I guess everyone knows about the 1972 Miami Dolphins — the only team in modern pro football history to go undefeated through the regular season and the postseason.
Fewer people remember that more than half of those wins were accomplished without the Dolphins' star quarterback, Bob Griese, who went down with a broken leg and dislocated ankle in the fifth game of the season. He was replaced by backup Earl Morrall, who had recently been picked up on the waiver wire after being released by the Baltimore Colts.
Miami's coach, Don Shula, had been Morrall's coach for a time in Baltimore. They had been in Super Bowl III, which the Colts lost to the New York Jets. Shula knew precisely what he was getting when he picked up Morrall. Possibly no backup quarterback has ever stepped in as the substitute for the starter better equipped to run his coach's offense and succeed.
In fact, Morrall wound up leading the AFC in passing, just as Griese had the year before — in spite of throwing only one pass in the first four games.
He started the last nine games of the 1972 regular season and the first two games of the playoffs while Griese recovered. It wasn't always as easy as it may seem today; they struggled at times, but the Dolphins won all those games.
They hung on to beat Buffalo by a single point the week after Griese went down. They beat the Jets by four points in the 10th game, and they barely got past a mediocre Cleveland Browns team in the playoffs. Griese returned to the lineup in the second half of the AFC championship game, then led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl title.
He was on a third Super Bowl team as well. He was still on Miami's roster the next year when the Dolphins defended their title in Super Bowl VIII.
I remember having Morrall's football card and not knowing who he was. There were some players who were like that. I only knew their names because I had their cards. It wasn't until years later that I learned Morrall had been the quarterback of the Colts team that lost to Broadway Joe Namath and the Jets. I knew who Namath was, of course. Who didn't?
That was a good Colts team, too. Before facing the Jets, the Colts lost only one game. In a year when most teams were equally balanced between the run and the pass, Morrall completed more than 57% of his passes for nearly 3,000 yards.
Anyway, Morrall died Thursday at the age of 79. The news was confirmed today. From what I have heard, he had been in poor health for awhile.
He played pro football in relative obscurity for more than two decades. In those two Super Bowl seasons, with the sports world watching his every move, he led his teams to a combined record of 24–2.
He died in relative obscurity, too. I'm sure there were many young people across the country who didn't know who he was when they heard of his death.
The historian in me would like to think that someday football fans will re–discover the rich history of their sport — and Morrall's contributions to it.
But the realist in me doubts that will ever happen.
I got my bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas, and I got my master's degree in journalism from the University of North Texas. Most of my adult life has been dedicated to writing and editing. Most recently I have taught writing (news and developmental) as an adjunct journalism professor at Richland College, where I advise the student newspaper staff. Go, Thunderducks!