Probably the smartest thing owner Joe Robbie of the Miami Dolphins did this season was give a new multi-year contract to head coach Don Shula, who was being actively pursued by the rival United States Football League. Miami loves a winner and Shula's Dolphins are annually among the biggest winners in pro football.
In the AFC East, the playoff-bound Dolphins have scored the most points (324) and given up the fewest (212). While most experts are not willing to rate Miami on the same level as the Washington Redskins or the explosive Dallas Cowboys, no team in the NFL out-conditions the Dolphins.
Although you no doubt have heard this song about successful coaches before, Shula harps on discipline, fundamentals, and staying in shape. For example, whenever Miami and one of its opponents enter the fourth period tied, the physically tough Dolphins invariably come away with the victory. In fact, no one need go any further back than last Sunday when Miami, trailing the Houston Oilers 17-7 in the third period, rallied for two fourth quarter touchdowns to win.
Shula, whose chiseled features and jutting chin suggest a mini-Mount Rushmore , is about as subtle as Liberace's theatrical wardrobe. ''I'm not a person with much finesse,'' Don explained. ''If people around me aren't doing their jobs or playing to their potential, I tell them about it and I expect them to change. I don't believe in shortcuts and I don't believe there are any easy ways to accomplish something. If you want to be a success in this business as a coach, I think you have to pay just as much attention to your defense and special teams as you do to your offense.''
The only serious complaint anyone can ever remember hearing about Shula is that as a young pro coach he often tried to handle everything himself, which made things tough on his assistants. And while all final decisions regarding the Dolphins are still made by Don, he has since learned to delegate his authority.
When Miami's offense sputtered early in the season and Shula switched from Super Bowl quarterback David Woodley to rookie Dan Marino, there were those who wondered if Don had acted prematurely. Well, ask anyone connected with the NFL today and they will probably tell you that Marino has emerged as the best young quarterback in the league. Redskins, Cowboys in big game
No doubt about it, Washington at Dallas will be the most looked-at game in the NFL this coming Sunday.The winner takes over sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
Both teams are currently 12-2 and feature outstanding running backs. The Redskins have John Riggins, the league's preeminent plowhorse, the Cowboys Tony Dorsett, a fleet and artful dodger. Although Riggins gained 87 yards as Washington beat Atlanta last Sunday, it was the first time John hadn't scored a touchdown this season, his 21 straight games with a TD an NFL record. Meanwhile , Dorsett got into the end zone twice in the first half as the Cowboys rolled to a 35-10 victory against the Seattle Seahawks. NFL tidbits
* The 7-7 New Orleans Saints, who have never had a winning season in their 17 -year history, can shatter that barrier this season if they can deck both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Los Angeles Rams in their remaining games.
* Injured quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who was reactivated by the Pittsburgh Steelers in time for last Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, was ignored by Coach Chuck Noll. Instead of switching to Bradshaw when the Steeler offense bogged down, Noll stayed instead with Cliff Stoudt, who was intercepted twice in a 23-10 loss. It was the Steelers' third defeat in a row. Noll's explanation for not using Bradshaw was that Terry lacked the preparation needed to handle Cincinnati's defense.
* Fans of the New York Giants showed their disgust for this season's sad performance by staying home last Sunday. More than 51,000 no-shows, a league record, passed up the opportunity to see St. Louis hand the Giants their tenth defeat.
National Football League Standings American Conference East W L T Pct. c-Miami 10 4 0 .714 Buffalo 8 6 0 .571 Baltimore 7 7 0 .500 New England 7 7 0 .500 N.Y. Jets 6 8 0 .429
Central Pittsburgh 9 5 0 .643 Cleveland 8 6 0 .571 Cincinnati 6 8 0 .429 Houston 1 13 0 .071
West c-L.A. Raiders 11 3 0 .786 Denver 8 6 0 .571 Seattle 7 7 0 .500 Kansas City 5 9 0 .357 San Diego 5 9 0 .357
East W L T Pct. w-Dallas 12 2 0 .857 w-Washington 12 2 0 .857 St. Louis 6 7 1 .462 Philadelphia 5 9 0 .357 N.Y. Giants 3 10 1 .250
Central Detroit 8 6 0 .571 Minnesota 7 7 0 .500 Green Bay 7 7 0 .500 Chicago 6 8 0 .429 Tampa Bay 2 2 0 .143
West San Francisco 8 6 0 .571 L.A. Rams 8 6 0 .571 New Orleans 7 7 0 .500 Atlanta 6 8 0 .429 c-clinched division title w-clinched wild card playoff berth Saturday's games (Dec. 10) Pittsburgh at N.Y. Jets Atlanta at Miami Sunday's games (Dec. 11) Washington at Dallas Baltimore at Denver St. Louis at L.A. Raiders Kansas City at San Diego New Orleans at Philadelphia Detroit at Cincinnati Seattle at N.Y. Giants San Francisco at Buffalo Cleveland at Houston Chicago at Minnesota New England at L.A. Rams Monday's game (Dec. 12) Green Bay at Tampa Bay