Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Curious Career of Earl Morrall, Part Two

In the Colts’ final preseason game of 1968, Johnny Unitas suffered a severe injury to his right elbow (he’d never be the same player again). The Colts had no choice but to turn over the reins to their newly acquired QB, Earl Morrall. As he had so many times before Morrall responded. That’s putting it mildly really. The 1968 Baltimore Colts were one the great teams in NFL history, a juggernaut on both sides of the ball. Morrall played spectacular football, earning All-Pro honors, winning the MVP award and leading the Colts to a 13-1 record. Johnny Who? Morrall kept it going in his first postseason game ever, completing 13 of 22 passes for 280 yards and 2 TD’s (1 INT) in a 24-14 win over Minnesota. Red flags appeared the following week as a less effective Morrall went 11 for 25 for only 169 yards with an interception and no TD’s. But who cared? Baltimore rolled 34-0 to set up a date with the New York Jets and an all-but guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III.

After sitting out almost the entire 1968 season due to his injury, Johnny Unitas hoped to return to start in the Super Bowl but his coach, Don Shula, had other ideas. The Colts hadn't missed a beat with Morrall at the controls and he'd guided them to the league's best record. Unitas was a legend, but Shula had faith in his MVP and he went with what brung him. The Colts fielded great teams from 1964 to 1967 but Unitas was unable to lead them to a single title. Now Morrall was primed to do what Unitas couldn’t, deliver a Super Bowl championship to Baltimore. Everyone and his brother expected that to happen but, as we all know, history and Joe Namath had other plans: the greatest upset in pro football history.

Previously, Morrall succeeded when entrusted with the sarting job. Now, in the biggest game of his career, Morrall self-destructed, flamed out, and flat-out choked. The signature play of the debacle came with 25 seconds left in the first half with the Colts trailing the Jets 7-0. From the Jets' 41-yard line the Colts called a flea-flicker. Tom Matte took the handoff from Morrall and then flipped it back to him. The pass was intended to go to Jimmy Orr and indeed Orr was wide open; the Jets bit on the fake. All alone at the Jets’ 10-yard line Orr waved frantically to get Morrall’s attention but somehow Morrall never saw him. Instead of a momentum-changing, last second tying TD before the half, Morrall threw his third pick of the day. To this day nobody knows how Morrall missed Orr. Some have speculated Orr’s jersey blended in with the uniforms of the marching band headed for the end zone but who knows? Morrall stunk up the joint when the band was off the field too. Shula sent Unitas into the game in the 3rd quarter but it was too late. At least Morrall manfully accepted the humiliation of his third quarter benching saying, "If I was a coach and my team was being quarterbacked by a guy who couldn't get the ball over the goal line, I'd sure as hell do something". Morrall’s final numbers: 6 of 17, 71 yards, 0 TD’s, 4 picks. Ugly. There’s no getting around it. More than any other factor Morrall’s horrible play cost the Colts the Super Bowl.

Morrall went back to the bench in 1969, the team was thoroughly mediocre, and the Colts’ and Morrall’s window of opportunity appeared to be closed for good. But in 1970 the Colts finally caught some breaks. Thanks to the NFL-AFL merger, the Colts now found themselves in a weak conference and they made the most of it. The Colts finished the 1970 NFL season 6th and 7th respectively in points scored and allowed but in their conference, the AFC, that was good enough for 1st in scoring and 2nd in scoring defense. It all added up to an 11-2-1 record and a return trip to the Super Bowl. Morrall played little that year but he was excellent, far better than Unitas who was now only a shell of his former self. But despite Unitas’ sub-par play the Colts remained good enough to glide past the AFC’s inferior competition into Super Bowl V.

