The Miami Dolphins were finishing up their inaugural AFL season as they hosted the Houston Oilers on December 18, 1966. As was typical of expansion teams, the Dolphins struggled and had lost six straight games to be 2-11 heading into the last week. Head Coach George Wilson, who once guided the Lions to a NFL title, had some talent to work with, especially in the defensive backfield. TE Dave Kocurek, formerly of the Chargers, was an able veteran and HB Joe Auer showed all-purpose skill, but fullback was a chronic problem and Cookie Gilchrist, who arrived at midseason, was an established talent but also, at age 31, showing wear. Quarterback was the biggest problem of all, and injuries had severely depleted the position. Ex-Jet Dick Wood started the year, but completed only 36 percent of his passes and yielded to first draft choice Rick Norton, who went down with a broken jaw, and the coach’s son, George Wilson Jr., who led the team to two wins before being sidelined.
QB John Stofa (pictured above) had been unheralded coming out of the Univ. at Buffalo in 1964, but performed well with minor league teams. He had tried out with the Dolphins, but was let go after two weeks in training camp, failed in a further trial with the Steelers in the NFL, and started the season with the Lakeland Brahmans of the North American Football League while teaching school on the side. He had good size at 6’3” and 210 and performed impressively for the Brahmans, throwing for 2029 yards and 23 touchdowns (including 451 yards and 7 TDs in one game against the hapless Chattanooga Redskins) before being re-signed by Miami. Now, with Wood unable to play due to a rib injury, Stofa was getting a chance to start in the finale.
The Oilers, coached for the second time around by Wally Lemm, were having their problems and had lost to the Dolphins in their previous meeting, the first of seven straight defeats that had them arriving in Miami with a 3-10 tally. Houston started off the year with a veteran-laden roster, and now younger players were getting an opportunity. Most notably, third-year QB Don Trull was finally starting ahead of 39-year-old George Blanda, and rookie FB Hoyle Granger was seeing more action in place of Charley Tolar and John Henry Johnson, aged 29 and 37, respectively.
There were 20,045 fans in attendance at the Orange Bowl with weather in the 70s. The Oilers had the first possession and punted. After Cookie Gilchrist ran twice for a net of zero yardage, John Stofa completed his first three passes before giving up an interception to FS Jim Norton.
Houston again had to punt and the Dolphins reached Oilers’ territory thanks to a 20-yard run by Joe Auer and a Stofa pass to Dave Kocurek for 11 yards. But after getting to the Houston 36, Stofa was sacked by DE Gary Cutsinger for a loss of 11 yards and the Dolphins punted.
HB Ode Burrell (pictured at right) returned the kick 29 yards to the Houston 41 and it took just three plays to travel the remaining 59 yards. Don Trull threw to Hoyle Granger, who picked up 25 yards, Burrell ran for seven, and then Trull connected once more with Granger, who went 27 yards for a touchdown. George Blanda added the extra point and the visitors took a 7-0 lead into the second quarter.
The Dolphins went three-and-out on their next possession, with Stofa chased out of bounds for a 19-yard loss on one play, and a fake punt by George Wilson Jr. picked up 16 yards and gave up the ball to Houston at the Miami 34. Trull completed a third down pass to TE Bob Poole for 10 yards, FB John Henry Johnson ran for another 10, and Trull then threw to flanker Larry Elkins for an 11-yard TD. Blanda’s point after put the Oilers further ahead by 14-0.
Down by two touchdowns, the Dolphins responded with an 80-yard drive in nine plays. Following four running plays, Stofa connected on passes to Gilchrist for 18 yards, split end Karl Noonan for 12, and FB Billy Joe for 12 yards to the Houston 27. After a carry by Gilchrist gained nothing, Stofa went to the air again and it was complete to Auer for a 27-yard touchdown. Miami faked a kick for the conversion and Wilson, the holder as well as backup quarterback and punter, threw to Joe for two points, making it a 14-8 tally.
A short possession by the Oilers was followed by a punt, giving the Dolphins the ball at midfield. Auer ran for seven yards, but Stofa missed on two passes and Gene Mingo’s 50-yard field goal attempt was short. Houston regained possession with 2:10 left in the first half and advanced 90 yards. Trull completed passes to Burrell for 34 and 30 yards and to TE Bob McLeod for a two-yard TD with nine seconds remaining on the clock. Blanda’s PAT made the halftime score 21-8.
The Dolphins had the ball first in the third quarter and Stofa completed three passes, one to Auer for 17 yards who also had a 21-yard gain on a running play around end. A facemask penalty on the Oilers and a four-yard run by Auer got the ball to the Houston nine, but Stofa’s pass intended for Gilchrist was picked off by LB Ronnie Caveness. The Oilers were only able to reach their 31 before punting, and the Dolphins punted it back after a short possession.
