Pope: Even though ’72 Dolphins are perfect so far, Fernandez has to defend his team’s record

Manny Fernandez bristles at the unfashionable suggestion that the Dolphins have been sort of sloppy in four of their last five games, excluding only the 52-O carving of New England’s turkey Nov. 12.

Fernandez is a pretty good bristler. “We’ve done what we’ve had to all season,” he says, “We’ll continue to do that.”

Yeah, and sure, the record is 12-0, but couldn’t some sloppiness carry over into the opening American Conference playoff here Christmas Eve?

“Sometimes you look sloppy because you’re playing sloppy teams,” the defensive tackle explains patiently. “We’ll have our fine edge when we need it.”

The Dolphins have been playing sloppy teams all right. They have had only three games against teams with winning records — Minnesota (7-5) and the New York Jets (7-5). They slipped past the Vikings, 16-14, and didn’t exactly murder the Jets either time, winning, 27-17 and 28-24.

The Dolphin schedule has turned out to be one of the weakest in the National Football League. Exclusive of losses against the unbeaten Dolphins, opponents have a combined record of 37-57-2. Tack 12 Dolphins victories onto that and the opposition is 37-69-2

Of course the Dolphins don’t make up their own schedule. If they did, they would be playing New England all 14 games. Or they wouldn’t have put three of their first four games on the road.

Perfect Memories: 50th anniversary of the perfect season
Perfect Memories: 50th anniversary of the perfect season

Join us each Wednesday as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the perfect 1972 team

The NFL draws the schedule. And despite its over-all softness, the lineup does have a tough touch on the end: New York Giants in Yankee Stadium and suddenly-come-to-life Baltimore in the Orange Bowl.

Fernandez isn’t one of those birds who go around saying a perfect regular season isn’t important.

“It is important,” he insists. “We have a chance to set a record that could last forever unless they increase the season to 15 games. Don’t tell me that’s not important.

“Naturally you lose some edge whenever you clinch your division” — the Dolphins locked up the AFC East against the Jets on Nov. 19 — “but you’ve got to be ready all the time, to keep from getting hurt if nothing else.”

For Fernandez, the need to be ready particularly applies this weekend and next.

“I never played in Yankee Stadium. Never even walked in the place. It has to psyche you up a little, a stadium you’ve heard about since you were a kid. And it’s not just Yankee Stadium. It’s any big town like New York and Chicago and Los Angeles. That’s where you get the recognition.

“And the windup against Baltimore... well, we always play our best against them.”

On the button. The Dolphins humiliated the Colts in Baltimore back on Oct. 22. If you care to throw out the 52-0 game against New England, the one in Baltimore was the Dolphins’ best in the last six.

My suspicion is that the Giants aren’t quite as strong as their 7-5 record says they are, and the Colts are better than their 5-7 record says they are.

Still there’s always someone around to remind you that Norm Snead of the Giants was the last National Conference quarterback to beat the Dolphins in regular season. Snead was the rifleman in Philadelphia’s 24-17 victory over the 1970 Dolphins.

I can’t picture Snead as a winner. But then there are people who had the same idea about Earl Morrall until he hauled Don Shula’s 1968 Colts into Super Bowl III.

Marty Domres of the Colts does strike me as a winner. I don’t say this on just what Baltimore has done in the last month — winning three of four and scoring 100 points against New England, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Buffalo.

I thought Domres was the real article even when the Colts were getting shut out by the Dolphins.

So, if Miami isn’t at its cutting best right now, at least Don Shula’s soldiers face a couple of abrasive whetstones this Sunday and the following Sunday.