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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 12:47 a.m., Wednesday, November 7, 2007

NFL: Shula's '72 Dolphins might need asterisk, too

By Jim Litke
Associated Press Sports Columnist

Name a coach and NFL team caught cheating and then forced to give up a first-round pick, only to gain a measure of revenge by roughing up an opponent or two en route to a perfect season and a Super Bowl title.

Bill Belichick's New England Patriots?

How about Don Shula's 1972 Miami Dolphins?

The parallels aren't exact, since that Dolphins team is already in the record book and these Patriots are only halfway through their regular-season schedule. But Shula couldn't be bothered with distinctions earlier this week when he suggested an asterisk would be appropriate if the Patriots did make it onto the same page by season's end.

"The Spygate thing has diminished what they've accomplished," the retired Hall of Fame coach told the New York Daily News. "You would hate to have that attached to your accomplishments. They've got it."

If Shula believes that, then he ought to negotiate a twofer and paste the other asterisk next to his own undefeated team.

He was still the coach of the Baltimore Colts at the end of the 1969 season, when then-Miami owner Joe Robbie approached him and signed Shula to a contract. The NFL charged the Dolphins with tampering and awarded their first-round pick to the Colts. Undaunted, Miami reached the Super Bowl in 1971, then rebounded from a loss to the Dallas Cowboys by winning the next two, including the perfect 17-0 campaign.

Belichick may be crazy — and I'll lay the over — but he's no fool. Whatever advantage his Patriots gained by stealing signals in their opener against the Jets, chances are good they put the extra video camera back in the case after that little chat with commissioner Roger Goodell. Yet, they've only gotten better.

Let's not soft-pedal what Belichick and the Pats did. Even though a one-game suspension would have made the point much more effectively, Goodell found enough wrongdoing to lighten Belichick's pay envelope with an unprecedented $500,000 fine, then took another $250,000 from the organization and a first-round pick.

It's curious that the commissioner decided to destroy all the evidence afterward, but it might also be telling.

"You don't know what was on those tapes and how much it helped," Shula said. "I think the commissioner just wanted it to go away."

Small wonder. Teams have been looking for an edge since the league opened for business and they've only become more sophisticated in the intervening years. Since the Patriots are state-of-the-art in just about everything else they do, it stands to reason they were better at stealing signals than their opponents, too.

Yet, if Goodell is serious about running an honest game — I'll take the over on that bet, too — and he concluded a fine and a draft pick were enough to level the playing field, well, it must not have been that tilted to begin with. After the whistle, though, that's a different story.

The Patriots are arguably the NFL's most talented team, they're definitely the best-coached and thanks to comments like Shula's, they're easily the most motivated. There's no chance success will go to their head.

To know that, you only had to see Belichick grab a clipboard in the Dallas game a few weeks back, walk grumpily toward the bench and start lecturing his linebackers, who hadn't given up so much as a first down at that point.

Better yet, go back and look at the film on tackle Matt Light's personal foul in the second quarter Sunday against Indianapolis. Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney fooled Light with his pass rush and was en route to steamrolling Tom Brady. Rather than see his quarterback crushed, Light desperately leg-whipped Freeney and got caught. Even so, it was one of those win-at-all-cost maneuvers that few people would have admired more than Belichick and Light's teammates would have admired.

Back in the day, Shula probably would have felt the same. His Miami teams, like Belichick's, were disciplined and punishing, and while they beat up opponents with a low-tech running attack led by Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick, the Dolphins were not above running up a score once they got rolling. In the perfect season, coincidentally, that translated into a 52-0 beating of New England.

That year, the Dolphins also happened to draw what most experts consider one of the NFL's softest schedules ever. Their opponents had a winning percentage below .400. But nobody suggested an asterisk was in order then, and if the Patriots go through a deeper league and all the way to a Super Bowl without losing, Shula would do well to remember something that Csonka once said:

"Perfection ends a lot of arguments."