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50 Years of Finspiration: A Revolutionary Backfield

The Miami Dolphins in 2016 will celebrate 50 years (not seasons--that was last year) as a franchise. To commemorate this milestone, we'll take a look at the squads and player groups that first established the Dolphins as a force to be reckoned with in the early 1970s, made the team a perfect Super Bowl champion in 1972, took the NFL passing game to a mind-blowing new level in the 1980s, and led the team through the 1990s and into the 21st century. Let's begin this "50 Years of Finspiration" series with the players and coach who took the still-infant Miami Dolphins from expansion joke to aqua-and-orange-clad battering ram.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

You say you want a revolution ...

The late 1960s in the United States was a time of counterculture and social revolution; rebellion and experimentation; fear and political unrest. From the hippie utopia in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district and the American sexual revolution to presidential candidate Robert Kennedy's June 1968 assassination and the escalating war in Vietnam, change was everywhere; most every social norm turned on its head.

Simply put, the days of Leave It to Beaver were over, and they were never coming back.

Such change was prevalent on the radio and in cinema, as well. Instead of hearing songs about longing to be Johnny Angel's girl and meeting the leader of the pack at the candy store only to watch him die on his motorcycle, Americans instead heard songs about being a fortunate son; songs about living in the eve of destruction; songs about a need to get out of this place--the place in question being Vietnam.

Similarly, Hollywood began producing films that reflected the change taking place in society. The Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway film Bonnie and Clyde was quickly championed by the counterculture and baby boomer generation for its foray into violent and sexual themes (total no-nos in 1967). The film's main characters were reckless lovers who eschewed society's boundaries and gave it the middle finger as they led a life on the run, doing what they wanted when they wanted. Those themes resounded heavily with baby boomers (minus the murderous behavior, of course), and Hollywood two years later took it a step further with Easy Rider, a film that raised a scary notion: social revolution had indeed arrived, but it wasn't celebrated by everyone, and it could come at a steep price.

Many of the themes--rebellion, attitude, cool--that permeated American society in the late 1960s eventually found their way into sports. Perhaps nowhere were those themes more prominent than in the offensive backfield for the American Football League's Miami Dolphins, thanks to two players the team drafted in 1968.

The birth of a dynasty ... and all of that facial hair

That January, the Dolphins, heading into their third season, selected fullback Larry Csonka eighth overall out of Syracuse University, and in the fifth round tabbed running back Jim Kiick out of the University of Wyoming. Miami at the time couldn't have known that it had just planted the seeds for what would become a revolutionary backfield platoon off and on the field--the two entered the league as clean-cut rookies, and it would be another two years before the arrival of both head coach Don Shula and the culture change that turned Csonka and Kiick into the National Football League's most feared running back duo. Soon, however, Csonka and Kiick both adopted grooming styles (later immortalized on the Aug. 7, 1972, cover of Sports Illustrated) that wouldn't have been out of place on Dennis Hopper or Rob Reiner--Csonka with a mustache and combed mane; Kiick with shoulder-length hair and a Fu Manchu. Social revolution, meet the Miami Orange Bowl.

Hollywood made an unknowing contribution to the Csonka-Kiick backfield with the release of the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The film's title soon became a nickname for Miami's dynamic running back duo, with Csonka as Sundance and Kiick as Butch Cassidy. Not coincidentally, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was another counterculture favorite, with a theme that practically dominated cinema in the late 1960s: life on the run.

The maestro arrives

Despite a miserable first four seasons under head coach George Wilson, the Dolphins drafted well, selecting quarterback Bob Griese and wide receiver/punter Larry Seiple in 1967; Csonka, tackle Doug Crusan, safety Dick Anderson and Kiick in 1968; and defensive end Bill Stanfill, defensive tackle Bob Heinz, running back Eugene 'Mercury" Morris and defensive back Lloyd Mumphord in 1969. Miami also acquired considerable talent outside of the draft, signing undrafted free agent defensive tackle Manny Fernandez in 1968, and trading for San Diego Chargers guard Larry Little and Boston Patriots linebacker Nick Buoniconti in 1969. At the conclusion of that season, Wilson was replaced by the man who took Miami's young, talented roster and turned it into the team that dominated the NFL in the early 1970s: Don Shula.

Shula's ability and influence as a head coach were already apparent prior to his arrival in Miami--he had led the 1968 Baltimore Colts to Super Bowl III, only to suffer an upset defeat at the hands of Joe Namath and the New York Jets. Shula's reputation as a coaching maestro was well-deserved, and it took him little time to whip Miami into playoff-caliber shape.

Kiick was already a capable power back and receiving threat prior to the Shula era in Miami; however, Csonka's running style experienced a much-needed transformation under the new head coach. At 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, Csonka was already an enormous backfield specimen when he arrived in Miami in 1968, yet he took a considerable amount of punishment and suffered multiple concussions his first two seasons in the NFL, largely due to his upright, head-first posture while carrying the football. That changed under Shula's tutelage, as Csonka quickly morphed into the ultimate backfield weapon, leading with his forearm and running with more bend in his knees and torso. As a result, Csonka and Kiick almost immediately became Miami's offensive focal point under Shula, and they quickly put the NFL on notice: they were the hunters, not the hunted

Kiick in 1968 and '69 logged more carries and gained more yards than his backfield counterpart; however, Csonka in 1970 out-carried and out-rushed Kiick, and would do so again each of the next four seasons. But for all of the grit, savvy and sledgehammer punch Csonka and Kiick brought to the table, one key element was still absent from Miami's backfield: breathtaking speed. That would soon change.

