Pro football's biggest story halfway through its 16-game regular season schedule is that of the unbeaten Miami Dolphins (8-0). Everyone said Coach Don Shula's club would have trouble this year stopping the run, but except for the Denver Broncos, Miami has so far allowed the fewest points (117) of any team in the National Football League while scoring the most (267).
Maybe the New York Jets (6-2) or the New England Patriots (5-3) can have a superb enough second half to catch the Dolphins in the AFC East, but it doesn't seem likely. The mesh-like defense that Shula has built gets as much attention in practice as the offense. In fact, Don never lets an error go unchallenged, even in the classroom.
When Miami routed the Patriots 44-24 Sunday, quarterback Dan Marino ran the offense so well that the Dolphins punted only once during the afternoon. Marino's four touchdown passes gave him 24 for the year, breaking Bob Griese's club record of 22. The NFL mark is 36, held jointly by George Blanda and Y. A. Tittle.
A new pass receiving plus for Miami this year, to go along with Mark Duper, has been 5 ft. 9 in. Mark Clayton, who had only six receptions in 1983. Part of that was because Shula always breaks his rookies in slowly, but mostly because in Clayton the Dolphins suddenly discovered that they had one of the best punt return men in the league.
Not wanting to cut Mark because of his 4.4 speed for 40 yards, but with too many experienced wide receivers ahead of him, Shula decided to make him a member of one of Miami's special teams. When an opening-game injury to veteran punt returner Tom Vigorito sidelined him for the year, Shula felt he'd seen enough natural talent in Clayton to give him the job. Mark responded by gaining 392 yards on 41 returns for a 9.6 average - an amazing figure for an eighth-round draft pick who had fumbled away the only punt he ever tried to return in college.
At the same time, though, Shula never forgot Clayton's college figures as a wide receiver, which were outstanding. And when Mark stayed around the Miami area after the season to work with wide receivers Duper and Jimmy Cefalo, plus several defensive backs, Don was impressed. Shula was also getting first-hand reports of Clayton and the others from his son David, who is the Dolphins' receivers coach.
''There was never any question about Clayton's speed,'' David explained. ''His problem was inexperience, plus the fact that he had never been taught to look the ball into his hands and then protect it by tucking it into his body. Once we taught him body control and concentration, he had it all.''
Elsewhere around the league, the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Raiders and Denver, both 7-1, meet Sunday in the L.A. Coliseum for first place in the AFC West. After surviving mostly on that super-stingy defense this season , the Broncos scored 37 points last week against the winless Buffalo Bills. The Raiders, who play virtually every game as though they are a bomb demolition unit waiting until the last possible second to clip the right wire, seem to win in spite of themselves. That division also contains the 6-2 Seattle Seahawks, who have an excellent chance of making the playoffs as a wild card team.
In the AFC Central, the 4-4 Pittsburgh Steelers do good things only about half the time. It seems incredible at this point in the season, but the 2-6 Cincinnati Bengals still have a chance to catch them.
In the NFC West, the first-place San Francisco 49ers (7-1) keep winning without necessarily impressing the experts, who complain about their lack of a pass rush. But as long as quarterback Joe Montana is in there scrambling, the 49 ers are going to be tough to beat. San Francisco's only serious opposition at the moment comes from the Los Angeles Rams, who have gone 4-1 after installing Jeff Kemp as quarterback and are 5-3 overall.
In the NFC East, the St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Redskins, and Dallas Cowboys all have 5-3 records, although the Redskins overall have played much better defensively. While the Cardinals have all kinds of offense and the Cowboys all kinds of experience, first place should eventually belong to Washington. That is, providing the Redskins' defensive line regains its 1983 ability to put pressure on quarterbacks.
In the NFC Central, the Chicago Bears look about as safe as a first-place team can be. Consider the opposition: Tampa Bay, Detroit, Minnesota, and Green Bay - none of which has been very good or very consistent. However, the Bears would like to improve their passing game, which would open things up on the ground a little more for Walter Payton, the NFL's all-time rushing leader. Last week, with a chance to become the third runner in NFL history to rush for more than 100 yards in seven straight games, Payton came up 28 yards short against Tampa Bay.
Although the Buccaneers' swarming defense prevented Walter from joining O. J. Simpson and Earl Campbell on the seven-straight, 100-yard list, Payton still scored two touchdowns. Walter continues to lead the league with 847 yards rushing. Beating Tampa Bay was a big victory for Chicago, which has won only two of five games since a 3-0 start.