You gather up of all of the memorable runs by a backup quarterback and you’ll find it’s a giant teaspoon of a list: Hostetler’s Super Bowl charge with the ’90 Giants, Blanda in ’70 beating ‘em with a tired arm and an ancient leg. Okay, Frank Reich won a pair of playoffs for the ’92 Bills, but that was spot duty.
But I’m talking about extended action for a backup passer that significantly lifted his team’s fortunes for a season or two.
That’s what we’ll remember most about Earl Morrall, pro football’s Mr. 911—a special slice of NFL history, who passed away last week at the age of 79.
Morrall was a top-round pick of the 49ers in 1955 as the club was seeking an eventual successor to Y.A. Tittle, who was allegedly winding down in San Francisco.
“Y.A. was coming off a 4-8 year,” Morrall said. “When I got there the fans would cheer me and boo him. I didn’t realize that it was a fact of life in pro football, that fans always cheer the newcomer.”
The Niners were so tickled with Morrall that they used their top pick the next year to secure another quarterback—John Brodie of Stanford. And thus began Morrall’s strange, high-low career, a journey that would carry him across six NFL franchises.
After the Niners’ fifth exhibition in ’57, Morrall suddenly found himself traded to Pittsburgh—playing ahead of interesting people like Jack Kemp and Lenny Dawson. He made the Pro Bowl that year, when a Pro Bowl nod still meant something, and the Steelers were so happy with their new quarterback that they sent him off to Detroit in a splashy deal for veteran Bobby Layne.
“I can’t think Morrall was a top flight quarterback,” said Buddy Parker, the Steelers' coach. “He may be in the future. But he isn’t right now.”
Morrall won and lost the Detroit job a bunch of times, and seven years later, the Lions shipped him to a New York Giants team that was on the decline. The low point came in ‘67, when the Giants promised he’d get a fair look against Fran Tarkenton, a scrambler who had recently joined the club. Said Morrall:
It was supposed to be an open training camp in ’67, but Tarkenton went the whole way. Next year, 1968, they were playing Tom Kennedy ahead of me in camp, and I had some real thinking to do about my future. I was 34 and it looked like the Giants were going with youth…You start to reach the conclusion that everybody’s given up on you. You start to question your own ability.
But in August, the Colts found themselves scrambling for a quarterback.
Johnny Unitas had shredded the fibers in his elbow during the preseason, and Don Shula decided that Morrall was the best option on tap. He offered a fourth-round pick with tight end Butch Wilson, and Morrall had to decide whether he wanted to become Unitas’ backup man or if he’d had it as a pro. He approved the deal, and took the field as Baltimore’s starting quarterback in the September opener versus San Francisco. Ernie Accorsi, the Colts PR man from 1970-74, recalls:
I saw that game. You didn’t have the media coverage and ESPN and all that back then, so there was still publically [sic] some mystery as to whether John was going to play.
But it was Morrall who ran out onto the field that day, and on his first throw a guy named Stan Hindman blocked the pass, intercepted it and ran it in for a touchdown. You can just imagine the mood in that stadium. Unitas had been the quarterback since 1956, and all of a sudden on the first pass Morrall throws they’re down 7-0.
But Morrall got himself together, and the Colts blew out the 49ers. His passes weren’t pretty but they were on-target and on-time. By late October, Baltimore was 6-1. The headlines were saying things like “So, Who Needs Unitas?”
The Colts went on to win the NFL championship. Morrall won Player of the Year, but the Jets won Super Bowl III, and by ’69 Earl was back in his warm-up routine of watching Unitas go to work.
The Colts were back on top in 1970, with Unitas going all the way—until the second half of the Super Bowl.
Unitas left the game with pummeled ribs. In came Morrall, who pulled the Colts out of a 13-6 deficit and would hold the ball as the game-winning field goal cut through the uprights.
“Our kicker was Jim O’Brien, a rookie,” Morrall said. “My job was to make sure he wasn’t nervous on the kick. Then I looked over and saw him trying to pick up a piece of Poly-Turf. He wanted to check the wind. Oh, brother. I said, ‘You can’t pull that stuff up, Jim. It’s not real!’”
It went down in history as the only Super Bowl in which the losing player took the game MVP—Chuck Howley of the Cowboys. But Accorsi feels it should have been Morrall all along:
He was like 7-for-15, 100-some yards. But the game was just a jigsaw puzzle of weird things…turnovers, fumbles on the goal line. What Earl did was shift field position. We had bad field position all day. We stopped them on a Duane Thomas fumble near out goal, then Morrall got us out of that hole.
As I think back on that game, Earl was the MVP. I can’t support that in any way except for the subtleties, the things he did that helped us come back…the way he shifted the field to help us win the game.
By ’72 the Colts were in salary-reduction mode, and the 38-year-old Morrall was finally shown the exit. Shula was waiting outside, picking up a well-rested veteran with a hefty contract.
That October, Bob Griese suddenly wrecked his ankle, and again, the headlines were saying things like, “Can Morrall Take Dolphins To the Top?”
The answer was almost.
Morrall was again superb in his emergency role. He averaged 9.07 yards per pass attempt. You can throw that number up against some of the greatest quarterbacking seasons in history—including Marino in 1984 (9.01), Montana in ‘89 (9.12), Steve Young in ‘91 (9.02) and Esiason in ’88 (9.21).
“Earl’s confidence was so strong you could almost touch it,” said wideout Howard Twilley. “He took over like nothing happened.”
Under Morrall the Dolphins powered on, unbeaten all the way through the first half of the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh. That’s when Shula made a gut call and went back to Griese, who was healthy again. Miami’s offense was stalling out, and Shula sensed the club needed the lift.
“I didn’t like it,” was Morrall’s response. “But whatever is best for the team.” A few weeks later the Dolphins had their first Super Bowl win.
Morrall played four more years in Miami, filling in here and there, his clunky backpedal getting slower and clunkier:
When he dropped back, you always worried he was going to fall down,” says Don Nottingham, who played with Morrall in both Baltimore and Miami. “But he stepped in and delivered the ball where it was supposed to go. My hands were like Georgia-Pacific, not the softest in the world, but Earl threw a pass that was real easy to hang onto.
Retirement finally came in the spring of 1977. He was 42 years old. “Let the younger guys fill in from here,” was Morrall’s assessment.
“I think he finally decided he can’t play forever,” remarked Shula.
It was true. You can’t play forever. And you can’t live forever. But the memories of Earl Morrall, Mr. Emergency, and his all-time rescue missions—well, those hold a pretty good chance.