With Burrell and Granger carrying the load on the ground, Houston made it just past midfield before having to try for a long field goal. Blanda’s attempt from 53 yards failed and the Dolphins scored again in three plays. Stofa threw to flanker Frank Jackson for 20 yards, Gilchrist rushed for six, and another throw to Jackson was good for a 48-yard touchdown. Mingo kicked the point after and Houston’s lead was cut to 21-15.
Miami got the ball back quickly when, on the second play following the ensuing kickoff, CB Jimmy Warren intercepted a Trull pass. As the game moved into the fourth quarter, the Dolphins were unable to get any farther than the Houston 47 and punted.
The Oilers drove 80 yards in 12 plays. Trull (pictured at left) had completions to McLeod for 13 yards, split end Charley Frazier for 11 yards, and McLeod again for 34, and Granger ran effectively. After a nine-yard carry by Johnson got the ball to the Miami one, Trull kept the ball himself to gain the final yard for a TD. Blanda added the PAT and the visitors again had a substantial lead of 28-15 with 6:15 remaining to play.
On the next Miami series, Stofa filled the air with passes, completing five of them. Noonan had two catches, the longest for 13 yards to convert a third down, and Gilchrist grabbed one for 20 yards. Stofa picked up 14 yards on a run to the Houston nine, but it appeared that it was all for naught when four straight passes fell incomplete. However, the last one drew a defensive holding penalty and on the next play, Stofa threw to TE Bill Cronin for a four-yard touchdown. Mingo added the extra point and the score was now 28-22 with three minutes to go.
The Oilers went three-and-out on their next series and, with the clock now down to 1:56, the Dolphins took over at their 45 following the resulting punt. An incompletion was followed by a 22-yard gain on a Stofa screen pass to Gilchrist. But Stofa was then sacked by DT Ernie Ladd and DE Don Floyd and a completion to Gilchrist lost another five yards. Facing third-and-23, Stofa connected with Jackson for 39 yards for a first down at the Houston 14. From there, and with the enthusiastic crowd cheering him on, Stofa completed his fourth touchdown pass, connecting with Auer, and Mingo added the all-important conversion that put the home team ahead by a point.
There were still 33 seconds remaining as the Oilers got the ball once more, but they were unable to get out of their end of the field and Miami came away the winner by a score of 29-28.
The Dolphins led in total yards (417 to 307) and first downs (25 to 20). Each team recorded three sacks, turned the ball over two times, and drew five penalties. The decision to go for two points after the first touchdown proved fortuitous for the Dolphins.
John Stofa completed 22 of 38 passes for 307 yards and four touchdowns while giving up two interceptions. Joe Auer (pictured at right) rushed for 87 yards on 13 carries and also had four catches for 71 yards and two TDs. Cookie Gilchrist led the Dolphins with 6 pass receptions for 60 yards and also gained 23 yards on 9 rushing attempts. Frank Jackson accumulated 110 yards on four catches that included a score. On defense, DT Al Dotson and FS Willie West each had ten tackles.
For the Oilers, Don Trull was successful on 12 of 24 throws for 215 yards and three TDs while being intercepted once. Hoyle Granger ran for 46 yards on 8 carries and added another 52 yards and a touchdown on his two receptions while Ode Burrell picked up 45 yards on 9 rushes and gained 73 yards on three catches. Bob McLeod had four receptions that were good for 58 yards and a score.
“He was great!” exclaimed Dick Wood about John Stofa. “All along I thought he was great. He’s big, has a strong arm, and throws well.”
While Purdue QB Bob Griese was drafted in the first round for 1967, Stofa parlayed his season-ending success into the starting job for the opening game. However, a broken ankle in the first quarter ended his season and Griese, pressed into service, was impressive. Stofa was traded to yet another expansion team, the Cincinnati Bengals, for 1968 and saw his most extensive AFL action with them. Released after the season, he returned to Miami to back up Griese for two years. Ultimately, he passed for 1758 yards and 12 touchdowns, giving up 11 interceptions, with the Dolphins and Bengals.
The season-ending win for the Dolphins put them in a tie with Houston for fourth place in the AFL Eastern Division at 3-11. Miami marginally improved to 4-10 in 1967, while the Oilers jumped all the way to first place with a 9-4-1 record, fueled by an outstanding defense and the good running of Hoyle Granger. However, Don Trull proved deficient as the starting quarterback and lost the job to Pete Beathard, who was obtained from the Chiefs.