Earl Morrall spent his entire career, it seemed, encased with a sign that said “In case of emergency, break glass.”
If he was a movie actor, he’d be a stand-in. The only part of him that you’d see would be from over his shoulder.
Morrall, the quarterback from Michigan State who passed away the other day at age 79, managed to stay on an NFL roster for 21 years, though he was usually the one on the sidelines with the cleanest jersey.
But Morrall had his moments, and those kept him on those rosters for those 21 years.
Morrall was the Forrest Gump of pro football—the guy whose face and famous crew cut always appeared in the background, behind images of such luminaries as Fran Tarkenton, Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese.
But when Morrall got a chance to play, he was no slouch. It was just that he played behind some of the game’s greats.
There was 1968, for example.
Morrall, then playing for the Colts at age 34, was the starter for that season because Unitas went down with torn muscles in his arm in the final pre-season game.
Morrall was 34 but 1968 was only the second time in his career that he was his team’s starting QB. The other was in 1965, when Earl went 7-7 for the New York Giants.
So Morrall was 34 but his arm was probably nine years younger from limited use.
While Colts fans were crestfallen when defending league MVP Unitas was destined to be a season-long scratch, Earl Morrall, the stand-in QB from Muskegon, did his best stand-in work.
Earl almost made Johnny U turn into Johnny Who?
Playing with the talent that was always there but rarely given a chance to shine—even in Detroit, which had the thoroughly underwhelming Jim Ninowski and Milt Plum ahead of Earl in the early-1960s—Morrall authored a stunning season that earned him NFL MVP honors.
Morrall completed 57.4 percent of his passes—a considerably high rate in those days—and fired 26 TD passes among his 2,909 yards through the air for the 13-1 Colts, who won the league title and would meet the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
That’s when Morrall’s fantastic season made a horrifying turn.
Hardly anyone knows that Morrall was the NFL MVP in 1968, because Joe Namath and the Jets turned Earl and the Colts’ excellent year upside down.
The Jets upset the Colts, 16-7, and worse for Morrall, he didn’t see a wide open Jimmy Orr for what certainly would have been a crucial TD pass late in the first half.
And Morrall, who threw three interceptions, was eventually replaced late in the game by a clearly less-than-whole Unitas and his mangled arm.
That loss in SB III haunted Morrall and the rest of the Colts so heavily that even winning Super Bowl V two years later, with Morrall saving the day in relief of Unitas, couldn’t sweeten the bitterness of the loss to Namath and the Jets.
In 1972, Morrall was traded to the Miami Dolphins. The Colts decided to go with young Marty Domres at quarterback when it was evident that Unitas’ career was done.
In Miami, Mr. Backup took his usual place, standing in the shadows of the much younger Griese.
The Dolphins had appeared in Super Bowl VI, but Griese and company were manhandled by Dallas, 26-3. Don Shula, who coached Morrall in Baltimore, brought his old QB back in Miami, just in case the Dolphins would need a steady veteran’s calm if the unthinkable happened.
Griese went down with a broken ankle in Week 5. The Dolphins were undefeated but now their fate was in the hands of a 38-year-old career backup who hadn’t seen serious playing time in several years.
Morrall finished the Dolphins’ perfect 14-0 season by taking the last nine games home with his precise, if less-than-impressive, arm.
Morrall threw just 150 passes in those nine games, as the Dolphins’ trio of runners—Jim Kiick, Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris—made sure that Earl’s signature play of the season was the handoff.
Griese recovered from his injury in time to start for Miami in Super Bowl VII, in which the Dolphins would attempt to finish the 1972 season a perfect 17-0.
Morrall was again relegated to backup duty, despite his 9-0 record as Miami’s starter in place of Griese.
“A younger player might have sulked,” Morrall once said about his personal disappointment but professionalism in respecting Shula’s choice.
Miami beat Washington, 14-7, as Morrall’s only claim to fame in the big game was as being the holder when Garo Yepremian’s famous “pass” after a blocked field goal attempt was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Michigan’s Mike Bass.
Morrall stuck around Miami for four more years, throwing 134 passes combined, before retiring at age 42.
Morrall was Mr. Backup, yet he led two different teams to the Super Bowl as a starting quarterback—and he and Kurt Warner are the only two guys to ever have done that. And Morrall is, to this day, the only QB in Super Bowl history to come off the bench and lead his team to victory (SB V).
Earl’s old coach in Baltimore and Miami, Don Shula, put Morrall’s career in perspective after learning of Earl’s death.
“All Earl ever did was win games for me, whether it was as a starter or coming off the bench,” Shula said in a statement. “And he did it in such a humble way—he was a great team player who would do whatever was asked of him. And he was an outstanding leader who inspired confidence in his teammates.”
Morrall showed that humility when he was asked who he thought the Dolphins’ MVP was in that perfect 1972 season.
“Bob Griese for breaking his ankle so I could play.”
Earl Morrall made a career out of being the other guy. But, as Coach Shula said, all the old QB ever did was win games.
There always seemed to be someone who was better than Morrall, except when that QB went down and Earl managed to get on the field.
“I always wondered why he wasn’t starting,” Morrall’s old Lions teammate, receiver Gail Cogdill, once said of Earl’s years in Detroit (1958-64), when no one named Tarkenton, Unitas or Griese were remotely on the roster.
But that’s another column entirely.