Mercury rising

Mercury Morris came to the Dolphins in 1969 as a third-round pick out of West Texas State University, where he set NCAA records for rushing yards in a game, season and collegiate career. Things were more slower-going for Morris early during his professional career, serving primarily as a kickoff and punt returner. Eventually, his blazing speed and the electrifying nature with which he carried the football eventually proved irresistible to Shula, who began to work Morris into Miami's backfield with Csonka and Kiick.

Morris served as Kiick's backup during the 1971 season, starting just three games as the Dolphins made a surprise run to Super Bowl VI, the organization's first championship game berth. The Dolphins that afternoon were throttled by the Cowboys 24-3, but Miami's championship blueprint was firmly in place for the 1972 season and beyond. Unfortunately for Kiick, that blueprint would call for a far larger contribution from Morris in Miami's backfield.

The dream backfield helps power the dream season

Ask a football fan--die-hard or casual--about the 1972 Miami Dolphins and you'll likely hear them emphasize one word: perfect. The '72 Dolphins went 17-0 on their way to a victory in Super Bowl VII and their first Lombardi Trophy. But why was that Dolphins team perfect? What did they have that all other 49 Super Bowl champion teams didn't possess? For starters, Miami had an excellent quarterback in Griese, a world-class pass-catcher in Paul Warfield and the greatest coach of all time in Don Shula. However, if you're looking to boil down the 1972 Dolphins to an exact formula, it would look something like this: luck, teamwork, an incredible defense and a once-in-a-lifetime backfield, which just so happened to run behind an outrageously good offensive line featuring left tackle Wayne Moore (who replaced Doug Crusan), guard Bob Kuechenberg, center Jim Langer, guard Larry Little and right tackle Norm Evans.

Miami's championship backfield was built on three pillars: Csonka's fearsome, sledgehammer approach to running the football; Morris' slippery runs and ballistic speed; and Kiick's ability to make huge contributions as a change-of-pace back. It was common knowledge in 1972 that Kiick wasn't overly thrilled with backing up Morris, but he swallowed his medicine and went to work, displaying a knack for supplying big plays when Miami needed them most. Nowhere was this more evident than in the '72 playoffs, where Kiick saved the day with a timely touchdown against the plucky Cleveland Browns at the Orange Bowl, and then buried the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium with two second-half TDs.

Miami's defense stole the show in Super Bowl VII against the Washington Redskins, but there were plenty of big runs to be had, including Kiick's one-yard touchdown to put Miami up 14-0 before halftime. The Dolphins' defense continued to suffocate the Redskins in the second half en route to a 14-7 Miami victory, cementing the perfect season and giving Miami its first Super Bowl championship.

By far most difficult part of explaining the Miami Dolphins' Super Bowl backfield is articulating Jim Kiick's niche--his signature skill--as a running back. Csonka was a human bulldozer, feared by every defense lined up across from him; Morris was an electrifying, lightning quick ballcarrier. Kiick, meanwhile, wasn't exceptionally fast, and he wasn't a Csonka-style bull carrying the ball. Rather, Kiick was simply a great football player--a savvy, tough, shifty runner who was a clutch performer and an excellent receiver out of the backfield. Was he a jack of all trades, master of none? Maybe. But without him, it's possible Miami in the 1972 playoffs doesn't survive the Browns or beat a Steelers squad considered a team of destiny for its improbable victory over the Oakland Raiders the previous week (aka the "Immaculate Reception").

What do you do for an encore?

Csonka, Morris and Kiick were the perfect vehicle for Shula's run-heavy offense, as evidenced in the 1973 team's run to Super Bowl VIII. Perfection wasn't on the table that season after the Dolphins lost in Oakland in Week 2, but a second championship was absolutely Miami's to lose, with Csonka rushing for over 1,000 yards and Morris just missing the 1,000-yard plateau with 954 yards rushing. The 14-2 Dolphins hit the '73 playoffs like a ton of bricks, holding off the Cincinnati Bengals in a 34-16 victory before returning the favor to the Raiders in the AFC Championship with a 27-10 piledriving at the Orange Bowl. One of the most notable statistics to come out of the '73 AFC Championship Game: Griese attempted just six passes on the afternoon. That total was hardly an outlier and absolutely a testament to the power of Miami's rushing attack, as Griese in Super Bowl VIII attempted just seven passes in a 24-7 rout of the Minnesota Vikings and their hard-charging, ferocious "Purple People Eaters" defense.

Nothing lasts forever, and all good things must come to an end

The Dolphins' bid for a third consecutive Lombardi Trophy fell short on Dec. 21, 1974, against the Raiders at the Oakland Coliseum in what became known as the "Sea of Hands" game. Following the '74 season, Csonka and Kiick (along with Warfield) emulated Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid one last time by departing for the World Football League. Csonka's three-year deal with the WFL was worth $1.4 million, but the league folded up midway through the 1975 season.

Csonka returned to the NFL and played three seasons for the New York Giants before finishing his career with the Dolphins in 1979. Kiick also returned to the NFL, playing two seasons with the Denver Broncos before finishing his career with the Washington Redskins. Morris played seven years in Miami and one in San Diego before retiring, largely due to a neck injury he suffered late in the 1973 season.

It all comes full circle

The Miami Dolphins in the early 1970s played with a fire and attitude that were extensions of head coach Don Shula, built on the philosophy that success, consistency and, yes, perfection are the result of talent, desire, hard work and intense preparation. Nowhere was this more evident than in Miami's backfield, where three all-time great backs came together to run around, through and over NFL defenses while dominating the early 1970s. The winning example they set is still in place today, and it will continue to live on as the Miami Dolphins further embark into the 21st century.

Later this month, we'll examine the Dolphins' "No-Name Defense" and its early '70s ascension from rag-tag gang to league juggernaut .