Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Curious Career of Earl Morrall, Part Four

Reviewing the Curious Career of Earl Morrall prompts one obvious question--why the heck didn’t anybody give this guy the chance to consistently start when he was in his prime? I don’t get it. What initially prompted me to take this in depth look at Morrall’s career was this list compiled by the true geniuses at the Cold Hard Football Facts. Check it out. The list shows the top 15 All-Time Leaders in Yards Per Attempt. Many football experts believe YPA is the most important passing stat and look who’s tenth with a 7.74 YPA mark: Earl Morrall. And look at some of the company he’s keeping: Otto Graham, Sid Luckman, Norm Van Brocklin, Steve Young, Bart Starr, Len Dawson, and Roger Staubach. Hall of Famers comprise half of that list. As for quarterback rating, Morrall’s career mark of 74.1 isn’t far off those of the two Hall of Famers he once replaced, Johnny Unitas (78.2) and Bob Griese (77.1) and is far superior to his Super Bowl nemesis Joe Namath (65.5). And remember, unlike those guys Morrall never got to play consistently for any one team. Playing for six different teams, and usually watching from the bench, Morrall had no continuity year-to-year with any particular offense or receiver. How could he ever get in a rhythm? The fact he came in cold and played as well as he did so many times should alone be enough to establish what a fine player he was.

Stats are great of course, but the game’s about winning in the end. How’d Morrall fare in that area? Well, I wish had his career won-loss record as a starter but I don’t. All I can do is add up the records of the five teams he played for as the primary starter: the 1958 Steelers, the 1963 Lions, the 1965 Giants, the 1968 Colts, and the 1972 Dolphins. Subtracting Griese’s four 1972 wins from the total leaves Morrall with a tremendous 41-22-1 record, a .648 winning percentage. Now you might argue Morrall benefited from playing for great teams. And he did. So lets’ look at his team’s combined records in the seasons immediately preceding the ones set forth above. Those teams totaled a fine 39-24-5 record (.610). So Morrall did take over some excellent teams but he still improved them by another 4%.

Morrall started for five seasons. Four times, his team’s record improved over the previous season. The only team Morrall failed to improve was the 1963 Lions. They tumbled from an 11-3 mark to only 5-8-1 with Morrall at the helm. But I’m not sure if you can pin that on Morrall. A comparion of his 1963 stats to that of 1962 Lions starter Milt Plum shows Morrall was much better:


So why the dropoff? It’s hard to day for sure from our vantage point almost half a century later. The stats show Detroit went from the league’s best defense in 1962 to maybe the third best in 1963. The Lions fell from 4th in rushing yards to 10th in 1963 though their rushing yards per attempt actually improved a bit relative to the league. Turnovers could have played a role. Detroit recovered 23 fumbles in 1962 but just 11 the next year. Maybe they simply didn’t catch any breaks. I mentioned in Part One that the Lions lost 6 games by a TD or less (and tied another) in 1963. Whatever the reason the Lions lost so many games in 1963, overall we can say Morrall improved his teams when took over.

Now what about the postseason? Morrall’s QB rating drops substantially when we look at his playoff career, 56.5 in the playoffs vs. his 74.1 regular season rating. His postseason YPA of 7.83 actually tops his great 7.74 career mark. Morrall’s problem was throwing too many playoff picks. But you know, he still went 4-1. For all those postseason interceptions and subpar play, he lost only one big game: Super Bowl III. Maybe he won ugly, maybe his defenses bailed him out, whatever. In the playoffs a win’s a win. Even if Morrall would have blown Miami’s perfect season without Griese saving the day (and it was only 10-7 at the time), that’s still a 4-2 playoff record, a .667 winning percentage that’s higher incidentally than Morrall’s already excellent regular season winning percentage.

As a starter, Morrall played well at every point in his career. He won games. At 34, Earl Morrall was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. At 36, he won a Super Bowl. At 38, his All-Pro quarterbacking led the Dolphins to an undefeated season. He was good enough to play in the NFL until the advanced football age of 41. He’s tenth all-time in YPA right there with some of he greatest passers who ever lived. Just what might Earl Morrall have done if given the chance to consistently start in his prime? And why didn’t any of those teams who saw what he could do give him that chance? The mystery of the Curious Career of Earl Morrall may never be solved. But it doesn’t matter. Morrall must be content with his two Super Bowl rings and his unofficial title as “The Greatest Backup Quarterback of All Time”.

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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He was the best when called upon. He is also a stand up guy at the jolly age of 77. What a great guy and a friend to anyone who got the pleasure to meet him. Earl the pearl. Keep rockin!!