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Earl Morrall: The Ultimate Backup



While it is not often considered until it is too late, the position of backup quarterback is often vital to the success of a great team. Earl Morrall proved to be the ultimate backup quarterback, time and time again. He always seemed to be ready for the spotlight, no matter how bright the lights. Let's take a look at his greatest moments as a backup.


Background


From the earliest parts of Earl Morrall's life, he had always been a winner. He led Muskegon High School to a state championship in football and baseball and capped his career at Michigan State with a win over UCLA in the 1956 Rose Bowl. Everything was lining up perfectly for the quarterback.


But life is never perfect for long and he started his professional career in not the greatest place. He was drafted second overall by the 49ers who currently had Hall-of-Famer Y.A. Tittle on its roster. After they drafted John Brodie from nearby Stanford the following year, Earl Morrall knew that his time in San Francisco was coming to an end.



He was right. Early in the season, he and guard Mike Sandusky were traded to the Steelers for Marv Matuszak and two first-round draft picks. His first year in Pittsburgh also happened to be his first true taste as a regular starter in the NFL. In 1957, he started 11 games and went 6-5 while completing 48.1% of his passes for 1,900 yards, 11 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions. In those days, it was common to throw more interceptions than touchdowns, so the fact that he coughed up just one more interception than touchdowns speaks volumes as to the kind of player that he was at the time. He was studious and direct while showing a level of calmness in the huddle that is vital to success in the NFL. Still, those Steelers teams in that era were not very good and a 6-5 record was often viewed as being a very good year for a team often in the doldrums of the league.


Even though that season gave Morrall the confidence that he needed to be a success in the NFL, the Steelers saw things a bit differently. They traded him to the Lions in the middle of the following year, beginning a long, winding trek to his first true home in the NFL.


1968



the past decade had been a bit of a whirlwind. After getting traded to Detroit, Earl Morrall served as a more than capable backup through 1964, even completing an astronomical-for-the-time 65.3% of his passes in 1960. In 1963, he overtook Milt Plum for the starting job and led the team to a 4-5-1 record while throwing 24 touchdowns while giving up 14 interceptions. By the end of 1964, the Lions had grown tired of him and traded Morrall to the Baltimore Colts.


Earl Morrall spent the next three years soaking up knowledge from the starter in front of him, Johnny Unitas. Under the guidance of coach Don Shula and with the Packers' dynasty coming to an end, the Colts looked like a real contender. But in the last game of the 1968 preseason, Unitas tore muscles in his arm against the Cowboys, sidelining him for at least the entire regular season. In an instant, Earl Morrall was given the chance that he had always dreamed of. He had never had the opportunity to lead a team with so much talent. There was Tom Matte in the backfield and John Mackey lined up at tight end. Combined with an excellent pass rush on the other side of the line led by Bubba Smith, the Colts were loaded.



Earl Morrall's finest season began inconspicuously with an interception returned for a touchdown. From there he began to find his stride and by the end of the afternoon had found a way to throw two touchdowns and complete more than half of his passes for just a hair under 200 yards in a 27-10 win over San Francisco.


The following week, Baltimore traveled to Atlanta to face off against the three-year-old Falcons. From the start, it looked like the Colts would run away with an easy victory as Morrall zipped two touchdown passes in the first quarter to Ray Perkins and John Mackey. Surprisingly, the Falcons had more fight in them than the Colts realized and began to fight back late in the first quarter. By the middle of the second quarter, Atlanta had trimmed down what once was a two-touchdown lead to just four points.


But Earl Morrall hadn't sat on the bench for so long for nothing and lofted a 46-yard strike to Jimmy Orr to give the Colts a bigger cushion going into the half. The Falcons continued to fight well into the fourth quarter and cut the lead down to a single point. Then with time running out., Earl Morrall led his team down the field where Tom Matte put an exclamation on the game, running into the endzone for a two-yard touchdown run to put the game out of reach. The Colts won 28-20.


Though the Colts had cause for concern over Earl Morrall's three interceptions in Atlanta, they could rest assured that all could go well in Pittsburgh the following week. Morrall played well enough to beat the worst team in the league, but it was a team effort that gave the Colts a convincing 41-7 victory. It was the kind of game where the Colts flexed all of their muscles, with three of their defensive players returning interceptions for touchdowns and the offense producing a touchdown through the air and on the ground.


Against the Bears at Memorial Stadium the following week, Earl Morrall had his finest day as a professional. After an early Gale Sayers touchdown, Morrall feasted on the Bears' secondary, throwing for 302 yards and tossing four touchdown passes. They were not short passes either. On three consecutive drives, Morrall threw scoring passes of 50 yards (to Willie Richardson), 45 yards to John Mackey and 38 yards to Jimmy Orr. After a 66-yard strike to Orr again in the third quarter, Morrall was quiet the rest of the afternoon, his job having been completed for the day.



