August 25, 2010
As the Baltimore Colts prepared for the 1968 season, their 35-year-old all-time great quarterback, Johnny Unitas, was battling elbow tendinitis. Backup QB Jim Ward was inexperienced and had a bad knee. On August 25, the Colts obtained veteran QB Earl Morrall from the New York Giants for a fourth round draft pick.
The 34-year-old Morrall had played in 12 NFL seasons with four teams since coming out of Michigan State in 1956, where he had been an All-American and led the Spartans to a win in the Rose Bowl. As a result, he had been a first round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers where he sat on the bench behind Y.A. Tittle and played poorly in limited opportunities – he threw 78 passes, six of which were intercepted. He was traded to Pittsburgh after the 49ers drafted QB John Brodie out of Stanford.
With the Steelers, Morrall got a chance to start and showed improvement, but early in the ’58 season he was sent to Detroit in the deal that reunited QB Bobby Layne with Head Coach Buddy Parker in Pittsburgh. He sat behind Tobin Rote with the Lions, and after Rote’s departure in 1960 competed with, first, Jim Ninowski and then Milt Plum for the starting job. He had his best year in 1963 as he consigned Plum to the bench and ranked fourth among the league’s passers. But Morrall suffered a shoulder injury in ’64 and, when Harry Gilmer became head coach in ’65, a firm decision was made during the preseason to stick with Plum. Morrall was traded to the Giants.
Morrall had a solid season for the 7-7 Giants in 1965, throwing for 2446 yards and 22 TDs against 12 interceptions. However, he broke his hand during a 1966 campaign that was disastrous for the Giants, and in the offseason they obtained Fran Tarkenton from Minnesota. Morrall sat on the bench in ’67 and was considering demanding a trade when the deal was made with the Colts.
There had been plenty of criticism leveled at Morrall over the years, summed up by nicknames like “Bullpen Boy” and “The Understudy”, and it was widely held that he was too inconsistent to be successful as a starting quarterback in the NFL. Baltimore Head Coach Don Shula was well aware of the criticisms, but was familiar with Morrall as a former assistant coach with the Lions and believed that his experience could prove valuable if Unitas was not fully sound. He assured a reluctant Morrall that it was possible he could see significant action.
Shula’s prediction proved all too true when Unitas suffered a devastating muscle tear in his throwing arm in the final preseason game at the Cotton Bowl against Dallas. Unitas would end up seeing only brief and ineffectual action during the season as he was forced to rest his arm, but Morrall proved to be up to the job.
The Colts went 13-1 over the course of the campaign. Morrall put together an MVP season (Associated Press, UPI, NEA) as he led the NFL in overall passing (93.2 rating), touchdown passes (26), yards per attempt (9.2), yards per completion (16.0) and touchdown percentage (8.2); he ranked second in yards (2909) and completion percentage (57.4).
Morrall only once failed to throw a touchdown pass in a game, and had a high of four in a 28-7 win over the Bears, in which he also had his high for passing yardage (302). Along the way, he led the Colts to victories over all four of the teams that had given up on him during his career: 27-10 over the 49ers, 41-7 against Pittsburgh, 26-0 over the Giants, and 27-10 over Detroit.
The Colts breezed by the Vikings in the divisional round of the postseason and then shut out the Browns, 34-0, for the NFL title. However, the storybook season came to a bitter end in Super Bowl III as the upstart New York Jets stunned the Colts, 16-7. Morrall played poorly, completing just 6 of 17 passes for 71 yards with three interceptions, and failed to spot a wide-open split end Jimmy Orr in the end zone late in the first half. The disappointing showing (which was hardly Morrall’s alone) seemed to lend credence to denigrating comments that Jets QB Joe Namath made prior to the game and the criticisms that had been leveled throughout Morrall’s career.
Earl Morrall remained with the Colts for three more seasons, splitting time with the increasingly brittle Unitas – and gaining some measure of vindication when he relieved the great quarterback in Super Bowl V following the 1970 season, a game the Colts won with a field goal in the closing seconds.
Don Shula, who by then had moved on to the Miami Dolphins, turned to Morrall as a backup prior to the 1972 season. When starting QB Bob Griese went down with a broken leg at midseason, Morrall did a solid job in leading the Dolphins the rest of the way to an undefeated record. Miami won the Super Bowl, but by then Griese was back in command.
Morrall lasted through the 1976 season, when he was 42 years old, for a total of 21 years in the NFL – a lengthy tenure for a quarterback dismissed as a career backup.