Earl Morrall, whose career as an NFL quarterback included stints backing up some of the most gifted passers in the league's history, died Friday at age 79. Morrall played 21 seasons in the NFL; he was 38 when he became a pivotal part of the Miami Dolphins' perfect 1972 season that still stands as a record.
"The quintessential backup quarterback, Morrall made his mark as a premium insurance policy for Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese, Fran Tarkenton, Len Dawson and Y.A. Tittle."
He was also a star in his own right. In a long and varied career, Morrall threw for more than 2,000 yards – and more than 20 touchdowns — in a season for three different teams. In college, he led Michigan State to a Rose Bowl win in addition to playing in the College World Series.
Morrall died in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he'd been living at his son Matthew's home, The New York Times reports. The cause of death was reportedly related to Parkinson's disease.
One of the biggest moments of Morrall's career came in Super Bowl V, when he led the Baltimore Colts to a comeback win over the Dallas Cowboys following an injury to Unitas.
A more lasting highlight came in 1972, when Morrall came to the Dolphins' rescue after the team's starter, Griese, went down with a broken leg in the fifth game of the season. Morrall guided the team to 11 consecutive wins, winning NFL honors as Comeback Player of the Year and AFC Player of the Year.
Despite all that, Morrall was replaced by Griese during the playoffs, watching from the sidelines as the starter won both the AFC title and then Super Bowl VII.
"All Earl ever did was win games for me, whether it was as a starter or coming off the bench," his former coach Don Shula said Friday. Shula coached Morrall in both Miami and Baltimore. "What I remember the most, of course, is what he did in 1972 when he replaced Bob Griese after Bob's injury and kept our perfect season going until Bob returned in the playoffs.
"But Earl won a lot of games for me in Baltimore as well. And he did it in such a humble way — he was a great team player who would do whatever was asked of him. And he was an outstanding leader who inspired confidence in his teammates."
A batch of those wins came in 1968, when Morrall stepped in for an injured Unitas to lead the Colts to a 13-1 record. He passed for 2,909 yards and 26 touchdowns that year, winning the league's Most Valuable Player award. But his season was marred by being on the wrong end of a famous Super Bowl upset, as the Colts fell to Joe Namath and the New York Jets, 16-7.
Several years later, Morrall was back with Shula, ready to step in when Griese was injured.
"There would not have been a perfect season without Earl Morrall," Griese told the Miami Herald.
He also told the newspaper a story about Morrall's locker — which had a rocking chair next to it, in a not-so-subtle jab at his age compared to the rest of the team.
Morrall's name came up at the White House last fall, when a group representing the 1972 Dolphins team visited President Obama to honor its perfect season.
"As one teammate later said, "Earl couldn't run and he couldn't throw,'" Obama said. "But Earl could win, and that's what he and the Dolphins did again and again and again."
Shula tells the Miami Herald, "He was just a fine human being and that transcended everything else. It wasn't just about his career. In everything he tried, people recognized what a fine individual he was."