For a second time, Don Shula resuscitated Earl Morrall’s career. Now the Miami Dolphins’ head man, Shula spent the $100 waiver fee to snag Morrall as his backup quarterback. Set with All-Pro QB Bob Griese as his starter, Shula was just looking for some insurance and he remembered what Morrall did for him back in ’68. With Morrall newly installed on their bench, the Miami Dolphins began the 1972 season as the defending AFC champions. Griese picked up where he left off the previous year and guided his team to a 4-0 start, but early in the fifth game disaster struck. Griese suffered a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle. Amazingly, for the second time in his career a future Hall of Fame quarterback went down and backup Earl Morrall had to come in to the save the day for a Super Bowl contender. The first time it happened, in 1968, Morrall lost but a single regular season game. This time, he ran the table. 10-0.
What did Morrall’s teammates think as he stepped onto the field that first time? Well, center Jim Langer claimed to have no doubts about the new QB's ability to get the job done, saying “We felt Earl was prepared and moved on.” But other players were perhaps a bit more candid. Tight End Jim Mandich said: ''I remember seeing Griese lying there in pain, with his ankle all contorted and here's this 38-year-old man with a flattop haircut coming on the field, and I thought, Oh hell, it's all over.'' An understandable reaction, but turns out it wasn’t over after all. To put it simply, Morrall played brilliantly in relief, averaging 9.1 yards per attempt, earning All-Pro honors, and winning the NFL’s comeback player of the year award at season's end. Like most dominant teams, Miami thoroughly outclassed its opponents week in and week out but the team did have a couple of close calls. The last real threat to the perfect regular season came in week ten against the New York Jets. Miami trailed the Jets, 24-20 as the fourth quarter started but Morrall led a game winning drive, and more amazingly, the not-so-fleet-of-feet veteran earlier scored on Miami’s longest TD run of the season: a 31-yarder in the third quarter.
After that scare nobody challenged Miami the rest of the year as Morrall finished the job Griese started. For the first time in 30 years, an NFL team won every single one of its regular season games. Morrall proved yet again he could take over a team from a superstar QB and lead it into the playoffs. But what about those playoffs? As we’ve seen previously, Morrall’s play dropped dramatically in the postseason in 1968. Would it happen again?
Miami moved out smoothly to a 10-0 halftime lead against the Cleveland Browns in their first-round playoff game. But Cleveland mounted a second-half comeback. Miami’s offense disappeared and Cleveland came up with some big plays when they needed them. A 27-yard TD pass had Cleveland up 14-13 early in the 4th quarter. Morrall struggled all game. As the Miami offense began a last-ditch drive to win the game, Morrall had completed just 4 passes for 38 yards to that point. Then he had an epiphany: to keep the perfect season alive it might be a good idea to get the ball in the hands one of the greatest receivers of all time, Paul Warfield. Warfield hadn’t caught a pass all day. Now, Morrall hit him first for 15 yards and then on a spectacular 35-yard grab three plays later. Another toss to Warfield resulted in a pass interference call putting the ball on the Browns’ 8. Jim Kiick ran it in from there.
Dolphins GM Joe Thomas shrewdly obtained Warfield from the Browns in 1970, just one of a series of brilliant trades made by Thomas to build a dynasty. Two years later, that move looked extra-brilliant as Warfield’s clutch play now put the Dolphins on the very brink of a trip to the AFC Championship game. And in an amazing twist of fate, the trade was about to pay one more dividend. You see, Miami gave up its first-round draft pick to Cleveland and with it the Browns selected their quarterback of the future: Mike Phipps. The future arrived in 1972 and with the game on the line and Cleveland needing a last-minute scoring drive, Phipps instead tossed his fifth and final interception of the game. Miami ran out the clock and escaped with the win. Morrall’s numbers don’t overwhelm but at least he only threw one pick that day, not Phipps' fatal five.
I don’t know how many people today realize just how close the Orange Bowl came to featuring Earl Morrall in a second monumental upset ranking right up there with Super Bowl III. Miami pulled it out but ominously Morrall had now gone four straight postseason contests without throwing a single touchdown pass.
Due to the old rotating championship game rule, Miami traveled to Pittsburgh the following week to face the emergent Steel Curtain defense. That defense stymied Morrall and the Miami offense throughout the first half. Miami needed a fake punt to get any points on the board at all; the trick play set up a 9-yard pass to Larry Csonka that tied the game. But when Pittsburgh took back the lead with a third quarter field goal the dream of a perfect season and a championship appeared to be in serious jeopardy.
Trailing 10-7 in the third quarter, Don Shula made perhaps the biggest coaching move of his great career. Shula knew he probably waited too long to bench an ineffective Morrall in Super Bowl III. With this game still close, he wasn’t making the same mistake again. For only the second time in his playoff career Morrall left the field with his team trailing. He would never throw another postseason pass again. Finally healed from his injuries, Bob Griese entered the game and immediately tossed a 52-yard bomb to Warfield to set up a short touchdown run that gave the Dolphins the lead for good. After another TD, Miami withstood a Steelers’ comeback, picking off two Terry Bradshaw passes, and held on for the hard-fought 21-17 victory.
Morrall hoped Shula would give him the starting nod in Super Bowl VII but deep down he had to know that wasn’t going to happen. Shula saw firsthand the spark Griese gave his team against the Steelers and Shula probably already suffered from post-traumatic Super Bowl stress syndrome thanks to Morrall’s meltdown four years before. So from the sidelines the perfect season’s key figure watched Bob Griese lead the Miami Dolphins to a triumph in Super Bowl VII, completing the first and still only perfect season in NFL history. Still, despite the benching Morrall’s story is still the hook on which any history of the perfect season has to rest. 38-years-old, Morrall came off the bench and never lost. He was perfect and ultimately responsible for more of those 17 wins than Griese was. Morrall earned a place in pro football history. 1972’s 17-0 season provided the triumphant coda to his long strange career, which finally concluded after the 1976 season at the age of 42.
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