Every year, the 1972 Miami Dolphins pop champagne when the final undefeated team loses, preserving their 17-0 squad as the last to enjoy a perfect season. It's a rite of autumn in the NFL.
But now, here comes the New England Patriots, and if ever the cork was staying put, this is the threat. They've blown out eight opponents, beat their only perceived equal on the road, and now stare down history in a way perhaps like no one previously.
So leave it to Don Shula to start the tarnishing, start the mud slinging.
The Hall of Fame former Dolphins coach claimed to the New York Daily News that because the Pats were caught filming the New York Jets defensive signals from the sidelines in the season opener – a violation of league rules – that a 19-0 season would be marred and that an asterisk could be attached to it.
"The Spygate thing has diminished what they've accomplished," Shula told the paper. "You would hate to have that attached to your accomplishments. They've got it."
Ah, not really.
Shula certainly has the right to an opinion on the Patriots, but if it isn’t going to be fact-based then it rings hollow and desperate in a way that is far beneath him.
This isn't to defend the Patriots or Bill Belichick for that blatant and calculated bit of cheating. It was an embarrassment for the franchise and its coach.
The NFL was right to fine Belichick $500,000, the team $250,000 and take a first-round draft pick (or a second- and third-round pick were the Patriots to somehow miss the playoffs). It should have gone further and suspended Belichick for the second Jets game this season.
But the facts of the crime are clear – New England was caught filming Jets coaches during the first half of the first quarter of the first game of the season. The first time the Patriots employee operating the camera tried to head to the locker room, he was stopped by NFL security and forced to hand over the incriminating evidence.
New England's coaches never got to watch the tape. The filming constituted cheating and the intent was obvious. But thanks to what is now a convenient bit of circumstance, to say the Patriots gained an advantage from the film is inaccurate. They couldn't have.
The reality is New England hasn’t gotten anything out of the so-called "Spygate" this season except deserved national scorn.
Shula also raised the issue of alleged past filming, but tape of defensive signals from past seasons would be mostly useless. NFL teams constantly update their movements, even week to week, since it isn't against NFL rules to film the coaches' signals from other areas of the stadium.
New England was trying to get a real-time, in-game advantage. The NFL confiscated previous season tapes and destroyed them without further punishing the Pats.
Shula even accuses NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell of covering up past crimes, which is a strong allegation that the league, naturally, denies.
"I think the commissioner just wanted it to go away," Shula said.
Vast conspiracy theories aside, the debate here is about this season and this season only.
If you want to project back on previous seasons – where allegations of similar conduct, among other stories, exist – and even question the legitimacy of New England's three Super Bowls, hey, that's what Belichick has wrought upon the franchise. The Patriots have no moral high ground to stand on.
But for this year, considering the severity of the punishment and the level of outrage, you could even argue that New England is possibly the cleanest team in the league.
However, Shula is arguing forward just in case New England wins its next 10 games, Super Bowl included.
"(The NFL's punishments) tells you the seriousness or significance of what they found," Shula told the paper. "I guess you got the same thing as putting an asterisk by Barry Bonds' home run record."
Of course there could be some back story at play here beyond Shula's interest in preserving the unique greatness of that Dolphins team.
It starts, naturally, with Belichick. One of the Pats coach's closest friends and chief protégés is Nick Saban, who took over the Dolphins from 2005-06, ran them into the ground, fled in a heap of lies only to replace Shula's own son, Mike, at Alabama.
There is also New England's 21-game win streak over the course of the 2003 and '04 seasons that some Patriots players tried to equate to the Dolphins 17-0 season, which Shula at that point claimed wasn't the same.
Whatever it is, Shula has this one wrong.
While it will certainly play well to the growing anti-Patriots crowd nationally, regardless of intent and even giving thanks to fortuitous timing, New England is in the clear this season.
The facts are the facts, the timeline is the timeline, no matter how Shula wants to spin it.
- Don Shula
- New England
- Bill Belichick