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Sports Then and Now

Earl Morrall: The Perfect Backup

Posted on November 16, 2019 by Dean Hybl
Earl Morrall

In a career that started in 1956 and ended in 1976, the Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month was never really a leading man, but he seemed to be part of the supporting cast for many huge moments in NFL history.

The second overall pick in the 1956 NFL Draft out of Michigan State, Earl Morrall joined a San Francisco 49ers team that already included the famous “Million Dollar Backfield” of Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson.

Morrall started four games during his rookie season, but just before the start of the 1957 season was traded along with guard Mike Sandusky to the Pittsburgh Steelers in exchange for linebacker Marv Matuszak and two first-round draft picks.

The move seemed to work out well for the Steelers initially as Morrall was 6-5 as the starter and was selected to the Pro Bowl. However, he was traded by the Steelers to the Detroit Lions only two games into the 1958 season for future Hall of Famer Bobby Layne. Legend has it that Layne put a 50 year curse on the Lions for trading him to Pittsburgh. He must have been even better than he imagined at curses as the Lions are now more than 60 years removed from their last title.

During seven seasons with the Lions, Morrall split time with a number of quarterbacks, including notable author George Plimpton when he spent training camp with the Lions while writing his book “Paper Lion”. His best season in Detroit was the 1963 campaign when he passed for 2,621 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Moving to the New York Giants in 1965, Morrall led he Giants to a 7-7 record while passing for 2,446 yards and 22 touchdowns. However, he was 1-5-1 in seven starts the next season and then relegated to the bench in 1967.

With his career at a crossroads, the 34-year-old Morrall was signed by the Baltimore Colts to serve as the backup quarterback to Johnny Unitas. However, Unitas was injured prior to the season and Morrall emerged as a star for the first time in his career.

He led the Colts to a 13-1 regular season record and was named the AP NFL MVP after tossing a league-best 26 touchdown passes and throwing for a career-high 2,909 yards.

The Colts dominated the Cleveland Browns 34-0 to claim the 1968 NFL title.

In Super Bowl III the Colts were expected to dominate the New York Jets, but it proved to be one of the biggest upsets in NFL history with New York winning 16-7. Morrall threw three interceptions while completing only six passes for 71 yards before being relieved by Unitas in the second half.

With Unitas healthy the next two seasons, Morrall saw only limited action. However, he did relieve Unitas in Super Bowl V as the Colts rallied to defeat the Dallas Cowboys 16-13.

Morrall was 7-2 as a starter for the Colts in 1971, but after the season the 37-year-old quarterback was released and believed that was the end of his NFL career.

However, Don Shula, who had coached Morrall and the Colts to the NFL title in 1968 invited him to join him as the backup quarterback for the Miami Dolphins.

Miami was coming off a loss to Dallas in Super Bowl VI and seemed poised for another great campaign in 1972 with Bob Griese firmly established as the starting quarterback.

Morrall threw only one pass in the first four games as the Dolphins raced to a 4-0 start. However, in the fifth game of the year against the San Diego Chargers, a broken leg suffered by Griese thrust the 38-year-old back into the spotlight.

Over the final nine games of the regular season Morrall wasn’t necessarily spectacular, but he made few mistakes. He threw 11 touchdown passes with seven interceptions as the Dolphins won every game and finished the regular season with a 14-0 record.

Morrall started the first two playoff games, but was relieved by Griese in the AFC Championship Game as Miami claimed their second straight trip to the Super Bowl.

In Super Bowl VII Morrall did not play quarterback, but he was on the field for one of the most famous (or infamous) plays of the game. With Miami leading 14-0 in the fourth quarter, they seemed ready to put the exclamation point on their victory and undefeated season.

However, a field goal by kicker Garo Yepremien was blocked and after the kicker was unsuccessful in throwing a pass, Mike Bass caught the football out of the air and raced to a Washington touchdown. The Dolphins did manage to hang on for a 14-7 victory to complete their undefeated 17-0 season.

Miami repeated as Super Bowl champion in 1973, but Morrall saw only limited action and threw only 38 passes. He stayed with the Dolphins through the 1976 season before retiring at the age of 42.

For his career, Morrall completed 51.3% of his passes for 20,809 yards, 161 touchdowns and 148 interceptions. His statistics don’t warrant a place in the Hall of Fame, but he sure had a heck of a Football Life. Morrall passed away in 2014.

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