No. 4: The year Art Modell Helped the Dolphins go 17-0
The 1972 NFL season is best remembered as the year the Miami Dolphins went 17-0. However, Browns fans remember that as the year Art Modell’s blunders came back to haunt the team, which absolutely, positively should have beaten the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs. It is perhaps less memorable than Red Right 88 because it was an away game, but the ending was just as excruciating and awful. Moreover, this was a game which would have been won if only Art Modell were not acting as his own general manager. And the Dolphins were the biggest recipients.
Modell was acting as his own general manager, believing that his football intellect was much higher than anyone else’s. His assessment after the 1969 season was that they needed a strong-armed quarterback to get the ball to deep threat Paul Warfield. The football world was agog at the physical feats, popularity (and girlfriends) of rocket-armed Joe Namath, and so Art, being a genius, realized that he needed to have a Namath.
The Browns QB, Bill Nelson had knees like Namath’s but not the arm. According, the Browns moved up in the draft to take Mike Phipps from Purdue. Phipps struggled but finally became the starter in 1972. Maybe Phipps could have been a very good quarterback, but he did not have great targets after Gary Collins retired. Where was Paul Warfield? Oh that’s right, he had been traded for Phipps, and for good measure, the intrepid GM dealt All-Pro halfback Ron Johnson and starting defensive lineman Jim Kanicki for a receiver named Homer Jones, who caught 10 passes for the Browns and then retired. Not 10 passes in one game, that’s 10 passes in his entire Browns career. That was Modell’s replacement for Warfield.
Well, but at least Art had his version of Joe Namath in strong-armed Mike Phipps. By 1972, Phipps was the first-string quarterback and seemed to be improving as the season went on. At the same time, Terry Bradshaw and the Pittsburgh Steelers suddenly were having good years and their fan base was hysterical. This was the first year that there was a real rivalry, as the Steelers usually were terrible. Game 10 was a spectacular game with the Browns prevailing in a seesaw deathmatch with the Steelers, as Phipps led a comeback and Cockroft knocked in the game winner with 13 seconds left, after having missed the potential game-winning field goal with less than two minutes on the clock.
So our Browns made the playoffs in 1972 and traveled to Miami as the Wild Card after the Dolphins had gone 14-0 during the regular season. The Dolphins were quarterbacked by second-stringer Earl Morrall that game. Many fans remember Morrall’s career ending in Super Bowl III after getting beat by the Jets, but the truth is Earl won a ring in Super Bowl V, and now was subbing for injured Bob Griese.
In the playoff game, the Browns defense was sensational. It was possibly the greatest defensive effort in Browns’ history. They shut down Morrall as well as the running back tandem of Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris. But thanks to four interceptions by Mike Phipps, the Dolphins were ahead late in the fourth quarter, 20-15. The Browns were driving and looked like they were headed for a touchdown — until Phipps ended it with his fifth interception of the game. Fifth interception? Yes, that’s correct, Mike Phipps had five interceptions in that game, and the last one finished the Browns off for good. Warfield and the Dolphins went on to make NFL history by going 17-0 that year, but by all rights, the Browns should have knocked them out of the playoffs.
The owner’s giveaway of Warfield, Johnson, and Kanicki, was all that separated the Browns from going to the Super Bowl in those years. It was too much of a talent gap to overcome. It was certainly decisive in the playoff game against Miami. Warfield led the Dolphins with 91 yards from scrimmage. Modell received a quarterback who threw five interceptions in return. The Dolphins went on to win the Super Bowl and establish themselves as the only undefeated team in history. 17-0.