“Seventeen and Oh,” a wonderful book written by Marshall Jon Fisher, is an excellent history lesson of the 1972 Miami Dolphins and their undefeated season. Fisher shares stories of the hiring of Don Shula by then-owner Joe Robbie who somehow some way became an NFL owner. Robbie was the cheapest of cheap owners and by giving Shula interest in the team, lured him from the Baltimore Colts. Shula eventually turned this expansion team into a Super Bowl champion. And because of their undefeated season in ’72, those who were part of history have a tradition of celebrating when every NFL team has at least one loss.
Most of them likely didn’t stay up late Monday night to watch the undefeated Eagles lose their first game of the season. So the Dolphins likely uncorked their champagne, and maybe added a little orange juice to their drink, on Tuesday morning. Straight champagne at their ages early in the morning might make for a rough day.
The ’72 Dolphins probably will remain the only team to go through the NFL regular and postseason undefeated. The season is too long, there’s too much media scrutiny and the game is vastly different. However, their approach to winning games back then was much like the Commanders' tactics Monday night. Run the ball, control the game with their offense and keep their opponent’s offense off the field. Ball control and time of possession were huge factors in deciding who won games in the early 1970s as the NFL wasn’t a passing league yet. The 1972 Dolphins averaged slightly fewer than 18 passes a game, had two 1,000-yard running backs in Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris and averaged 27.5 points per game.
The Commanders, behind quarterback Taylor Heinicke, controlled the game with their ability to convert third downs, ran the ball into the heart of the Eagles' defense and for the first time all season, the Eagles' offense gave the ball away.
Before Monday night, the Birds had lost the ball only three times all season. Against Washington, they gave it away four times, and each time the Commanders turned it into points. This was by far the sloppiest the Eagles have looked all season — and it wasn’t the Commanders who made them play sloppy; the Eagles beat themselves.
As an 11.5-point home favorite, having already beaten the Carson Wentz-led Commanders 24-8 in Week 3, sacking Wentz nine times, the Eagles were unable to get much pressure on Heinicke, and Washington converted 12 of its 21 third downs, running 81 plays to the Eagles’ 47.
As I have always believed: If you want to play great defense, play less defense. On Monday night, Washington’s defense was on the field for 19:36, and even though the Commanders were able to gain four turnovers, they still allowed the Eagles to average 0.44 points per play. They didn’t win the game with their defense, they won with their offense and by keeping Jalen Hurts off the field. Despite all the mistakes the Eagles made, they still had a chance to get the ball back with time remaining, to score the winning touchdown, until a Brandon Graham roughing call gave Washington its fourth first down by penalty and the game was over.
There were two significant realities that came from the game, one for each team. For the Commanders, there is no turning back to Wentz, and if they do, they should become a fade team for all bettors. Heinicke isn’t as talented as Wentz. He cannot run as fast or throw the ball as far. What makes Heinicke better is his natural leadership talent, his ability to get the players to believe in him, work hard for him and make plays for him. His competitive nature rubs off on the team — and the team adopts his personality, which never occurs with Wentz.
Wentz, like Kyler Murray with the Cardinals, is an outlier, a player who doesn’t generate support from his teammates or supply the drive needed to win games. For any successful team, the quarterback’s personality must flow through the team — his toughness, competitiveness and ability to give players a sense of comfort that he can lead the team through the rough stretches in games.
Heinicke makes too many mistakes, like he did Monday night on the interception to C.J. Gardner Johnson or the pick to Harrison Smith the week before. Even with his mistakes, Heinicke can overcome and gain forgiveness from the team because of his relentless competitive spirit. Heinicke reminds me of a little dog barking and growling at the big German Shepherd. The little dog never backs down — and neither will Heinicke, which is why he is so loved.
As for the Eagles, the loss was a good thing. It stops everyone from talking about their invincibility and now will allow them to regain their focus on the true goal — winning the Super Bowl. They have been vulnerable to a good running game on defense all season. Washington attacked the C gaps (off tackle) in the Eagles’ double-sink defensive front and, gaining positive yards. The Commanders provided the blueprint teams will use against the Birds the rest of the season. If the Eagles fix their issues and get rookie Jordan Davis back in their defensive front, it will force teams to try another strategy.
