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NFL – Special – Men Who Played The Game – Colts / Dolphins QB Earl Morrell


Earl Edwin Morrall (May 17, 1934 – April 25, 2014) was an American football player who was a quarterback in the National Football League (NFL) for twenty-one seasons as a starter and a reserve…who also occasionally punted. Earl Morrall became known as one of the greatest backup quarterbacks in NFL history….when during the 1968 Baltimore Colts season….he filled in for an injured Johnny Unitas by leading the Colts to an NFL championship shutout victory and Super Bowl III….and for the 1972 Miami Dolphins season where he filled in for an injured Bob Griese leading the Dolphins to Super Bowl VII and the only perfect season in NFL history. Morrall made Pro Bowl appearances following the 1957 and 1968 seasons.

Morrall led Muskegon High School in Muskegon, Michigan to a state football championship in 1951….then he attended Michigan State University….where he played three seasons….as he led MSU to a 9–1 record in the 1955 season. He capped his senior year with a victory over the UCLA Bruins in the 1956 Rose Bowl.  Morrall also played baseball at Michigan State….while playing in the College World Series as a shortstop and third baseman. He was offered the opportunity to play professional baseball but chose instead to play football.

Earl Morral played for six different teams In his more than two decades on the professional gridiron….when starting with his rookie year in 1956 as a first-round selection by the San Francisco 49ers. On September 16, 1957, he was traded along with guard Mike Sandusky to the Pittsburgh Steelers in exchange for linebacker Marv Matuszak and two first-round draft picks. Despite the high cost of the transaction, the Steelers traded Morrall just over a year later to the Detroit Lions in order to obtain future Hall of Famer Bobby Layne. Morrall was with the Lions for the next six years….having his best season in 1963 by throwing for 24 touchdowns and more than 2,600 yards. The following year, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in an October 18 contest against the Chicago Bears.  After spending the off-season rehabilitating from his injury, Morrall was dealt to the New York Giants as part of a three-team transaction on August 30, 1965.  Enduring his role during the Giants’ rebuilding phase….Morrall threw for 2,446 yards and 22 touchdowns that season….but found himself seeing spot duty over the course of the next two years….so, on August 25, 1968, he was traded to the Baltimore Colts for an undisclosed draft choice.

When regular Colts signal caller Johnny Unitas was injured in the final exhibition game of the 1968 season….Morrall became the team’s starter…..as he proceeded to lead the Colts to a 13-1 record….then he added two playoff victories en route to winning the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award by leading the Colts into Super Bowl III. However, in one of sport’s greatest upsets, the Colts lost 16-7 to the New York Jets….with a second-quarter interception of a pass by Morrall symbolizing the team’s luck on the day….when Colts WR Jimmy Orr was wide open near the end zone….but inexplicably he didn’t see Orr….despite having successfully run the same play earlier in the year.  His throw down the middle was short and picked off by Jim Hudson to blunt the Colts’ momentum. Two years later, Morrall again replaced an injured Unitas in Super Bowl V….but the occasion proved to be much happier as the Colts won 16-13 over the Dallas Cowboys on a 32-yard field goal by Jim O’Brien at the end of regulation.

On April 25, 1972, Morrall was claimed on waivers for $100 by the Miami Dolphins….thus reuniting him with his former Colt head coach, Don Shula….as Shula described Morrall as “an intelligent quarterback who’s won a lot of ball games for me.”  Morrall proceeded to replace the injured Bob Griese for the Dolphins during the team’s October 15 win over the San Diego Chargers….a victory that gave Miami a 5-0 record….to which Morrall built on that win to lead the team to the first undefeated regular season in the NFL since 1942 and only undefeated season ever….as he started 11 out of 17 games that year. After notching a win in the team’s first playoff game against the Cleveland Browns….Morrall struggled against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game….which led to Coach Shila returning to Griese….however, Morrall’s efforts did not go unnoticed when he was named American Football Conference Player of the Year also in 1972….along with being named as the inaugural NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award winner.

Morrall would remain as a Dolphin quarterback for the next four seasons before finally announcing his retirement on May 2, 1977….and until first Doug Flutie and then Vinny Testaverde almost 30 years later, Morrall was the oldest quarterback to start and win a football game in the NFL. In those 21 seasons, Morrall was part of 255 games, completing 1,379 passes for 20,809 yards and 161 touchdowns.

During a 1989 interview, Morrall was asked what it took to come off the bench and be an effective quarterback and team leader….responding simply “When you get the chance to do the job, you have to do the job. That’s all there is to it.”   He died on April 25, 2014 at his son’s home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the age of 79.  After his death, an examination of his brain disclosed that he had grade 4 (the most serious stage) chronic traumatic encephalopathy

I am especially happy that NFL Films chose players like Earl Morrall to feature in this “Men Who Played the Game” series….cuz Earl Morral and Raiders George Blanda were truly the best “relief pitching” quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL….and he deserves to be remembered for as long as Imasportssphile is on the internet.

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