Earl Morrall, The Ultimate Backup

Street Talk Earl Morrall, The Ultimate Backup

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Earl Morrall, a twenty-one year NFL veteran quarterback, mostly as a backup, passed away Friday in Florida at the age of 79.

His career began as the second overall selection out of Michigan State in the 1956 NFL draft by the 49ers and ended with the Miami Dolphins after the 1976 season. In between he also quarterbacked for the Lions, Steelers, Giants, and Colts.

He threw his first touchdown pass on October 28, 1956 to Gordy Soltau for the 49ers in a 38-21 loss to the Bears. His final scoring strike on October 10, 1976 found Nat Moore on the receiving end in a 28-14 loss to the Baltimore Colts at Memorial Stadium.

Speaking of Memorial Stadium, in 1960 while with the Lions, Earl shocked the Baltimore crowd by hitting Jim Gibbons for a 65-yard score to beat the Colts 20-15 on the last play of the game, seconds after John Unitas had just hit Lenny Moore with what seemed to be the winning touchdown.

Morrall made his mark after he was traded by the Giants to the Baltimore Colts in August 1968 in exchange for backup receiver Butch Wilson. He was to be insurance to soften the blow of any potential John Unitas injury. As fate would have it, Morrall became a policy that would pay dividends.

The only other quarterback on the Colts roster at that time was untested Jim Ward from Gettysburg College. Near the end of the 1968 preseason Unitas suffered an elbow injury thrusting Morrall into the starting role for the Colts who were Super Bowl contenders coming off an 11-1-2 record in 1967. Morrall responded by leading the Colts to an even better record, 13-1 and a 34-0 victory over the Cleveland Browns in the 1968 NFL championship game.

His play during the season earned Morrall the MVP award in 1968. Coupled with Unitas’ 1967 MVP award, the Colts became the only team in NFL history to have two different quarterbacks win the MVP award in successive seasons.

The 1968 season was of course marred by the shocking 16-7 loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III, a game in which Morrall threw three interceptions, the most famous being on a failed flea flicker play when he could not find a wide open Jimmy Orr. Legend has it that Orr’s blue jersey mixed in with the Colts band’s uniforms who were positioned to come on for halftime entertainment.

Unitas returned in 1969 and from then until the end of 1971 Morrall served as his backup, and did some spot starting for the aging Unitas. He compiled an impressive 9-2-1 record as a starter during this period.

His most memorable appearance during this stretch was in Super Bowl V as he replaced an injured Unitas during the second period as the Colts trailed the Cowboys 13-6. Morrall led them back to a 13-13 tie and then held for rookie Jim O’Brien’s winning 32-yard field goal to give the Colts their third championship with a 16-13 win. This remains the only time that a backup quarterback came into a Super Bowl and brought his team from behind to win the game.

Shula Morrall GrieseSurprisingly following the 1971 season, Morrall was released by the Colts. Immediately after his release Morrall was picked up by Don Shula and the Dolphins for the $100.00 waiver price.

Morrall replaced George Mira as the Dolphin backup quarterback behind Bob Griese. The Dolphins, the defending AFC champions were favorites to make another trip to the Super Bowl. Griese broke his leg during their week 5 game against San Diego. Morrall came off the bench and threw scoring passes to Howard Twilley and Paul Warfield leading the Dolphins to a 24-10 victory.

After that Morrall and the Dolphins ran the table with nine more wins, including a pair of shut outs victories against the fast dropping Colts, 23-0, and 16-0, the latter being Unitas’ last game as a Baltimore Colt.

The Dolphins ended the regular season with a perfect 14-0 record. Morrall then led the Dolphins from behind to beat the Browns 20-14 in the divisional round of the playoffs. They trailed 14-13 in the 4th period and their perfect season was in jeopardy but Morrall’s long distance shot to Paul Warfield set up the winning touchdown.

On the road in the AFC title game in Pittsburgh the following week, (back then best record did not guarantee home field for playoff games), the Dolphins were tied with the Steelers 7-7 at the half. Earl was having just an average game so Shula switched back to Griese and the Dolphins beat the Steelers 21-17 and then went on to win Super Bowl VII to end the 1972 season at 17-0, matching the 1948 Cleveland Browns as the only unbeaten, untied team in pro football history.

Although Earl was moved back to the bench to finish 1972 he was named the AFC Player of the Year.

Morrall remained the primary Dolphin backup quarterback up to 1975 and was third string in 1976 before his retirement after the 1976 season. His record as a starting quarterback after landing with the Colts in 1968 to his retirement was staggering 33 wins, 4 defeats and one tie. He is the “ultimate backup” because of his ability not just to be able to bring teams back from defeat to victory during games as he did in Super Bowl V and the week 5 game in 1972 with the Dolphins, but also for the long haul.

With the 1968 Colts and the 1972 Dolphins he came in for injured future Hall of Famers and led his team for a season to at least a league championship in each case. For this he was awarded a league MVP and a conference Player of the Year award.

What set Earl apart was that he was a consummate team player. After winning his awards in 1968 and 1972, Don Shula sent him back to the bench for 1969 and in 1973. Morrall responded with class. He understood his role and remained supportive of his starting quarterback. He never complained privately to teammates, to the press, or to his coaches. He accepted his role as a true team player.

He embraced the role of backup – to be ready in a moment’s notice, having to go from holding a clipboard one play to having the reigns of the franchise the next. It takes a special player to immerse himself in that role and thrive in it.

Earl Morrall was that special player and teammate.

The entire NFL lost a consummate professional and a classic gentleman.

We were fortunate to call you ours here in Baltimore for those memorable four seasons.

Rest In Peace Earl.

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Kurt Backert

About Kurt Backert

Kurt's passion for the game began in the 60's watching the Colts on TV and at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. He began following the statistics of not only his beloved Colts but also those of the Colts opponents, with a keen eye on Vince Lombardi's Packers. His thirst for and attention to statistical detail would eventually lead Kurt on a journey to the world of fantasy football in the late 1980's where he's captured more titles than John Wooden's UCLA Bruins   Kurt carries a distinction that no other fan of the NFL can boast about.  He is the reigning NFL National Trivia Champion and he credits his Dad for passing on such passion for the game, something Kurt also hopes to pass along to his 9-year-old son. More from Kurt Backert


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