With 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter last Sunday afternoon, the fog had become so thick in San Francisco's Kezar Stadium that Kermit Alexander, perhaps mistaking the ball for one of the sea gulls that drifted low over the field, could not locate a Baltimore kickoff. The Colts recovered on the 49ers' 17. Leading 28-7 at the time, Baltimore Coach Don Shula decided to give his starting quarterback, Earl Morrall, a bit of rest and send in a substitute.
"We wanted to let him [the sub] have a little work so he could get some experience," Shula said after Baltimore had won its fifth straight game by beating San Francisco 42-14. "I guess that seems funny, huh? Well I guarantee that's the first time such a thing ever happened to this man."
What was funny about it was that the substitute was Johnny Unitas. After sitting out four league games with a sore elbow, all of which the Colts had won easily under Morrall, Unitas finally was allowed to throw his first pass of the year. Naturally, it went for a touchdown.
Until that moment, the Colts had been relying totally on Morrall, one of the NFL's most peripatetic players. Six weeks ago he was still with the New York Giants, but he knew better than to put away his suitcase with all the stickers on it. Having already been traded by San Francisco (where he was a No. 1 draft choice in 1956), Pittsburgh and Detroit, Morrall's sensitivity to such matters was keen enough that he could feel the Giants were about to put him on the road, although he wasn't sure of his destination. "You get to where you can tell," he says. "I had asked Allie Sherman about it before I moved my family from Detroit to Connecticut for the season, and he had assured me he was sticking with his quarterbacks. But I played very little in the exhibition games, and the coaches didn't pay much attention to me. So I figured I was going somewhere. In fact, I'd heard the Giants had a deal all wrapped up to trade me to St. Louis in 1967. But Tom Kennedy [another New York quarterback] got hurt, I stayed with the Giants."
October 20, 1968
Morrall had given the Giants a good year in 1965, throwing 22 touchdown passes for a club that finished with a 7-7 record and a tie for second place in the old Eastern Conference. The following season he broke his right wrist and had to miss half the games. "I knew the Giants were going to trade for Fran Tarkenton in 1967," he says. "I didn't like it, but I really didn't blame them. They couldn't be certain how my wrist would heal. Then when they brought Gary Wood back from New Orleans this year, it was a tip I might be traveling again."
Several NFL clubs could have used a competent, experienced quarterback like Morrall. However, the club he may never have suspected would be interested in him was Baltimore. The Colts had gone into training camp with Unitas backed up by two youngsters. Jim Ward and Terry Southall. Unitas had a painful right elbow, but that is not an uncommon ailment among veteran quarterbacks. "We intended to give Ward most of the work in the preseason," says Shula. "Then Ward injured a kae and we had to get into the market. I remembered Morrall from the three years I spent with him at Detroit while I was an assistant coach there. I saw him have some fantastic days for the Lions. Once he beat Baltimore in the last 13 seconds. That sort of thing stays in your mind. I knew he was cool and a hard worker. We went after him."
The Colts landed Morrall by trading Butch Wilson, who had been their second-string tight end for six seasons. Morrall arrived in Baltimore one evening at twilight and was on the field that same night working with Shula. "There was so much to learn," says Morrall. "Baltimore's system is vastly more complicated than any I'd been used to."
Morrall was forced to do his classroom studies on the field. Almost as soon as he put on a Baltimore uniform, the Colts went to Dallas for their final exhibition game. Unitas was twisting his body to the left and throwing a pass to his right under a hard rush when a flash of pain ripped the sore elbow. Morrall finished that game and all the rest until last Sunday. In that time he has thrown 12 touchdown passes, two of them against the 49ers.
"It's a myth to think this is a one-man team," says Shula. "John gives us a spark, gives us leadership, is the greatest. But people shouldn't think we can't win without him. This is a tough, solid team. We have a good defense, good receivers, good pass blocking and our running game is going well. We have balance this year. We knew Earl would need a strong running game to help him with his passing, so we've put more emphasis on it. It would be a bad rap to say John hasn't used the running game enough. I've seen games when he only threw 14 passes. But Earl has kept working at the run, and his passing is the better for it."
In workouts last week in San Francisco, the 35-year-old Unitas lobbed a few short passes during warmup drills, but he restricted himself to running plays in the dummy scrimmages. His right elbow was wrapped in a plastic bag tightly taped to hold body heat. While Morrall operated the team in practice, Unitas played an easy game of catch but did not risk his arm throwing deep.
The injury is a severe case of what is ordinarily called "tennis elbow." There has been a tear in the muscles on the inside of the right elbow. The tear is healing, but the soreness remains. "Many baseball pitchers, jack-hammer operators and tennis players eventually get this type of injury," says Baltimore Trainer Eddie Block. "It simply comes from overuse of the arm. Unitas throws with a whipping motion, his wrist snapping down. For years he has thrown as he was about to get hit, with his mind giving him the signal to get rid of the ball and his arm—moving sharply—adding to the stress. Throwing a ball is an unnatural motion. We've used cortisone, heat and everything else on his elbow. The only way to cure it entirely is for him to stop playing football."
Many quarterbacks, including Unitas, have played with the pain of a tennis elbow that has not quite become a torn muscle. Morrall has had a touch of it, himself. He throws with a motion similar to that of Unitas—the wrist rolling counterclockwise down and out so that the palm faces outward. "But my arm feels fine now," he says.
Morrall's problem has been not his arm but his knowledge of the Baltimore offensive system. "As one example, all the teams I had played for numbered the even holes to the left and odd to the right on running plays," Morrall says. "That may not sound difficult, but it was hammered into me for years. Baltimore does it the opposite. Now and then I find myself thinking I've called a fullback sweep to the right. I turn and nobody is there. They've gone to the left." That happened on a third and one against Chicago two weeks ago, and Morrall tossed the ball to a surprised Tom Matte, who made the first down. "Matte and the others help me in the huddle if they think I've called the wrong play. I began to notice that Matte stands there in the huddle wiggling the fingers on his right hand. I thought he was trying to remind me that evens are to the right, so I used that as a memory aid. Later I discovered it was just a nervous mannerism."
Provided Unitas does come back to his former stylishness—and the betting is that he will—Morrall is prepared to surrender the job despite his ranking among the league's leading passers. "I know what will happen when John gets ready," says Morrall. "He'll be back in there. He should be. My role is to do as well as I can, to do my share. This is a good team with a lot of depth, and I enjoyed being a part of it. You know, there's no certainty John's tendonitis won't recur."
"John will need to build up the strength in his arm and regain his timing," Shula says. "Whether he will start next week depends on how well he does in practice. I've told him to stop the moment his arm hurts too much."
Unitas called three passes against San Francisco. One was the six-yard touch-down to John Mackey, one was dropped, and on the third Unitas was tackled while waiting for a flanker to clear on a long pattern. He intended to see if the arm would take it. "This is like starting in the first exhibition game after being off a whole season," says Unitas. "My arm hurt, but I suppose it always will."
"It's too soon to tell what John may do," Shula says. "Meanwhile, I'm glad we have a guy like Earl Morrall." And when the Colts are far enough ahead, what a remarkable substitute is waiting for Shula to beckon—whether his name is Unitas or Morrall.