to play for six different teams in his 23-year pro career. You do not stay in the league that long without having some talents and abilities. Morrall had done an admirable job in keeping Miami’s unblemished record intact since he entered the team’s offensive huddle in the fifth week of the 1972 season.
Cleveland thus had an edge as far as youth and athleticism was involved at the quarterback position. But the Dolphins had the edge at the same position when the subject of experience was discussed. This game would prove in the end that experience would prevail.
But before that individual matchup between primary positions would play out, another element that was often seen in tight football games would once again show up to make a vibrant statement. That element was the special teams. The Dolphins surged to a 7-0 first-quarter lead when rookie Miami defensive back Charlie Babb stormed in from punt return formation and blocked a Don Cockcroft punt. Babb dove on the dribbling ball at Cleveland’s 8-yard line, and after discovering that no Browns player was pursuing him, strolled into the end zone amidst a convoy of teammates. A Garo Yepremian field goal increased the Miami cushion to 10-0 by halftime.
Things were going according to plan for the Dolphins. It was a plan that they had been able to pull off for most of their games in 1972: Establish an early lead, control the ball, and dominate on defense. Despite the success of this formula, however, Miami head coach Don Shula had to be feeling some concern. Earl Morrall had managed to throw for only 12 yards in the first half. Moreover, the Dolphins offense had only one first down through the air in the first half, and by the final gun, would manage to convert on only one third down in the entire game.
Cleveland added to Shula’s concern by showing some resolve in the second half. Mike Phipps had a tremendously tough day when throwing against the Miami zone defense, but he somehow managed to direct his team to a touchdown in the third quarter. Phipps rolled out to his right, and after discovering that Miami’s defenders had his receivers covered, sprinted for the corner of the end zone. Phipps allowed Dolphins linebacker Mike Kolen to overrun him on the play, then lunged for the flag while breaking an attempted tackle by Miami defensive end Vern Den Herder. Phipps’ 5-yard scoring run gave Cleveland a new life, and the whole team responded with inspired play. Cleveland’s defense managed to hold Miami fullback Larry Csonka to a mere 32 yards on 12 carries, a key element in giving the Browns at least a chance to stay close to the Dolphins.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Cleveland’s offense began another march toward the Miami goal. Browns wide receiver Fair Hooker ran a flag pattern and found himself all alone as he ran to the sideline. Phipps withstood a strong Miami pass rush and just as he was hit, he lofted the ball to Hooker. The Cleveland pass-catcher slowed down to cradle the ball, then skipped one yard inside the end zone flag for the touchdown. Hooker’s score and the ensuing extra point gave the Browns a shocking 14-13 lead with just eight minutes remaining in the game.
But the Dolphins did not achieve an undefeated record in 1972 by accident. They proved their determined mettle by conducting a seven-play, 80-yard drive to the winning score. The key man on this drive was wide receiver Paul Warfield, himself a former player for the Browns. Warfield caught two key passes on the drive, one in which he was leveled by Cleveland defensive backs Ben Davis and Thom Darden and still managed to hold on to the ball. A few plays later, Warfield drew a pass interference penalty from Cleveland linebacker Billy Andrews, which resulted in another Dolphins first down. Finally, Warfield’s catch of a deep pass down the middle over Davis led directly to the winning score. Reserve halfback Jim Kiick culminated the clutch drive with an 8-yard touchdown run up the middle of the Cleveland defense.
One final Browns offensive surge ended when Miami linebacker Doug Swift intercepted his second pass of the game, and the fifth overall that the Dolphins picked off against Mike Phipps. Miami prevailed...or rather, survived, 20-14, in one of the tightest contests that they had played all year.
In the aftermath of this game, it is easy to speculate and determine the most obvious reason for Cleveland’s loss. Had Mike Phipps been able to limit his interceptions to three (instead of the five that he was responsible for), it is a distinct possibility (and maybe even probability) that the Browns would have upset the Dolphins on this day. And what an upset it would have been! For the past 50 years, Miami has been rightfully lauded as having the only perfect season in modern NFL history. On December 24, 1972, the Cleveland Browns came oh so close to changing that narrative and defeating the undefeated.
Zagorski, Joe. The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football’s Most Important Decade. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2016.
Joe Zagorski is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Pro Football Researchers Association. He has written five pro football books and numerous articles on the sport and its players. He is currently writing a book on former Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame offensive guard Larry Little.