The Colts traveled to San Francisco the following week and Morrall's day was relatively quiet until late in the second quarter. Nonetheless, his team was taking care of business on the field while trying to find their groove in the air. By the time he tossed a 15-yard strike to Jerry Hill to close out the half, the Colts had found their stride. He threw one more touchdown pass in the fourth quarter before Johnny Unitas entered the game. Momentarily injury-free, Johnny U immediately zipped a six-yard scoring strike to his favorite tight end, Johny Mackey. As the Colts scored two more insurance touchdowns on the ground to extend Baltimore's lead to 42-14, a mini-quarterback controversy began to rumble on the sidelines. Sure, Earl Morrall had begun to look good in the offense, but the guy he was replacing was a legend. And legends don't go down quietly.


Controversy of any kind can derail a promising season. While their old quarterback looked familiar under center, in reality, he was lost. Against the Cleveland Browns, Johnny Unitas looked nothing like his old self. His greatness was nowhere to be found in Memorial Stadium as he completed just one of 11 passes while giving up three interceptions. Earl Morrall entered the game when Unitas when down with another arm injury and did his best to dig his team out of their hole. But his single touchdown was too little too late as the Browns beat the Colts 30-20.


The following week, the Colts faced the unbeaten Rams. Undaunted, the Colts jumped to a 10-point lead in the first quarter on a pair of one-yard plunges by Jerry Hill and Earl Morrall. It was a team effort as the Colts defense held the Rams for much of the afternoon and their more-than-capable backup threw two touchdowns to Jimmy Orr and Tom Mitchell as the Colts came away victorious 27-10.


The Colts next traveled to New York where their defense shone brightly under the friese of Yankee Stadium, posting a shutout. Meanwhile, Earl Morrall continued to be his usual dependable self, throwing two touchdown passes as Baltimore won 26-0.


The Colts continued their road trip to Detroit the following week where they defeated a weak Lions squad 27-10. It would be the only game in the regular season where Earl Morrall didn't throw a touchdown pass.


He made up for his slump back in Baltimore where they beat the Cardinals 27-0 and he threw a 79-yard touchdown strike to Willie Richardson in the first quarter. He inflated his statistics later in the game when he tossed a 29-yard scoring pass to Richardson in the third quarter and zipped a one-yard stride to Tom Matte in the fourth.


Against Minnesota the next week, Morrall led the team to a 21-point lead after throwing two touchdown passes. But he also threw two interceptions and struggled the second half as the Vikings tried in vain to mount a rally. They could only muster three field goals as the Colts came away victorious 21-9.


Yearning for redemption after nearly being upset earlier in the year, the Colts disintegrated the Falcons the next week 44-0. It was a complete team win with Morrall throwing two scoring strikes in the first half, the ground game pounding the opposition into submission and the defense suffocating the life out of the opposing quarterback and his minions.


The Colts made their way to Green Bay where they had struggled in the past year. What's more, the Packers were the two-time defending Super Bowl champions and still had many of their great players from their recent dynasty. This was a statement game for all involved.


Even though it ended up being a defensive slugfest, the Packers never stood a chance. After Earl Morrall threw a 26-touchdown pass to Willie Richardson, the defense did the rest as the Colts won 16-3. A statement had been made.


The Colts traveled to Los Angeles for the regular season finale with not much on the line. At that point in the season, the Colts had clinched the Western Division over the Rams who had two losses and a tie. At this point, the Rams were playing more for pride than anything else. Still, a team's pride is a powerful force.


The first quarter was quite an opening. The Rams opened up the scoring fest with a 19-yard strike between Roman Gabriel and Jack Snow. On their next possession, middle linebacker Mike Curtis returned a Gabriel pass 38 yards for an exhilarating pick-six. Earl Morrall joined the festivities with a 61-yard touchdown pass to Preston Pearson to end the quarter on a high note.


Back and forth the game went, with neither team giving any quarter. By the fourth quarter the game was tied, but there was a growing sense that the better team would soon prevail. At that moment, Johnny Unitas entered the game and immediately zipped a nine-yard touchdown pass to Pearson. The Rams responded with a Willie Ellison 52-yard romp into the endzone. Tom Matte put the finishing touches on the Colts' victory with a four-yard plunge into the end zone. Though the Rams managed a field goal, it would be for naught as the Colts held on for a decisive 28-24 win in Los Angeles.


The Colts' first opponent in the playoffs was the revenge-minded Vikings. Having come so close to defeating the mighty Colts just a month earlier, the Vikings knew that they had the defense to stifle Baltimore's championship hopes.


