Heading into the 1972 season, Miami Dolphins Head Coach Don Shula knew two things.
He knew that the team, coming off a crushing loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl VI, would use that defeat as motivation for the upcoming campaign. The entire team was devastated at the way the season ended, and they vowed not to let that happen again.
And Shula knew, based on his own experience, the importance of a quality backup quarterback.
But what he didn’t know was that a decision he made 42 years ago today about a backup QB would prove to be critical in the Dolphins’ quest for perfection as the ’72 campaign unfolded.
Coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl selections in 1970 and ‘71, future Hall of Famer Bob Griese had a firm lock on the Dolphins’ starting quarterback job. He was widely viewed as one of the best young QBs in the game, “a thinking man’s quarterback,” as Shula admiringly called him. So Shula wasn’t worried about that position. What did concern him were the people behind Griese.
Shula learned the hard way about the importance of a quality backup quarterback during his tenure as head coach of the Baltimore Colts, a lesson that might have cost him an NFL championship.
Shula’s 1965 Colts team was expected to compete for the league title. They were coming off an appearance in the NFL championship game the previous season, where they lost to the Cleveland Browns. They had the nonpareil Johnny Unitas at quarterback, along with a host of future Hall of Famers, and at the start of the ’65 campaign pundits around the country made them a popular pick to win it all.
And the Colts lived up to those expectations through most of the 14-game regular season, going 9-1-1 in their first 11 contests. At that point, Unitas had already thrown for over 2,500 yards and 23 touchdowns, huge numbers in the NFL in those days. Baltimore was on a roll -- until disaster struck.
In a week 12 loss to the Chicago Bears, Unitas suffered a knee injury that knocked him out the rest of the year. Unbelievably, backup quarterback Gary Cuozzo also suffered a season-ending injury in a loss to the Green Bay Packers the following week. In desperation, Shula was forced to turn to turn to halfback Tom Matte to replace them. Matte had played quarterback at Ohio State, but outside of a few limited plays earlier in his career with the Colts, this would be his first real exposure playing that position in the pros.
Heading into their season finale, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The Colts traveled to Los Angeles to face the Rams with a playoff berth at stake -- win, or go home for the winter. Rarely had a quarterback with that limited a resume ever started such a big game.
The Rams were on a three-game winning streak and featured a front line of Lamar Lundy, Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones and Rosey Grier. Nicknamed the “Fearsome Foursome” and called by no less an expert than Dick Butkus as “the most dominant line in football history,” they were licking their chops at the prospect of facing the Colts’ greenhorn QB. The Associated Press made the Rams 18-point favorites.
It looked like the game would end the Colts’ season. But instead, it revealed Shula’s genius.
Knowing what he was up against defensively, coupled with Matte’s inexperience at the QB position, Shula first decided to streamline his offense, cutting his game-day playbook from several hundred plays to several dozen. Even so, Shula faced another quandary, playing in an era, long before coach-to-QB radio helmets, when quarterbacks called all the plays. How could Matte, just one week into his new role as the team’s signal caller, remember even those limited number of plays?
Shula came up with something that had never been done in the league before -- he scribbled those few plays onto an index card and placed it underneath a protective piece of plastic that was sown on a wristband Matte was to wear during the game.
“We simplified everything – a few runs, a few passes, and some goal-line plays,” Shula said. “Our whole objective was somehow, some way, to make a first down. And then another.”
Shula’s unique innovation worked. Behind Matte, the Colts upset the Rams 20-17, leaving them tied for first place in the Western Conference with the Packers and forcing a playoff game to determine the conference title and the right to play the Browns for the NFL Championship.
With Matte again at quarterback and wearing an updated version of his wristband with the new game plan, the Colts put up a valiant fight in Lambeau Field. They were up 10-7 late in the fourth quarter when Packers kicker Don Chandler tied the game with a controversial field goal where the ball traveled above the right upright. His kick was called good by the game officials, but video replays appeared to show the ball sailing not only above the upright, but also wide of it as well. Given that break, the Packers eventually won the game with a field goal in overtime, and went on to defeat the Browns the following week for the title. To this day, Shula believes the kick was wide right, a call that not only cost his team a win and a berth in the NFL Championship game, but also caused the NFL goalposts to be lengthened to their current height.
While it was a bitter loss, it burnished Shula’s legacy. Today every quarterback in the NFL wears a wristband with all the plays, but the ones Shula designed for Matte were innovative and unprecedented, the first ones ever used in league play. The wristband Matte wore against the Rams is prominently displayed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while the one he used against the Packers resided for years on Shula’s desk in his Dolphins office and now occupies a place of honor at his home.
So if anyone knew the importance of a quality backup, it was Don Shula. And he was worried about that position heading into the 1972 season in Miami.
At that point, penciled in as Griese’s understudies were George Mira, who never threw more than 76 passes in any of his previous seven seasons in the league, including just 30 for the Dolphins the previous year, and Jim Del Gaizo, who had never even played in an NFL game. While Shula got by with both of them backing up Griese in ’71, he was on the lookout for an upgrade after the conclusion of the season. And 42 years ago today, on April 25, 1972, someone he knew well unexpectedly became available -- Earl Morrall.