No one could call the Dallas Cowboys inferior competition however. That team was loaded with talent especially on defense. As the game progressed Unitas tried his best but his eroding skills were useless against the Doomsday Defense. The Colts D played just as tough against the Cowboys’ Craig Morton and the combination of great defenses and bad quarterbacking resulted in the worst-played, sloppiest Super Bowl in history. They called it the Blunder Bowl when it was all over. 10 turnovers. 14 penalties. Even Baltimore’s lone first half score came off of a mistake: Unitas overthrew Roy Hinton, but Hinton and Dallas CB Mel Renfro each slightly tipped the ball and it wound up in the fortunate arms of John Mackey who took it to the house for a 75-yard TD.

The end came for Unitas in the 2d quarter when he got smacked by the Cowboys’ George Andrie. Cracked ribs. Done. So now the roles reversed from two years earlier. Morrall entered a Super Bowl to replace Unitas. It was almost too good to be true. Earl Morrall, the goat of Super Bowl III, now given a chance for Super Bowl redemption, a chance to make up for his self-immolation two years before. And, as if right out of a feel-good sports movie, Morrall found redemption, becoming the first and still only QB to ever come off the bench and lead his team to a come-from-behind Super Bowl triumph. Forget Johnny Unitas. Forget Joe Namath. This time the hero was Earl Morrall.

And yet...

Morrall didn’t throw a single touchdown pass. He didn’t lead his team on any long scoring drives. The stats show he didn’t play particularly well. 7/15/147 and a pick. He certainly came out like gangbusters though. Trailing 13-6, Morrall first touched the ball at his own 48-yard-line with less than 3 minutes to go in the 1st half. A 26-yard pass, a 21-yard pass, and just like that Morrall had his team at the Dallas 2. Three rushes totaling 0 yards followed. On 4th down the Colts gambled and lost. With 16 seconds left Morrall overthrew Tom Mitchell in the end zone and the deflated Colts went to the locker room still trailing. Morrall tried again in the second half. The Colts fumbled the 2d-half kickoff but Dallas returned the favor a few plays later. Morrall then drove Baltimore from its own 10-yard line into FG range. O’Brien missed. Continuing to plug away on the Colts’ next possession Morrall tossed a 45-yard bomb to move his team to the Dallas 11-yard-line. But the third drive was not the charm either. Morrall reverted to old Super Bowl habits and threw an end-zone interception to Chuck Howley. Still not giving up, Morrall led a fourth consecutive drive into Dallas territory. From the Cowboys 30 the Colts called a halfback option pass to Hinton that pushed the ball to the Dallas 5 where Hinton promptly fumbled it into the end zone for a touchback. Four consecutive potential scoring drives. Zero points. Normally that would doom any team but like I said earlier the Colts caught some breaks that season. And the biggest came in the form of Morrall’s opposite number Craig Morton.

The list of quarterbacks who’ve lost multiple Super Bowls without ever winning one is a short one: Fran Tarkenton, Jim Kelly, and Morton. And Morton’s the one not in the Hall of Fame (for good reason). Watching Morton give the game away Morrall finally discovered that most important of Super Bowl lessons: don’t turn it over. Or at least turn it over less than your opponent. In short order, Morton threw a pick that the Colts returned to the Dallas 3. Baltimore ran it in two plays later. After trailing most of the afternoon the Colts had tied the score with 7:35 left to play. Followiing an exchange of punts Morton obliged with another INT, this one returned to the Dallas 28. Three plays later Jim O’Brien kicked the winning field goal with 5 seconds to spare. Morrall’s two scoring drives measured three yards apiece. He completed not a single pass on either. Unless you count his holds on the FG and extra-point snaps he had nothing to do with any point scored that day. But he won. In the end, Morrall didn’t make any critical mistakes to cost his team the game. That’s all that mattered. Morrall cost his team a championship in 1968. He helped them steal one in 1970.

The following season, Morrall played almost as much as Unitas due to Unitas’ assorted injuries and neither man played well. The Colts still reached the playoffs but it was all Unitas in the postseason and at season’s end, the Colts waived the 38-year-old Morrall. His long career finally appeared to be over.

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

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