By Zane Miller
Baltimore Colts quarterback Earl Morrall entered his 13th season in the NFL looking for a fresh start with a new team, after playing through the 1967 season as a backup for the New York Giants. After being taken as the second overall pick in 1956, Morrall had only found limited success in the league, with his best season coming in 1965 as he took a 7-7 record with the Giants. He had also never made a postseason appearance throughout his career, however, that was set to change in 1968.
Morrall had his season-best game on October 6th as the Colts hosted the Chicago Bears, throwing for three touchdowns and 302 yards in their 28-7 win to improve to 4-0 on the year. While the team’s undefeated streak would not last to the end of the year, they would still claim the best regular season record in the league at 13-1, with Morrall starting in every game.
Morrall’s stats would be just as impressive as Baltimore’s regular season record would indicate, as he led the NFL in passing touchdowns with 26, along with finishing runner-up in passing yards with 2,909, only behind San Francisco 49ers quarterback John Brodie with 3,020 on the season. Thanks to his top-two finishes in each category, Morrall would be named as MVP for the 1968 season, as well as claiming first-team All-Pro honors for the first time in his career.
With the Colts claiming the Coastal Division title to qualify for the postseason, they would have a home matchup against the Central Division-winning Minnesota Vikings in the first round. Morrall continued the momentum from his breakout regular season into the December 22nd contest, finding Tom Mitchell and John Mackey for the game’s opening scores. The Colts would not look back from there, going on to win 24-14 to reach the NFL Championship Game. Morrall finished with two touchdown passes and 280 passing yards for another outstanding performance.
The Colts traveled to face the Cleveland Browns in a rematch of the 1964 Championship Game, with both teams also vying to make their first-ever Super Bowl appearance. In another similarity to the 1964 edition, which the Browns won 27-0, the December 29th game would see yet another shutout. Only this time, it would not be in favor of the Browns.
The Colts jumped ahead to an early three-possession lead, going up 17-0 at halftime, before continuing their demolition into the second half as well to take a convincing 34-0 win. The Browns were unable to do anything against the Colts defense, as they forced a pair of interceptions to go along with two forced fumbles and four sacks. Despite what a 34-0 final score would indicate, Morrall struggled throughout the game, as he was unable to find the end zone with just 169 passing yards and one interception. Nevertheless, Baltimore was on to Super Bowl III, facing a new opponent: the New York Jets of the American Football League.
After both teams traveled to Miami for the January 12th, 1969, meeting, the Jets held a slim 7-0 halftime lead, with the bottom falling out completely for Morrall and the Colts offense. The second half would not go much better, as New York tacked on three field goals to pull away by three possessions. While the Colts would end the shutout bid with a fourth quarter touchdown, the Jets would become the first of two AFL teams to earn a Super Bowl victory, winning 16-7. This remains as the only Super Bowl for the Jets franchise, as they have still been unable to win it as NFL members. Morrall’s struggles from the previous game continued into this one, throwing for no touchdowns and 71 yards, with an abysmal three interceptions before being taken out in favor of backup Johnny Unitas, who would also claim the starting job in 1969.
Morrall remained with the Colts through the 1971 season, eventually claiming his first Super Bowl ring in 1970 as a backup to Unitas. Morrall left to join the Miami Dolphins in 1972, a team which didn’t do much except have the most dominant season in NFL history. As of this writing, the 1972 Dolphins are the only team to go undefeated during the regular season and win the Super Bowl, and Morrall played a major role in their success, winning the team’s final nine games and earning first-team All-Pro honors for a second time, before helping the Dolphins on the Super Bowl run. After winning a third Super Bowl ring in 1973 (although he didn’t appear in any of the postseason games themselves), Morrall retired after the 1976 season, becoming one of the most notable ‘late bloomer’ quarterbacks in league history following a somewhat tumultuous start to his career.
With all the statistics in mind, I grade Morrall’s 1968 season at an A+. There really isn’t anything else you could ask of a quarterback from a regular season stats standpoint than what Morrall provided in 1968.
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