State Your Case: Earl Morrall

The Mariano Rivera of the NFL

(Published September 2020)

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 State Yyards 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.


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