Morrall’s background was entirely different from that of Mira and Del Gaizo, who had limited NFL experience. By 1972, Morrall already had built a career as a top-shelf NFL quarterback.
He broke in the league in 1956, and after bouncing around for a few years, had one of his best seasons in 1963 with the Detroit Lions, throwing for 24 touchdowns and more than 2,600 yards. Two years later, as a member of the New York Giants, he pretty much duplicated those numbers with 22 TD passes and 2,446 yards passing. But the best was yet to come.
Heading into the 1968 season, Shula and the Colts were looking for an experienced backup for Unitas, and they traded for Morrall in exchange for an undisclosed draft choice. What happened that season cemented in Shula’s mind Morrall’s value and eerily provided a preview of what the veteran QB would do for another one of Shula’s teams four years later.
Unitas suffered a season-ending injury in in the final exhibition game, so Morrall was forced to step in as Baltimore’s starter. He wound up throwing for 2,909 yards and 26 touchdowns and led the Colts to a 13-1 record and two playoff victories before they were upset by Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. Morrall was named as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player that year, and Shula never forgot that he had saved the Colts’ season after Unitas’ injury.
Four years later, as coach of the Dolphins, Shula’s memory of that ’68 campaign paid dividends. Early in 1972, the Colts decided to part ways with Morrall, and Shula leapt at the opportunity to grab him. But if it weren’t for Karl Douglas, a quarterback who never played a game in the NFL, Shula never would have had that chance.
“We’ve been going with two great veterans (Unitas and Morrall) for a couple of seasons,” said Colts Head Coach Don McCafferty at the time, “but we decided to retain only one and give our younger kids a chance. Karl Douglas is our No. 2 quarterback at the moment unless someone else turns up.
“I was anxious to find a job for Earl. I had a lot of respect for him, and he did a lot for the Colts over the years. It’s tough to give up on a great gentleman like that. When nothing could be worked out, the only thing to do was to put him on waivers and find out who was interested in him.”
Shula certainly was, but there was no guarantee he would get him. Morrall was available for the $100 waiver price, but as it turned out, there was competition both outside and inside the Dolphins’ camp for his services.
Several teams put in waiver claims for Morrall the first time, but later withdrew them. Two teams, the Dolphins and the New England Patriots, filed claims the second time, and the Pats had priority in the claiming system used back then because of their inferior record the previous season. New England’s prospects for 1972 weren’t much better, and their General Manager, Upton Bell, basically wanted the 38-year old Morrall to mentor Jim Plunkett, who he had drafted the year before with the first overall pick. But both Morrall and Patriots Head Coach John Mazur wanted no part of that.
“I don’t think it would have been worth it to have joined the Patriots at that stage of my career,” Morrall said. “I would have played 14 games, packed up, and gone home. But the Dolphins were different. This was a good, solid team, and Don Shula was a coach I had played for in Baltimore. I knew why he wanted me.”
Similarly, Mazur, convinced Brian Dowling would be the best backup to Plunkett, didn’t think Morrall would be the right fit for his team, and told that to his GM.
Faced with objections from his head coach and Morrall himself, Bell withdrew his claim thirty minutes before the waiver deadline, changing the course of football history forever.
But while it appeared the Dolphins won the battle against the Patriots to land Morrall, they still had one other opponent to beat -- themselves.
“I knew what Earl could do from our time in Baltimore,” said Shula. “He was an intelligent quarterback who won a lot of ball games for me. I wanted to pick him up as an insurance policy.
“I had to talk Joe Robbie into doing it because Earl was making $90,000. I wanted to claim him off waivers, and Robbie said ‘Paying $90,000 for a backup – are you out of your mind?’”
But Shula eventually convinced Robbie it would be worth it, and so on April 25, 1972 -- 42 years ago today -- Morrall was awarded to the Dolphins on waivers for $100. Even with his big contract, it was one of the best investments the Dolphins ever made.
Everyone knows what happened next. Miami won its first four games in 1972, but Griese got hurt in the next contest. Just as he did for Shula four years earlier in Baltimore, Morrall stepped in as the starting QB and the team never missed a beat. Including the playoffs, Morrall started the next 11 games and the Dolphins won every one of them. Finally healthy, Griese re-entered the lineup in the second half of the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh, and he finished off their perfect season by beating the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII to cap their 17-0 campaign.
But the Perfect Season might not have been so perfect if it weren’t for Morrall. For his contributions that year, Morrall was named as the inaugural NFL Comeback Player of the Year, and Shula called him “the perfect backup for the perfect team.”
And so today Dolphin fans should take a minute and celebrate the anniversary of one of the most important acquisitions in Dolphins history. And along the way, they should remember to give a silent nod of thanks to Tom Matte, a wristband, Don McCafferty, Karl Douglas, John Mazur and Brian Dowling, who all helped make it possible.