Morrall, a star quarterback at Muskegon High School and Michigan State before entering the NFL to begin a pro career that lasted 21 seasons, including his stay with the Lions (1958-64), died Friday in Naples, Fla. He was 79 and had been in failing health in recent years.
Morrall had a distinguished career in his own right, despite being best remembered as one of the greatest backup quarterbacks in history for his work with the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins.
Legendary Dolphins Coach Don Shula paid Morrall a supreme compliment in a statement released Friday by the Dolphins.
“He was someone who was as good a person as he was a player,” said Shula, who coached Morrall in both Baltimore and Miami. “All Earl ever did for me was win games, whether it was as a starter or coming off the bench.
“He was a great team player who would do whatever was asked of him.”
After a great career at Michigan State, where he was a two-sport star in baseball and football, Morrall was drafted second overall by the 49ers in 1956. He was traded to the Steelers in 1957 and again in 1958 to the Lions in one of the most controversial exchanges in franchise history.
Two games into the season, the Lions dealt franchise icon Bobby Layne to the Steelers for Morrall.
The fallout of the trade has lingered through the ages and sparked the infamous “Curse of Bobby Layne,” which is part of sports lore but has never been documented. The Lions won the 1957 NFL championship, and as Layne left Detroit for Pittsburgh, he supposedly declared that the Lions would never win another championship without him.
The curse did not apply to Morrall, except for his stay in Detroit. He was on a Super Bowl winner in Baltimore and on two with Miami.
Morrall never achieved full-time starting status in Detroit. Most of his seven seasons were spent as a backup and in a battle for the starting job. However, he had some big moments and crafted one of his best individual seasons in 1963 when he threw 24 touchdown passes, second most in his career.
Morrall also had a short stint as an assistant coach with the Lions. He spent part of the 1977 season as a part-time offensive assistant, working primarily with the quarterbacks.
Morrall was part of a memorable play in an improbable road victory over the Baltimore Colts in Game 12 of the 1960 season. In a game that was tight from start to finish, John Unitas hit Lenny Moore with a 38-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left to give the Colts an apparent 15-13 victory.
The Lions’ offense got the ball back at the 35-yard line with 10 seconds left and the Colts clogging the deep passing lanes in a prevent defense.
Instead of going deep, Morrall hit tight end Jim Gibbons over the middle. Gibbons evaded a tackle and ran untouched into the end zone as time expired to complete the 65-yard TD play for a 20-15 Lions victory.
Morrall played 255 games overall for the 49ers, Steelers, Lions, Giants, Colts and Dolphins.
In Detroit, he played 80 games and had a 15-11 won-lost record with one tie. He had 52 TD passes and 41 interceptions. He also punted for the Lions, which was not unusual in those days when teams had much smaller rosters. Morrall had a career-high 29 punts in 1963.
Nationally, Morrall was better known for his play with the Colts and Dolphins. His greatest accomplishments were with those two franchises, but so was his biggest disappointment.
With the Colts, Morrall was first team All-Pro and MVP of the league in 1968 as the starting quarterback because of an injury that kept Hall of Fame quarterback John Unitas from starting any of the 14 regular-season games.
However, Morrall performed badly in a 16-7 loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III. Morrall completed only 6 of 17 passes for 71 yards with 3 interceptions before giving way to Unitas to finish out a futile comeback attempt.
Morrall was first-team All-Pro a second time in 1972 with the Dolphins, again for his relief of another eventual Hall of Famer – Bob Griese.
The Dolphins went 17-0 – 14-0 in the regular season and a sweep in the playoffs, including a Super Bowl victory over Washington.
Morrall started and won nine games in the regular season and eventually turned over the offense to Griese late in the AFC Championship as the Dolphins were closing the lid on a victory over the Steelers in the AFC Championship.
Griese recalled in a statement released by the Dolphins Friday how Morrall accepted being benched, even though he did not agree with the decision.
“He told Coach Shula he didn’t agree with the move, but also told him he would back him up 100 percent.
“There would have not been a perfect season without Earl Morrall.”