Five days ago, Earl Morrall passed away at the age of 79. His story is well-known to many, but it’s one worth recounting for the uninitiated.
Born in Muskegon, Michigan, Morrall was a star quarterback and baseball player at Michigan State. He made it to the College World Series in 1954 as an infielder, and a year later he guided the Spartans to a 9-1 record as a senior and a victory over UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Morrall was selected by San Francisco with the 2nd overall pick in the 1956 draft, where he sat behind Y.A. Tittle for a year.
In that draft, Pittsburgh used the first overall pick on safety/kicker Gary Glick, who had been a jack of all trades in college, but the team quickly had buyer’s remorse. After the 49ers selected John Brodie with the third pick in the 1957 draft, the Steelers saw an opportunity to acquire Morrall, and did so by sending two future first round picks (and linebacker Marv Matuszak) to the 49ers for Morrall.1
Why was Pittsburgh so desperate to trade for him? Because Pittsburgh really needed a passer: the only other quarterbacks on the roster at the time were a pair of 22-year-olds named Len Dawson (yes that Len Dawson), whom the Steelers selected with the 5th pick in the ’57 draft, and Jack Kemp (yes that Jack Kemp). The Steelers knew you couldn’t count on young quarterbacks — the team released a 22-year-old Johnny Unitas two years earlier — which explains the trade with the 49ers. As a reminder, just about everything Pittsburgh did before 1970 was a disaster.
Morrall produced solid numbers as the Steelers starter in ’57, but threw seven interceptions in his first two starts with the Steelers in 1958. Pittsburgh’s head coach at the time was Buddy Parker, who had coached the Lions from 1951 to 1956. Parker was not content to turn the job over to Dawson, so he traded Morrall and a pair of picks2 to Detroit for his old quarterback, Bobby Layne.
Morrall started 26 games in 7 years in Detroit, mostly sitting on the bench behind Tobin Rote, Jim Ninowski, and Milt Plum. Backing up Rote was understandable: in 1956, Rote led the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns while with the Packers, and in ’57 he won the championship for Detroit when he replaced Layne for the stretch run.3 Plum was outstanding with the Browns from ’59 to ’61, so it makes sense that Morrall couldn’t supplant Plum from ’62 to ’64. The weird one was Ninowski, who ironically was the man Morrall passed the torch to at Michigan State. But while this Sparatan was no Morrall, he managed to start 18 games in ’60 and ’61 for the Lions. In any event, the best quarterback in Detroit from 1958 to ’64 wasn’t Plum or Rote, but Morrall.
Morrall played well with the Lions, but could never convince George Wilson to hand him the job (Morrall generally played well, but injuries or the random bad game seemed to doom him whenever he had a chance to steal the starting spot). One special moment for him came in 1960 in Baltimore. That day, Unitas hit Lenny Moore for what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown pass with just 14 seconds remaining. But, incredibly, Morrall somehow threw a short pass to Jim Gibbons that turned into a 65-yard, game-winning touchdown as time expired.
But short bursts of success aside, Morrall mostly toiled in Detroit for most of his twenties. Then, in 1965, his manifest destiny was fulfilled as he was called upon to replace Y.A. Tittle. By the ’60s, of course, Tittle was a Giant, but he retired after the 1964 season. New York went into training camp in ’65 without much of a replacement for Tittle; then in August, it dawned on the team that they might need a quarterback.
In a complicated, three-team deal involving the Browns, the Giants acquired Morrall from Detroit (the Lions were content with Plum). Nine years after being drafted by the 49ers, Morrall was finally the heir apparent to Tittle. Morrall played well — the Giants ranked 5th out of 14 teams in ANY/A — and he fit well with notorious deep threat star receiver Homer Jones. Unfortunately, the success was short-lived, as Morrall regressed significantly to start the 1966 season. A mid-season injury left Morrall with a 1-5-1 record and ugly passing numbers (although backup Gary Wood was even worse). New York finished 1-12-1, and decided the only way to save the franchise was to trade for Fran Tarkenton.
Morrall could not compete with that Hall of Fame quarterback, of course, and Tarkenton had a magnificent season in 1967, starting all fourteen games and leading the NFL in touchdown percentage. Morrall threw just 24 passes and appeared to be in for more of the same in 1968. At 34 years of age and with a 30-33-2 career record, Morrall appeared finished. But with Morrall, things were never as they appeared.
Another August trade was in the winds. Don Shula, who had been with Morrall in Detroit, was now the head coach in Baltimore, where Johnny Unitas was dealing with elbow issues. Shula sent a draft pick to New York to acquire his old pal as a cheap insurance policy. Then, in Baltimore’s final preseason game, Unitas felt something pop in his elbow, and the Colts were suddenly Morrall’s team. The 34-year-old then turned in the finest season of his career — heck, it’s arguably the greatest season ever had by a 34-year-old quarterback. He led the NFL in touchdown passes, yards per attempt, yards per completion, and passer rating. Morrall started every game as the Colts went 13-1 and Morrall was named MVP by the AP, the UPI, and the NEA.4
In two playoff games, Morrall threw for 449 yards on 47 pass attempts as the Colts cruised to an NFL title. All that was left to cap the magnificent season was beating Joe Namath and the AFL champion Jets. Of course, we know what happened there. Morrall completed just 6 of 17 passes for only 71 yards, while managing to throw three interceptions. The most memorable of those came with 25 seconds left in the first half with the Colts at the Jets 41-yard line.