But Earl Morrall had another idea. He took control of the game in the second quarter by flinging a three-yard touchdown pass to Tom Mitchell and the Colts were in business. After Morrall lofted a 49-yard scoring strike to Mackey in the third quarter and Mike Curtis returned a fumble 60 yards for another touchdown, the Colts never looked back, cruising to a 24-14 win.


The Colts continued their romp through the playoffs in Cleveland the next week for the NFL Championship. They remembered how embarrassed they were when they lost to the Browns and were determined to enact vengeance upon their adversary. They did just that as the Colts' defense swarmed quarterbacks Frank Ryan and Bill Nelson all day, sacking them four times while forcing two interceptions. Offensively, the Colts were more methodical as they controlled the game on the ground rather than through the air. Still, Earl Morrall only threw one interception and completed just south of half of his passes. Sure, he didn't throw a touchdown pass, but the soon-to-be league MVP did just enough to manage the Colts to their first NFL championship victory in a decade, clobbering the Browns 34-0.



In the locker room, the team was exhilarated, knowing that they would travel from the chilly confines of Cleveland Municipal Stadium for the sunny beaches of Miami. The Super Bowl was practically an afterthought for them. The AFL had never stood a chance against the mighty NFL in the first two Super Bowls. What could possibly possess them to think any differently?


But deep within the confines of Shea Stadium the New York Jets were concocting a plan to stun not, only the Colts, but the whole world. While the Colts had been very dominant on both sides of the ball, they had flaws, particularly regarding humility. In those days, the NFL was still very old-school as teams usually went week-to-week playing the way that they had always played without making many if any, adjustments. The Colts' defense particularly suffered at the hands of the Jets in Super Bowl III.


All game long, the Jets knew where the Colts were going on defense and usually called plays from the line of scrimmage rather than the huddle. Earl Morrall's MVP season went up in smoke as he struggled against an equally dominant Jets defense, coughing up three interceptions and completing just six of 17 passes for a measly 71 yards. In the end, Johnny Unitas was called to try to muster his troops into action. But even Johnny U couldn't pull a comeback against this squad from New York and the Jets scored one of the biggest upsets in sports history. While the Colts watched the jubilant Jets jump for joy on the sidelines, their hearts sank further and further. This was supposed to be their year! Wasn't it?!



1970



Times were changing in Baltimore, Maryland. After their gut-wrenching 16-7 loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III, the Colts missed the playoffs entirely in 1969 as Don Shula and the front office clashed throughout the season. By 1970, he had been traded to the Dolphins and his assistant Don McCafferty was promoted to head coach. The Colts still had many of the same great players from two years earlier, including Earl Morrall. But Johnny Unitas was healthy this time around and missed only one game the whole year as he led the team to Super Bowl V.


Much was similar about this contest, particularly the surroundings. Once again, the Super Bowl would be played in Miami, but this time around, the Colts were in the newly-minted AFC, having switched conferences in the offseason. the game itself was very different from two years earlier as neither team played great and would soon earn the game the unflattering moniker "the Blunder Bowl". Still, Unitas looked good. But after he threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to Mackey, Johnny U went down with a rib injury and the team would have to turn to his reliable backup once again.


Earl Morrall didn't play great, but he proved to be a capable game manager. In two-and-a-half quarters of action, Morrall completed seven-of-15 passes for 147 yards with a humbling interception. The two teams scratched and clawed til the end, but when rookie kicker Jim O'Brien nailed a last-second 32-yard field goal to give America its first walk-off Super Bowl victory, the Colts' sideline went nuts. At last, they were champions of the world. But despite the victory, decades later, many would claim wholeheartedly that nothing could wipe away the sting of their loss in Super Bowl III.


1972



Two years later, Earl Morrall signed with the Miami Dolphins as insurance for star quarterback Bob Griese. At the advanced age of 38 years, Morrall was viewed as an ancient among his peers and on his first day as a Dolphin was given a rocking chair. He took it in stride and the team went about their business winning the first four games of the season.


But Morrall was soon thrust into the starting lineup when Griese went down with a broken ankle in the fifth game of the year against the Chargers. Like 1968, Morrall was now coach Don Shula's savior under center. He led Miami to a relatively easy win over San Diego by throwing two touchdown passes and not committing any costly turnovers.


That's how the season went as the Dolphins did most of their damage on the ground with the incredible trifecta of Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris. It wasn't easy going undefeated. The next week against the Bills, the Dolphins barely got out alive with a one-point win as Morrall only threw 10 passes all game.


Things were much easier the following week against the struggling Colts as the Dolphins came away with a 23-0 victory. Once again, Morrall threw just 15 passes for less than 100 yards and no touchdowns as Miami dominated on the ground. While the Dolphins kept on winning, they knew that eventually, they would need more support through the air. In their rematch against the Bills, Morrall's seven-yard touchdown completion to Marv Fleming in the third quarter provided the team some cushion as they eventually won the game by two touchdowns. It would be the last game of the year where Earl Morrall threw for less than 100 yards.


