Sports Editor

Since 1986, Chris Dugan has been covering local sports for the Observer-Reporter, and named sports editor in 2006. Before joining the O-R, he was sports editor at the Democrat-Messenger, and a former member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

The critics are seemingly everywhere, and they have spoken often and loudly.

“They’re not as good as their record indicates,” they said.

“Overrated,” they said.

“They haven’t beaten a good team,” they said.

“Their quarterback is old and not mobile,” they said.

“Their record is a byproduct of a soft schedule,” they said.

“The offense is one-dimensional,” they said.

“They don’t win impressively enough and sometimes struggle with bad opponents,” they said.

Yes, those are comments made this fall about the Steelers, who are the only undefeated team in the NFL and will take a 10-0 record into a game Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field.

However, those same comments were made about the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only team to complete an NFL season with an undefeated record. The Dolphins, playing a 14-game regular season that year, went 17-0 en route to a win over Washington in Super Bowl VII.

Yes, there are many similarities between the current Steelers team and the ‘72 Dolphins beyond the number in the loss column.

The Steelers have a 38-year-old quarterback who is proving he still has plenty of game left, even if his arm strength and mobility are not what they used to be.

The ‘72 Dolphins had to turn to 38-year-old backup quarterback Earl Morrall when starter Bob Griese was injured early in the season. Morrall started nine regular-season games and two playoff contests that year.

Yes, the Steelers’ record has been helped by getting matched against the ridiculously bad NFC East opponents, and teams with quarterbacks such as Jake Luton, Garrett Gilbert and Drew Lock/Jeff Driskel.

But the ’72 Dolphins’ schedule was even worse. Their opponents had a combined winning percentage of .372. Only two of Miami’s regular-season opponents – the Kansas City Chiefs (8-6) in the season opener and New York Giants (8-6) in Week 13 – had winning records.

The Steelers had close wins over some of the weaker teams on their schedule – 26-21 over Denver, 28-21 over Houston and 24-19 over Dallas. The ‘72 Dolphins trailed in the fourth quarter against the New York Jets (7-7) and Minnesota Vikings (7-7) before rallying.

History, however, doesn’t remember the ‘72 Dolphins for who their opponents were or what their scores were in the fourth quarter. They are remembered for their record. All wins. And that’s all that matters. There are no points for style or degree of difficulty in football.

Going undefeated in the NFL is much more difficult than in college football. The talent gap, from the best team to the worst team, in pro football is smaller than in the college game. Like former Florida and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said about his forgettable tenure as coach of the Washington Redskins, er, Football Team, “There are no Vanderbilts in the NFL.”

So you have to admire any team that goes 10-0, 14-0, 16-0 or 17-0 in the NFL. Even those teams will have their critics. After all, it’s easier to pick out what a team or player doesn’t do than it is to explain what they are doing well.

Going undefeated, though a great accomplishment, is not the Steelers’ ultimate goal. They simply want to win a Super Bowl.

But if they are undefeated entering the AFC Championship game, there will be one difference between these Steelers and the ‘72 Dolphins – they won’t have to play the game on the road.

Back in 1972, home-field advantage in the playoffs was rotated among the division champions. Miami had to play at Pittsburgh. The Dolphins won 21-17, in part because punter Larry Seiple ran 37 yards on a surprise fake punt that set up a Miami score.

So, note to coach Mike Tomlin: Ignore the critics and keep a gadget play handy for the playoffs.

Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at dugan@observer-reporter.com.

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