The play was a flea flicker, with Morrall giving the ball to Tom Matte on what looked like a sweep to the right; Matte then reversed course and threw it back to Morrall, who was supposed to throw it to a wide open Jimmy Orr. Orr was open on the left side of the field at the 10-yard line, but Morrall didn’t see him. Instead, the pass, which was intended for Jerry Hill, was picked off by Jim Hudson. The most famous play of Morrall’s career was his worst, although Matte has blamed himself for a poor pitch (another explanation was that the sun caused a blind spot for Morrall right in the area occupied by Hill). The Colts would lose, 16-7, and Morrall’s magnificent year ended in heartbreak.
Unitas returned for the ’69 and ’70 seasons, leaving Morrall to start just three games over that time. The Colts made it back to the Super Bowl in 1970, where Morrall would surprisingly get a chance for redemption In the 2nd quarter, the Colts faced 1st and 10 on the Cowboys 36, trailing 13-6. Unitas looked deep for Eddie Hinton, but was crushed by George Andrie as he made the throw. The pass was intercepted by Mel Renfro, and Unitas’ day was finished.
Morrall entered with 2:48 left in the half, trailing by a touchdown; at the time, the Colts had a 37.5% chance of winning. There would be no heroic last-minute drive or pass-for-the-ages, but Morrall completed 7 of 15 passes for 147 yards in relief of Unitas. The Colts would win the ugliest Super Bowl ever, and Morrall would at least get to experience the feeling of walking off the field as a Super Bowl champion.
In 1971, Morrall (age 37) and Unitas (38) were on their last legs. Morrall started the first 9 games of the season: his numbers were not impressive, but he managed to sport a 7-2 record. Unitas started the last five games and the Colts two playoff performances, but that season marked the end of the era. Morrall was waived in April 1972; in August, the Colts traded a first round pick for Marty Domres, who would replace Unitas later that season.
Who was it that spent $100 to claim a 38-year-old quarterback off waiver? Morrall’s old coach, Don Shula, of course, who once again claimed Morrall for insurance purposes only. With future Hall of Famer Bob Griese as the starter, it seemed likely that Morrall would spend his days mentoring. Then, Griese suffered a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle in the fifth game of the season; Morrall came off the bench and led Miami to a victory over San Diego.
And then he won his first game as starter. And then he won another. And another. And another. By the end of the year, Morrall had won ten games, and the Dolphins had finished the regular season 14-0. Miami was a run-heavy team, as every Paul Warfield historian knows, but Morrall also posted the top ANY/A average of any passer with at least 100 throws in 1972.
Morrall started the Dolphins first two playoff games, both wins, of course. Against the Browns, a 35-yard strike from Morrall to Warfield set up the game-winning score. But the next week against Pittsburgh, Shula switched to Griese in the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game, and never looked back. Griese started Super Bowl VII and got the glory, but it was Morrall who was the quarterback for most of Miami’s wins that year.
You’ve probably heard the stat the no quarterback has ever won Super Bowls with two different teams. Inherent in that statement is the concept that no quarterback has been the starter for two different franchises, otherwise, someone like Jim McMahon (who was Brett Favre’s backup on the 1996 Packers) would qualify. Morrall didn’t start Super Bowl V or Super Bowl VII, but Morrall has come closer to meeting this bit of trivia than anyone else. He came off the bench, with the Colts trailing, and helped his team win Super Bowl V. And he played Phil Simms‘ to Griese’s Jeff Hostetler two years later. Some day, some quarterback will win Super Bowls with different teams, but for now, Morrall is the leader in the clubhouse.
The 1972 season concluded with him winning the inaugural Comeback Player of the Year award. He was strictly a backup for the remainder of his career, although he did have one last moment of glory in 1975. On December 1st against the Patriots, he started the final game of his career, and completed 14 of 17 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown. That’s the highest completion percentage in a game from a quarterback age 41+ or older, and itcame during the dead ball era. He last threw a pass in 1976 in a game against one of his many former teams, the Colts. At the age of 42, he hit Nat Moore for a 67 yard touchdown pass that day, the longest ever by any quarterback so old.
Morrall played in 21 seasons, tied with Vinny Testaverde for the second most by a quarterback, ever (George Blanda played for 26 years). But even after retiring, he was not done with the game of football: or associating with star quarterbacks. Morrall stayed in Miami after his playing days and became the quarterbacks coach of the Hurricanes. While his playing career intertwined him with names like Tittle, Dawson, Kemp, Layne, Plum, Rote, Tarkenton, Unitas, Namath, and Griese, his coaching career connected him to Vinny Testaverde, Bernie Kosar and Jim Kelly.
Morrall may not be a Hall of Fame quarterback, but one of the tests applied to Hall of Fame candidates is “can you write the history of the game without mentioning this man?” Morrall wasn’t just connected with great quarterbacks, his name is intertwined with some of the great moments in NFL history. One can’t discuss the ’60s and ’70s for very long without mentioning Earl Morrall, and that’s a pretty darn impressive legacy in its own right.
- The trade occurred in September 1957, so the two first round picks were Pittsburgh’s 1958 and 1959 selections. Neither panned out for San Francisco — the players selected were Jim Pace and Dan James. [↩]
- One of whom likely turned into the great Roger Brown [↩]
- And later on, Rote would win an AFL title with the Chargers in 1963. [↩]
- Leroy Kelly, who led the league in rushing and rushing touchdowns for the second consecutive season, was named the Bert Bell Player of the Year. [↩]