The Eagles are still the best team but have shown vulnerability. And how they address their vulnerabilities now will be the key to them winning the NFC or not. The best part of the night for the Eagles was that coach Nick Sirianni can remind them their keys to winning are still the same: protect the ball, run the ball and make chunk plays in the passing game. Now is not the time to fade the Eagles. It’s the time to jump on their back — because after playing two poor games in a row, winning one in Houston and losing one at home, they will need to get serious. And with Siranni facing his former team, the Colts, without his former boss, Frank Reich, the short week will help his team get back to reality.
I loved what Siranni said after the game when the Philadelphia media was looking to blame the officials for the call on Graham and the Eagles not getting the ball back. “That’s not what lost us the football game,” he said. “I’d have to watch it on tape again. I saw it live, kind of looked down the field, but they’ve got a tough job. I’ll look at it, but that’s not at all what lost us the game.”
Siranni knows this loss was a blessing and now the Eagles can focus and stop talking about being undefeated.
Week 10 thoughts
Since losing the Super Bowl in 2002, the Raiders have had two winning seasons, 2016 under Jack Del Rio and last season under interim coach Rich Bisaccia. They have not won the AFC West since ’02, have been through 12 head coaches and several general managers. They have not been patient in terms of allowing a sustainable foundation to be established. Now they are trying to build something sustainable and everyone is killing head coach Josh McDaniels in his first season.
I could understand if McDaniels took over a team with a long history of sustained success, but that’s not the case. They were a wild-card playoff team last season and needed tremendous help to reach the playoffs, yet everyone acts as if they were a Super Bowl contender. Kansas City beat them 41-14 at home and 48-9 on the road last season and people still think they are a great team. Derek Carr, their starting quarterback, is 59-77 as an NFL starter in 136 games. Is that good? Most quarterbacks who don’t win after 136 games get replaced.
When Bill Belichick took over the Patriots in 2000, he inherited an 8-8 team and went 5-11 in his first season. The media was all over him, giving owner Robert Kraft the business for trading draft picks for such a bad coach. After starting the 2000 season 0-2, Al Davis called me in my office in Oakland and said, “Our man is in trouble in New England.” Davis and I shared a fondness for Belichick. Davis interviewed Belichick for the head coaching position in 1998, eventually deciding on Jon Gruden but knew Belichick was a great coach. The media was attacking him from all angles and even though the team was building, no one wanted to be patient.
Today, patience is nonexistent. Yes, the Raiders have blown leads, yes they have failed to make plays at the end of games, but is that on McDaniels as a coach? He must assume responsibility and be accountable, yet the bigger picture needs to be accounted for. His team has been in position to win six games, and if the Raiders can improve their talent, make up for some of the bad draft picks of the recent past, they will build something sustainable. Raiders owner Mark Davis agrees.
"People in today's world want instant gratification," Davis said. “The guy's coached nine games. We're 2-7, not the results we're looking for, but at the same time we've lost six one-score games with the ball and a chance to win at the end."
I am not defending Davis or McDaniels because my son works for the team. Rather pointing out the facts and giving some balance to the conversation. Building something sustainable takes time, it takes organizations willing to believe, willing to show confidence without the evidence of the scoreboard. Kraft belongs in the Hall of Fame for having trust in his judgment, not giving in to the detractors and those who hated Belichick from his Cleveland days. Kraft stayed the course, never blinked and built a dynasty. If you don’t believe me, check out the reactions here.
If the players were not trying, if the Raiders were not in games until the end, the outcry would be justified. Only time will tell if McDaniels has changed his coaching and can become a great head coach, not just a great offensive coordinator. But time is the key term and something every coach needs.
Watching Rams head coach Sean McVay’s body language on the sideline as his team lost to the Cardinals at home without quarterback Matthew Stafford was concerning. McVay is smart and knows his team is bad — even with Stafford and he also knows the rebuilding effort needed will take salary-cap room and draft capital, two things he doesn’t have. Odell Beckham would never sign back with the Rams unless they overpaid him as he wants to be in position to win another Super Bowl and the Rams have zero chance to make that happen again, especially with Cooper Kupp going on the IR with an ankle injury.
My reaction to McVay on the sideline was he might not be there for long. He knows the situation is hopeless this year and perhaps next season if Stafford walks away. The Rams look like a huge fade team the rest of the year. And McVay might fade to Amazon’s booth next year.