The Curious Career of Earl Morrall
After leading the Michigan State Spartans to a rare Rose Bowl victory over USC, Earl Morrall became the 1st round selection of the San Francisco 49’rs in 1956. Backing up future Hall-of-Famer Y.A. Tittle, Morrall played little that year and after the season the Pittsburgh Steelers made the Niners an offer for Morrall they couldn’t refuse: two first-round draft picks and linebacker Marv Matuszak for Morrall and guard Mike Sandusky. Morrall rewarded the Steelers huge investment in him by playing well enough to earn a Pro Bowl berth in his first season as a starter. The team improved by a game and the future looked bright. But two games into the 1958 season the Steelers suddenly decided to cut bait with Morrall and go with proven talent, trading him to Detroit for the great Bobby Layne. Now Layne's one of the greatest QB’s in NFL history but he was 32-years-old at the time and a legendary boozer. Layne subsequently had some success with Pittsburgh but never recaptured the championship form of his Lions days.
As for Morrall, on his third team in three years, he found himself stuck on the Lions bench backing up Tobin Rote in 1958. In 1959 they split time, with Morrall playing well and Rote a black hole of ineptitude (5 TD’s, 19 INT’s and a 26.8 QB rating). Morrall’s reward for his superior play? The Lions stuck him back on the bench for 1960 and brought in a new QB to start, Jim Ninowski. Though not as bad as Rote Ninowski was bad enough while Morrall played great in limited action. Morrall earned more playing time in 1961 and again outperformed Ninowski. So the Lions made the obvious move...for them. They brought in yet another new starting QB, Milt Plum, and pushed Morrall back to the sidelines. While the Lions had a great season, going 11-3, Plum played poorly while, again, Morrall outshone the starter when given the chance to play. At last the Lions brass could no longer overlook the obvious.
Up to that point in his career, teams had spent a total of three number one picks and a Hall of Fame quarterback on Earl Morrall. The Detroit Lions traded away the greatest QB in their franchise’s history to get him. Five long years later they finally gave Morrall his chance to start. And Morrall didn’t disappoint. He was simply tremendous in 1963, throwing for 24 touchdowns, 2,621 yards, and finishing fifth in passer rating. The team declined due to drop-offs in their running game and defense plus some plain old bad luck (they lost 6 games by a TD or less) but Morrall showed what he could do with an opportunity. Unfortunately, no sooner had he made the Lions’ QB job his own than he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury the following season. Not willing to wait for Morrall to heal, the Lions decided to go with Plum for good and sent Morrall to the New York Giants in 1965 (was Matt Millen the GM back then too?).
Undaunted as usual, Morrall picked up right where he left off in 1963. Fifth in passing yards, fourth in passing TD’s, and fifth again in passer rating. The Giants improved by 5 wins with Morrall at the helm. So the starting job would surely be his again in 1966 right? I think we all know where this is going. Yeah, he had a great year but so what, this is Earl Morrall we’re talking about. Even he had to know that a great season was no guarantee of a job. And it wasn’t but the Giants did the Lions one better, not just finding a new starter to replace Morrall, but instead opting for some bizarre quarterback hydra of Morrall, Gary Wood, and Tom Kennedy. Morrall couldn’t thrive in this three-headed situation (who could?) and his numbers suffered but they were a bit better than Wood's, the team’s attempts leader. Kennedy played the best but he was out of football the next year. After winning but a single game in 1966, one of the worst seasons of all time, New York mercifully pulled the plug on their insane experiment, traded for Fran Tarkenton and sent Morrall back to his accustomed position: the bench.
We now see the pattern emerge: an NFL team gives Morrall a chance, Morrall comes through in a big way, and his team can’t wait to then give his job to somebody else. Getting pushed to the sidelines by Y.A. Tittle, Bobby Layne, and Fran Tarkenton must have been tough enough, but Jim Ninowski, Tobin Rote, Milt Plum, and Gary Wood too? I wish I could tell you why so many teams gave up on Morrall. Was it his lack of mobility? Could he not get along with his coaches? Did he sleep with his GM’s wives? Did he refuse to help old ladies cross the street? Booze? Drugs? Cross-dressing? Bad breath? B.O.? Whatever the reasons when the Giants traded the 34-year-old Morrall to the Baltimore Colts in 1968 it looked like he’d finally run out of chances. The Colts already had a starting QB, Johnny Unitas, and Morrall wasn’t beating out Johnny U. But as it turned out the most interesting parts of the strange saga of Earl Morrall were still to come.
The Curious Career of Earl Morrall
Earl Morrall, Part One
Earl Morrall, Part Two
Earl Morrall, Part Three
Earl Morrall, Part Four
Fun Earl Morrall Facts