State Your Case: Earl Morrall, the Mariano Rivera of football

Rick Gosselin

Baseball acknowledged the role of closers in 1969 with the establishment of the “save” as a statistical category. But it took 23 years for the sport to reward that role with the enshrinement of relief pitcher Rollie Fingers in the Hall of Fame in 1992.

Then it took another 14 years for baseball to induct another reliever.

At least baseball has rewarded relievers for the wait. Relief pitchers in football are still waiting. And at the front of the line is Earl Morrall, who carved out a 21-year career as a quarterback with a knack of coming off the bench and delivering.

So much was expected of Morrall coming out of Michigan State. It took him a while but he finally delivered.

Morrall was the second overall selection of the 1956 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers but spent his rookie season as a backup to Y.A. Tittle. Then he was traded twice in the next two years. In September 1957, the 49ers dealt him to Pittsburgh in a package for two first-round draft picks. Then in September 1958 the Steelers peddled him to Detroit in a package for Bobby Layne.

Morrall made a name for himself as a relief pitcher with the Lions -- serving as the backup quarterback over the next four seasons to first Tobin Rote, then Jim Ninowski and finally Milt Plum -- but delivering Detroit some heart-thumping, fourth-quarter victories coming off the bench in relief. He finally became the starter with the Lions in 1963, passing for 2,621 yards and 24 touchdowns. But he suffered a shoulder injury in October 1964 and surrendered the position back to Plum.

The Lions traded Morrall to the New York Giants in 1965 and he started every game that season for the first time in his 10-year career, passing for 2,446 yards and 22 touchdowns with only 12 interceptions. But the rebuilding Giants decided to go with a youth movement in 1966 and sat Morrall in favor of Gary Wood.

That experiment failed miserably (1-12-1) so the Giants traded for Fran Tarkenton in 1967, retaining Morrall as his backup. After throwing a career-low 34 passes in mop up, the Giants traded Morrall and his career 30-34 starting record to the Baltimore Colts in 1968. And this is where his career – and his legend – truly begins.

Morrall stepped in for the injured Johnny Unitas that season and led the Colts to a 13-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance. Morrall was named the NFL MVP on the strength of his 2,909 passing yards and league-leading 26 touchdowns. But his star dimmed in the Super Bowl when the Colts became stunning upset losers to the AFL champion New York Jets, 16-7.

Morrall spent the next two seasons backing up Unitas but another injury returned Morrall to the starting lineup in 1971. He won seven of his nine starts before turning the position back over to Unitas on Baltimore’s way to the AFC title game. The Colts lost there to Miami – but Dolphins coach Don Shula traded for Morrall in 1972 as an insurance policy for his own starting quarterback Bob Griese.

Shula needed to cash that policy that season when Griese suffered a broken ankle in the fifth game. Morrall stepped in and became the quarterback of record in the NFL’s only perfect season, winning all nine of his starts to send the Dolphins into the playoffs with a 14-0 record. Morrall won his 10th start in a row in the AFC semifinals against Cleveland, but Shula went back to Griese at halftime of the AFC title game at Pittsburgh with the score tied 7-7.

Morrall was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 1972 but would only start one more game in his final four seasons as Griese’s backup before retiring. Add it all up and Morrall started 102 games for six teams over a 21-year career, winning 63 percent of those starts. He went to the Pro Bowl in both of his Super Bowl seasons, 1968 and 1972, and was named first-team all-pro in Miami’s 17-0 season.

Morrall sat behind four Hall of Famers – Y.A. Tittle, Fran Tarkenton, Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese – and was traded for another (Layne). Like Tittle, Tarkenton and Unitas, Morrall became an NFL MVP. Like all five of those gold jackets, Morrall became a Pro Bowler. And he won a better percentage of his career starts than all but Unitas.

Is there a bust in Canton waiting for a relief pitcher? If so, it will feature Morrall’s crewcut.

Comments (12)
No. 1-4
WMcCoy
WMcCoy

Great article as usual...though I don't think of Morrall as a HOFer, he still had a very productive career, also including coming in for an injured Unitas in Super Bowl V helping Colts beat Cowboys...i don't think there is any doubt that he's the best relief QB.

Rick Gosselin
Rick Gosselin

Editor

Morrall will never get into the room as a finalist. But he had a career worthy of discussion. So I took this opportunity to discuss it. Like you said, he was the games best relief QB.

brian wolf
brian wolf

Thanks guys ...

I actually had been waiting to read a case for Morrall ...

No starting QB ever wants to be a backup but it worked for Morrall because he was a team player and he backed up some of the best QBs in football.

Unfortunately, he also had a lot of bad luck as well. Every time he would have a good season, injury or trade would follow and he couldnt stay consistent.

Despite the great season in 1968 with an NFL Championship and MVP award, his poor game in the SB, allowed HC Shula to give the starting job back to Unitas for 1969, which was a mistake.

John was still not over his muscle tear in his right arm and had a poor season, while the team was still reeling from the SB loss, which culminated in Shula leaving the team.
Had Morrall started the year instead, the year might have been better for the Colts but one thing is for sure, both Unitas and Shula realized that Morrall was a team player and willing to come off the bench if needed.

Though Unitas came back strong in 1970, Morrall came in and won SB V.
It had to have felt great for him and his fans, not to mention the fans of Baltimore, to finally finish the job for the Championship.

The 1971 season proved Morrall still had plenty left in the tank but Unitas finished the year, with Morrall being released.

Shula made a wise move in 1972 obtaining him and Earl deserves credit for helping the team go undefeated.

He has all the credentials of being the first journeyman HOF QB ...

Winning overrall record
NFL Championship
Won SB V in relief
Wins two SBs as backup with 10 wins during perfect season ...

2 Replies

brian wolf
brian wolf

I was wrong about Morrall having the credentials to be the first journeyman HOF QB, though he played for the most teams ...

If I am not mistaken, YA Tittle was the first journeyman -- three or more teams-- to make the HOF.
He was also another player given up by Paul Brown and Cleveland.

Len Dawson, another QB given up by Brown, is the first QB to win an NFL Championship as a journeyman (Steelers, Browns, Chiefs) but though a great AFL QB, are his credentials that much better than Morralls ?
At least Morrall won more in the NFL ...

Jim Plunkett, playing with three teams is the most successful with two SBs but like Morrall, his journeyman status keeps him out of the HOF ...

Counting his SB win, two rings as a backup, wins and passing statistics, Steve Young is probably the most successful journeyman QB, playing for the LA Express in the USFL, the Bucs and the 49ers. Many people had speculated for years why Young would stay a backup to Montana in SF but the answer is two-fold ...

He wanted to prove to HC Walsh and the doubters in SF that he could successfully replace Joe and after two failed stints with other teams, he didnt want to start all over again.
(sorry Eagles fans.)

brian wolf
brian wolf

Damn, wrong again ...

Forgot that Bobby Layne played for three teams as well ... first elected to the HOF and most successful with three championships.

Great thread ... haha

Plawren2
Plawren2

I have always thought Morrall was an interesting topic for discussion in regards to the PFHOF, and even though I agree he does not have the career numbers or accomplishments I am glad to see the discussion of his case as it is so unique and in its own way, historical


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