Shula has been the face of the Dolphins franchise for years. Whenever anyone wants to reflect on Miami's glory days, they usually find some aspect of Shula's '72 team - a team that went undefeated through the regular season and the playoffs to turn in the NFL's only perfect season through 17 games -- to highlight.
For the Patriots, publicly embracing the perfect season is not something the players want to do. Few even are willing to talk about it on the record. Some say it would be nice, but insist that's not their goal. With just one game left, even Tom Brady had to admit this week that going 16-0 to join the Dolphins on the perfect regular season podium would be nice.
"We've got a lot of records at stake, the most important one being the 16-0," said Brady. "I hope we achieve that. It'd be a great feat for the team. We'd go down as the only team to be 16-0 so that's the goal I've got in mind."
Shula, who took some criticism for his cynical comment about adding an asterisk to the Patriots record if they went undefeated this season due to their involvement with "spygate", tried to emphasize the importance of the postseason as well in the Dolphins' 17-0 record. On ESPN Saturday morning Shula reiterated that point.
"We knew the regular season was important, but the game at the end of the year is most important," said Shula referring to the Dolphins victory in the Super Bowl that year.
35 years later, that record still has a special place in Shula's heart, likely because he - and the rest of the '72 Dolphins team - believed it was a mark that would live forever.
"As the years go by, the record becomes more and more meaningful," Shula mused.
Earlier in the week Patriots quarterback Tom Brady admitted that going 16-0 would be great, and it's one of his current goals, but it isn't the only goal for the Patriots this season.
"Like I said, being 16-0 would be the most important thing for all of us. If you take any energy away from that as a goal, then you're really not doing yourself or your team any justice," said Brady.
Though Brady would enjoy the record, he hadn't lost focus on the ultimate goal - winning the Super Bowl.
"Maybe when you look back at the end of your career you look at those things and its a cool thing to have, but everything I've experienced in the NFL and the greatest moments I've had is not when you throw five touchdown passes. It's when you win championships."
Shula was obviously feeling the fallout from his continued resistance to embracing Brady's Patriots team as one of the greatest ever - despite all of the records they've set on their way to matching the Dolphins' record. The ESPN crew continued to pursue Shula's asterisk comment, asking if he felt the public backlash at his statement.
"I was surprised (by the fallout) of the spygate comments," said the former coach. "I'm not the one who fined them."
For Shula it was clear his bitterness at the Patriots ability to tie the record had been his undoing, and he was in full backtracking mode since.
"I feel since the first game that they've been doing everything under the rules, and they're doing everything they're supposed to that the Spygate thing has gone away," he said.
Shula has been backtracking faster than most fans keep track of. Wasn't this the same Don Shula who -- along with a giddy Ron Jaworski, Tony Korneiser and oblivious Mike Tirico -- spent most of the second half openly cheering against the Patirots from the broadcast booth as New England fell behind the Baltimore Ravens 24-17 on Monday night (Dec. 3) in Foxboro? The Patriots needed a bit of luck, and a late touchdown drive to come back to beat the Ravens 27-24, and thwart a potentially historic Ravens upset.
Even if Shula isn't feeling the pressure from the Patriots continued march toward history, his running back from that team - Mercury Morris - certainly is. Morris continues to vocally reject the notion that the Patriots might be as good - or better - than the Dolphins team. Maybe it's because Morris has a financial interest in the outcome. According to Darren Rovell's blog, Morris and his fellow teammates from that undefeated season continue to cash in on their fame to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.
Morris has continued to wax poetic on the Dolphins success, even offering up a rhyme to effect that the Dolphins are better because they accomplished the feat first. The ESPN crew chuckled at Morris' obviously prepalnned calculated rap. Morris' public comments illustrate his bitterness toward the Patriots and their opportunity to match the Dolphins record. It's even noticed by Canadians, who have their own football league, and records to cherish.
Perhaps this piece from a Maine reporter illustrates how transparent Morris' bitterness has become.
Mercury Morris, the poster boy for bitter, has been running his gums more than [Kurt] Schilling (Red Sox pitcher): "When I see you next door moving your furniture in, that's when I know you're going to the championship and you're about to play. And when you win it, I'll be dressed up in a tuxedo waiting on my bride." And then there was: "People are so envious of this record for no apparent reason other than the fact we have it. I don't care what those people think."
For Shula though, he has a life beyond the record. He's willing to concede defeat, and is working hard to avoid the perception that he might harbor some bitterness that his longstanding record might fall - or in his mind be tied. Shula insisted he'll offer congratulations to Bill Belichick if they match the record. "I'll congratulate their coach," he said. "I'm sure our players will congratulate their players."
Maybe he just said that because he knows it's a foregone conclusion. When asked if he thinks he'll have company in the record books, Shula admitted defeat.
"I believe so," he said.
Maybe that's all he needed to say in the beginning. It certainly could have preserved his image as one of the classiest coaches in NFL history. In the very least, it would not have diminished his accomplishments with public perceptions of petty jealousy.
Either way, Shula and Morris will have to live with the fact that they're not the only ones to go undefeated, if the Patriots win on Saturday night. For most fans, that's enough. Enough of the mystique surrounding the '72 team, and enough of Mercury Morris's public bitterness every time he's interviewed about the '72 record.