HERNDON,VA. — HERNDON, Va. -- When the Miami Dolphins were flying home from Cleveland on Sunday, coach Don Shula broke into a big smile after a flight attendant announced the San Francisco 49ers had lost to the Los Angeles Rams.
"That was a great day for us," Shula said yesterday, as he prepared his 9-2 team to face the Washington Redskins on Sunday at RFK Stadium. "We'd like to preserve that."
He was referring to his 17-0 Dolphins in 1972, the only National Football League team to record a perfect season.
When the New York Giants and the 49ers went into Sunday with 10-0 records, Shula said he was worried that one of them had a shot atan unbeaten season.
Instead, they both lost, keeping alive the Dolphins' distinction of being the only team to do it in the 71-year history of the NFL.
"We take a lot of pride in that," Shula said. "The record speaks for itself."
When NFL Films put out a computer "Dream Season" last year in which his 1972 Dolphins lost to the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers in the finale, Shula was irate. The Steelers won four Super Bowls to the Dolphins' two, but Shula considers his 1972 team the best.
Shula's pride in that undefeated season is an example of how aware he is of his legacy to the league.
He is a man who became a head coach (with the Baltimore Colts) when John F. Kennedy was in the White House, coached against George Halas and now is chasing Halas' record.
He has posted 294 victories (including playoff games) in his 28 seasons. Only Halas, founder of the Chicago Bears, won more as a pro coach, 325.
Shula wants that record, too.
"I'm not setting my goal to do that, but, if it happens, I'll be very proud of it," he said.
In an era when coaches burn out, Shula is going full speed toward his fourth decade as a head coach. At 60, he's in the first year of a three-year contract.
But there's one thing Shula said he wants even more than the records. He wants to win right now. For the four seasons before this one, he heard whispers that the game had passed him by.
His low point came in 1988, when he, Tom Landry and Chuck Noll were losing and critics were saying these coaching giants of the 1970s had lost their touch.
On top of that, David Shula, his son, was being criticized for his work as the team's offensive coordinator.
In a moment of reflection recently, he told The National sports daily: "David took a lot of the heat. The media focused on him. He became a target. The thing with David hit closer to home than anything else. It was tough to handle, tough to handle. There are some scars that won't go away."
Despite the scars, Shula said yesterday that he never doubted his ability as a coach.
"You realize you're going through some tough times," Shula said. "You certainly also have the confidence that you're doing the right things and [you know] what has happened previously in your career. I had that to fall back on and also the hope it'd turn around."
David Shula joined Jimmy Johnson's staff in Dallas last season, and the Dolphins, after starting out 7-4, lost four of their last five to finish out of the playoffs at 8-8. That left Shula's record for 1986-89 at 30-33.
To strengthen the team, Shula drafted two outstanding offensive linemen, Richmond Webb and Keith Sims.
On defense, he traded for cornerback Tim McKyer and teamed him with Maryland's J.B. Brown. Safeties Louis Oliver and Jarvis Williams are in their second year of working together.
Suddenly, the once-porous Miami defense is ranked No. 1 in the league overall and No. 1 against the pass.
That helps explain the Dolphins' resurgence.
The Dolphins still have problems. Three of their top receivers, Mark Clayton, Fred Banks and Andre Brown, are on the injured-reserve list, so Mark Duper and Jim Jensen are Dan Marino's top receivers at the moment.
There also is skepticism about whether the Dolphins are as good their record, because they have a total of four victories against the New England Patriots and New York Jets and three more against the Indianapolis Colts, Phoenix Cardinals and Cleveland Browns. The oddsmakers even list the Dolphins a three-point underdog against the struggling Redskins.
This is the kind of challenge Shula savors -- bringing his team on the road for a big game. There seems to be little chance he's
going to burn out any time soon.
"I still enjoy it very much," he said. "There isn't anything I'd rather be doing. I still get anxious before the games. I enjoy coaching as much as I ever have."
NOTES: Redskins wide receiver Ricky Sanders missed practice with an ankle injury he suffered in the Dallas game, and he may not be able to play Sunday, even though he's listed as probable. . . . Linebacker Monte Coleman, listed as questionable with a hamstring injury, saw some duty in practice.
The All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference football team, as selected by the league's head coaches and sports information directors (voters could not cast ballots for their own players for the all-league team, but could vote on Player of the Year nominations):
L Terry Beauford, Florida A&M
Rod Milstead, Delaware State
L Nigel Greene, Howard
L Robert Frost, Florida A&M
C Preston Steward, Delaware State
TE Craig Thompson, N.C. A&T
WR David Jones, Delaware State
WR Jeff Parker, Bethune-Cookman
QB Connell Maynor, N.C. A&T
RB Amir Rasul, Florida A&M
RB Michael Murray, Del. State
RB Kevin Gainer, Beth.-Cookman
PK James Vertuno, Florida A&M
L James Dozier, Morgan State
Brian Taltoan, Howard
L Knox Thompson, N.C. A&T
L Malcolm Showell, Del. State
LB Cedric McKinnon, B.-Cookman
LB Reggie Kennedy, S.C. State
LB Kenneth Newsome, Howard
DB Ricky Hill, S.C. State
DB Walter Price, Howard
DB Antoine Bennett, Florida A&M
DB Dee Moye, N.C. A&T
P Craig Hall, Florida A&M