Craig Morton had always dreamed of the spotlight. Ever since his days starring on the baseball diamond and the football field at Campbell High School, he hungered for athletic greatness. While his teams were never any good, he shined at Cal, earning All America honors as a senior. Everything seemed to be going according to plan until it wasn't. While in Dallas, he stumbled upon one of the great quarterback controversies of that era. Traded from Dallas, he eventually found what he was looking for and helped lead Denver to its first winning season. This is his story.
The Early Years
Larry Craig Morton was born on February 5, 1943 in Flint, Michigan, moving to Campbell, California when he was young. He starred as a pitcher in youth leagues all over the Bay Area and was soon drawn to the gridiron.
Craig Morton was a star in high school, not just in baseball or football but also basketball. He was truly a well-rounded athlete, one that colleges and baseball franchises coveted. Although he was courted by major league teams right out of high school, Craig Morton chose to go to college at Cal-Berkeley to play football under the guidance of two legendary coaches: Marv Levy and Bill Walsh.
Needless to say, Cal wasn't very good in those days, never coming close to winning the PAC-8 conference. As a sophomore in 1962, Morton threw for 905 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions for the 1-9 Golden Bears. Although he threw more as a junior, he was less accurate, completing less than half of his passes for 1,41=75 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while Cal went 4-5-1.
As a senior in 1964, despite leading a 3-7 squad, Craig Morton was named a first-team All-American after completing more than 60% of his passes for 2,121 yards and 13 touchdowns against nine interceptions. After graduation, he was drafted fifth overall by the Dallas Cowboys.
In those days, the Cowboys were led by the swashbuckling, country good 'ol boy Don Meredith. Despite the fact that they had yet to enjoy a winning season, the Cowboys knew that they were on the cusp. Craig Morton started just once as a rookie, a 13-3 loss to rthe eventual NFL champion Green Bay Packers, copmleting half of his passes for 61 yards and two interceptions while getting sacked nine times. His ego bruised, Morton started sparingly from then until after Dandy Don's retirement following the 1968 season.
When he finally took over the reigns from Meredith, there was another quarterback waiting impatiently for his chance right behind him: Roger Staubach. The 1963 Heisman Trophy winner from Navy had been drafted back in 1964 but was required to servfe in the Navy after graduation, therefore giving Craig Morton the inside track to earning the starter's spot earlier.
Meanwhile, Morton was making the most of his opportunity, throwing 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the first four games of the year, highlighted by a sensational five touchdown bonanza against the lowly Eagles in the season's fourth game. All told, he completed 53.6% of his passes for 2,619 yards and 21 touchdowns that year while leading Dallas to the playoffs.
But like his predecessor, Craig Morton stumbled in the playoffs, losing to Cleveland in the first round in a 38-14 drubbing. After completing just eight of his 24 passes for 92 yards and two interceptions, Craig Morton was determined to improve.
He didn't. Instead, he regressed the following year, completing less than half of his passes for 1,819 yardsa and 15 touchdowns. Including that year's Super Bowl, he completed a paltry 34.85% of his passes in the playoffs for 266 yards and two touchdowns against four interceptions.
Still, the Cowboys were able to reach the Super Bowl, a major accomplishment considering all over their misfortune in the postseason in previous years. Super Bowl V was appropriately named the "Blunder Bowl" as neither team played well. Morton had his chances, but he blew it when it matttered most, coughing up three costly interceptions that ultimately spelled doom for the Cowboys. In the end, it was his third and final pick that gave the Baltimore Colts the field position that they needed to crush the Cowboys hearts.
With tension brewing in the quarterback room, Tom Landry was in a pickle. While Craig Morton had proven his value under center, having led Dallas to the playoffs in both of his years as their starter and leading his team to the doorstep of a Super Bowl triumph, only to fall short. While he had showed his potential, Tom Landry remained smitten by the other quarterback on his team, Roger Staubach. Ever since he joined the team in 1969, the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner from Navy had been itching to see the field, always ready to put on a show at practice.
By the time 1971 rolled around, Tom Landy was undecided about who his starting quarterback should be. Morton or Staubach? Staubach or Morton? With his mind still undecided, Landry decided to go with a two-quarterback system, starting Morton in the first half of Week 1 while starting Staubach the second half. They would switch rolls in Week 2 and so on.
