A while back Past Interference devoted a lengthy series of posts to the career of former NFL quarterback Earl Morrall. And it's very possible those writings will turn out to be the most important pieces ever posted to this blog, simply because very little has been written about Earl Morrall, a singular figure in NFL history. A 21-year career. Started games in 18 different seasons. Quarterbacked two of the greatest teams in NFL history, the 1968 Colts and the 1972 Dolphins. A Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the 1971 Colts. Won an MVP award with one franchise and was NFL Comeback Player of the Year with another. Yet, as I said, very little attention has been paid to his career. And that little attention paid has mainly concerned Morrall's unfortunate performance in Super Bowl III. He may not be one of the all-time greats but the rest of Morrall's long and unique career deserves some attention!
When this blog chose to pay some attention to that career what I wrote was not as complete as it could have been and in the interests of historical accuracy I'm going to correct that right now. Three years ago I did not know Morrall's career record as a starter. But now, thanks to the invaluable website Pro-Football-Reference.com, I do. It's a very good 63-37-3. A winning percentage of 0.626. Obviously Morrall didn't win 63 games by himself. In fact he played for some excellent teams with some stellar teammates and someone might well argue Morrall's success as a starter was due mainly to the quality of his teams. So how much credit should he get?
What I had done in my earlier posts was take the won-loss records for Morrall's teams in those seasons where he was the primary starting quarterback, add them up, and then compare that won-loss mark to the cumulative records of his teams the year before he became their primary starter (he was never a starter for back-to-back seasons). No need for such crude methods now. Now, I can simply compare that 63-37-3 mark to his teams' cumulative won-loss records in the games where Morrall didn't start. He started at least one game in 18 different seasons. His teams' cumulative record in those 18 seasons was 145-87-10. Subtracting the games Morrall started leaves a non-Morrall record of 82-50-7, a winning percentage of 0.615. So Morrall clearly played on above-average teams, but those teams slightly improved with Morrall as the starting QB.
I also found out something else new from Pro Football Reference. I had thought Morrall started the majority of his teams' games in five different seasons3 (1957 Steelers, 1963 Lions, 1965 Giants, 1968 Colts, 1972 Dolphins). But it was actually six. Johnny Unitas threw more passes than Morrall for the 1971 Baltimore Colts, but Morrall started more games, 9 (he went 7-2). So if we add up the games he won and lost as a starter for those six seasons, it totals 46-21-1, a fantastic 0.684 winning percentage. In the games he didn't start in those six seasons, his teams went 9-5, 0.643. So again we see Morrall improved his team's record.
Almost three quarters of Morrall's career wins came in those six seasons and interestingly he was just a perfectly average QB in the rest of his career starts: 17-16-2. Clearly Morrall's game benefitted when he got to start on a regular basis.
And since I now know about Morrall's starts in 1971, I might as well more accurately revisit what I did before and compare the records of his teams when he was their starter with how they performed in the year prior to his arrival. Again, 46-21-1, 0.684 for Morrall. The cumulative year before (minus Morrall's one start for the 1970 Colts): 49-26-6, 0.642. So whatever method you choose, you'd have to say Morrall's teams were at least a little better with him then without him. And overall those teams performed quite well.