It was a warm, sunny day that suddenly turned gloomy and morose in the snap of a football. The understudy watched in horror as the medical staff tended to the fallen player’s broken and dislocated leg. Then the staff gingerly loaded the star quarterback on to a stretcher and off to the hospital with sirens blaring.
When the players gathered in the huddle, they were still numb from the injury and he broke the ice by asking:
“All right, anyone know any dirty jokes?”
They all laughed at the back-up quarterback, Earl Morrall. They called him “The Old Man.” Not the wittiest of nicknames since he wore an outdated crew cut and was the oldest guy on the roster. In his career, he barely completed 50 percent of his passes and had thrown just about as many interceptions as touchdowns. Just a few short months before he’d been cut by the Colts and put on waivers for any team to claim.
History haunts Viking fans but they should not be complacent about it either. And while they grieve for Teddy Bridgewater and their beloved team, they should never turn their backs on the legacy of the NFL’s greatest second-stringer — Earl Morrall. He stepped in after carnage to two NFL Hall-of-Famers Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese, and resolutely led both teams to the Super Bowl.
He was two years older than Vikings back-up Shaun Hill when he directed the Miami Dolphins to a 15-0 perfect record in 1972. The starter Bob Griese returned in the playoffs to finish off the NFL’s only perfect season. Five years before, the legendary Johnny Unitas tore up his elbow in the fifth game of the season. Morrall jumped off the bench, joined the huddle and said simply:
“Come on, let’s keep it going.”
And that they did, winning 9 of the next 10 games and posting a 13-1 record that is still the best in Colts history. Then they advanced to the league championship where they fell to Joe Namath’s upstart New York Jets. When Morrall took over, most of his statistics paled in comparison to the Viking’s Hill or the newly acquired Sam Bradford.
Hill has completed 62% of his passes, Bradford 60% and both have touchdown pass ratios that far outshine Morrall. Of course it was a different era back then and the passing game was much more precarious. Vikings Coach Zimmer may have been thinking about the ’72 Dolphins Tuesday when he said:
“If we need to run the ball 65 times a game, we’ll do it.”
Indeed, when Griese went down, the Dolphins unleashed their outstanding offensive line including all-time greats Jim Langer, Bob Kuechenberg and Larry Little. That line powered the league’s first pair of 1000 yard rushers, Mercury Morris and Larry Csonka into immortality. It will not be surprising to see the Vikings emulate that same historic game plan.
Earl Morrall ended up playing until he was 42 years old and registering 21 seasons in the NFL. Like Shaun Hill, in most of those seasons he rarely set foot on the field. With three NFL championship rings Morrall may have laid out the best advice for Hill and the Vikings when he told the Washington Post:
“When you get the chance to do the job, you have to do the job. That’s all there is to it.”
Now it’s time for Viking fans to take a deep breath, sit back and see if their own fill-in quarterbacks can indeed do the job and follow in the footsteps of the NFL’s greatest understudy.
Retired after 31 years in marketing with United and Northwest Airlines, Tony has been published by Slant News, MinnPost, Minnesota Connected, Air Cargo News, The Forward, CNS Air Cargo Focus and the TC Daily Planet. He has won a Silver Addy award in Advertising and launched United Cargo’s Friendly Skies ad campaign that is still running today.
Photos courtesy of: NFL — Matthew Deery