In Miami's 52-point demolition of New England the following week, Mercury Morris and Larry Csonka put on a clinic as they ran all over the Patriots' defense and it wasn't until the third quarter that Morrall threw a touchdown pass, a 16-yard strike to Marlin Briscoe. In fact, his backup Jim Del Gaizo was more productive than him that day, throwing two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to complete the blowout. Both of Miami's quarterbacks finished with a passer rating higher than 120 for the day and combined for 11 completions out of 19 attempts.



The following week was a different story. Though the Jets were not a great team at this point, they did have three Hall of Famers in Joe Namath, running back John Riggins and coach Weeb Ewbank, the very man that had outcoached Don Shula in Super Bowl III just four years earlier. Wanting to exorcise the demons of his past, Earl Morrall wasted no time getting Miami on the board first, throwing a nine-yard touchdown pass to Howard Twilley in the first quarter. The game went back and forth as both teams boasted great players who desperately wanted to win. Early in the third quarter, Miami was down 17-14 when Earl Morrall defied his age.


He surprised everyone when he ran 31 yards for another touchdown to give the Dolphins the lead. But that lead was soon vanquished as Namath threw a touchdown pass to Wayne Stewart to give New York a 24-21 lead. But the Dolphins refused to go down quietly and Mercury Morris scored the game-winner on a 14-yard scamper in the fourth quarter. Miami's tremendous "No Name Defense" did the rest and the Dolphins escaped with a 28-24 win.


the Dolphins were methodical against the Cardinals the following week and Morrall let it fly, completing 12 of 19 passes for 210 yards. He added to his team's 31-10 victory with touchdown passes of 27 and 37 yards to Otto Stowe. Meanwhile, the Patriots seethed. Still reeling from their 52-point pummeling just a.month earlier, New England yearned for vengeance when the Dolphins visited.


In some respects, the Patriots did make life more difficult for the Dolphins, scoring three touchdowns and intercepting two passes (including one off of Morrall). But in the end, the Dolphins' depth proved to be too much. Multiple Dolphins scored on the ground and through the air as Morrall threw a touchdown pass to two of his favorite receivers, Jim Mandich and Marlin Briscoe. Despite the Patriots' best efforts, the game was still a blowout as the Dolphins won handily 37-21.

This was decades before social media took over the airwaves and in those days, major stories didn't become well-known until either New York or Los Angeles took notice. Because of that, most of the public was not aware that the Dolphins were undefeated until they went into Yankee Stadium and defeated the New York Giants 23-13. Though the Giants were on a downward spiral, they were no pushovers on this day and were down by just four points until Morrall threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Marlin Briscoe in the second quarter. From there, the Dolphins controlled the game as the media began to take notice of their current undefeated record.


The Dolphins welcomed the Colts for the season finale, intent on becoming the first team in a long time to finish the regular season undefeated. While the Colts were going nowhere, they did put up quite a fight, holding the Dolphins to just 16 points. But despite the Colts' best efforts, the Dolphins' depth proved to be too much. A 14-yard Earl Morrall to Paul Warfield connection in the second quarter proved to be too much for the overmatched Colts as the Dolphins came away victorious 16-0.


The first round in the playoffs would prove to be the beginning of the end for Morrall as the Dolphins starting quarterback. Against the Browns, he completed six of 13 passes for a meager 88 yards and no touchdowns. Luckily he was surrounded by great talent as the team carried him to a 20-14 win. The Dolphins struggled against the resurgent Steelers in the AFC Championship Game the following week and throughout the second half, Don Shula began to sense that a change needed to be made at quarterback.


It wasn't that Earl Morrall was doing a poor job( he had, in fact, thrown a touchdown pass to Csonka to tie the game in the second quarter) second, it was just that the offense wasn't clicking as it once did under his direction. So early in the second half, Shula switched to a now-healthy Griese who immediately lofted a 52-yard bomb to Warfield to put the team in scoring position. From there, the Dolphins never looked back, beating the Steelers by four and beating the Redskins in the Super Bowl the following week to become the first and only undefeated team in the Super Bowl era.


Post-Football Life


Earl Morrall played through the 1976 season, winning another Super Bowl with the Dolphins. After he retired, he filled his time coaching quarterbacks at the University of Miami where he taught the signal-callers such as Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde and Mark Richt. He won a seat on the Davis, Florida city council in 1989 and was eventually elected mayor. He passed away on April 25, 2014 in the advanced stages of CTE, the debilitating brain condition that so often plagues former football players. Even though he never realized his dream of being a regular starter, without his services, the 1972 Dolphins never would have been undefeated and the backup quarterback position wouldn't be as valued as it is today.




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