Given his opportunity, Craig Morton played well in the season opener, completing 10 of 14 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns in a thrilling 49-37 win over Buffalo. In the second half the following week, Morton completed 15 of 22 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns while coughing up two interceptions.
Back and forth the two quarterbacks went until Week 7 in Chicago. That day, Tom Landry elected to try something truly unique, switching quarterbacks on every play. While the Cowboys moved the ball well, they were inconsistent. Football players are creatures of habit that need to know who's behind center at all times. Even though he completed 20 of 36 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown, Morton also coughed up three interceptions in the untimely 23-19 loss to the lowly Bears.
Staring at a 4-3 start, Tom Landry knew that he had to act fast is he was going to save his team's once-promising season. Before they played the Cardinals the following week Landry had decided on his starter for the rest of the decade. It was Roger Staubach. T he Cowboys didn't lose a game the rest of the season as Staubach led them to a win in the Super Bowl over the Miami Dolphins.
Morton stayed on the roster for several more years after that and even started most of 1972 when Staubach went down with a separated shoulder for much of the season. But after he was pulled late in a playoff game against the 49ers with the Cowboys down by 15, he knew that his time in Dallas was limited. He could only watch on the sideline as Staubach pulled off one of his many fourth quarter comebacks.
Wanting a fresh start, Craig Morton was traded to the Giants in the middle of 1974. It wasn't a good fit. In those days, both the Giants organization and New York City were going through some growing pains. While the Giants tried and failed to find a winning formula, it was indeed a very forgetful decade. While Morton led the woebegone Giants to a 1-6 record, the Big Apple was facing the threat of bankruptcy.
The Giants never improved while Morton was there and after winning just twice in 12 games and throwing nine touchdowns against 20 interceptions in 1976, Craig Morton was again ready for a fresh start.
Craig Morton was traded to Denver in 1977, stepping into a vastly different environment than he had been in before in New York. Led by a ferocious defense nicknamed the "Orange Crush", the Broncos had an edge in their steps as they followed the antics of famed passrusher Lyle Alzado.
Meanwhile, Morton led a ragtag bunch on offense led by the likes of running back Otis Armstrong and receiver Haven Moses. Championship teams call in all shapes and sizes, with each running on its own locker room formula. While it was clear that the Broncos were a defensive-oriented team, their offense did just enough to help the squad earn a league-best 12-2 record.
Rejuvinated, Craig Morton led a steady offenive attack that year, completing 51.6% of his passes for 1,929 yards and 14 touchdowns. He finished third in the league MVP voting behind Walter Payton (the winner) and Bob Griese while leading the Broncos deep into the playoffs.
In the first round against the Steelers, Craig Morton was good enough, completing less than half of his passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns in the 34-21 win. He was better in the AFC Championship Game the following week against the Oakland Raiders, completing half of his passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns, beating the defending Super Bowl champs 20-17 and stamping Denver's ticket to its first Super Bowl. Their opponent? None other than Craig Morton's old team, the Dallas Cowboys.
Facing his former coach and positional competition at such a big stage must have been difficult. But it was not nearly as difficult as facing Dallas' vaunted Doomsday Defense. Craig Morton's head spun the hole game, completing a paltry four of his 15 passes for 39 yards and four interceptions. The final deficit of 27-10 did little to tell the story of just how dominant the Cowboys defense was that night.
After the painful loss, Craig Morton was determined to return to the Super Bowl and make the third time a charm. In the coming years, he would not only raise his completion percentage from 54.7% in 1978 to as high as 60.8% in 1980, but he also hit his high point in passing yards, passing for 3,195 in 1981. With the franchise wanting to go in another direction, Craig Morton retired after the 1982 season, just before they traded for a young quarterback from Stanford named John Elway.
After his playing career ended, Crait Morton dabbled in both coaching, voting and writing. Right after he retired, Morton coached the Denver Gold of the USFL. Years later, he would serve as a voter for the Harris Interactive College Football Poll, a key component of college football's long-maligned and now-defunct BCS. He left his lasting mark with the Broncos in 2008 when he co-authored "Then Morton Said to Elway- the Best Denver Broncos Stories Evder Told". He was the right man for the job.