Monday, January 12, 2009

Gridiron Irony

A key ingredient in many a success is having your chin strap fastened even when you aren't a starter.

Forty years ago this date the third annual installment of the championship game, and advertising promised land, pitting the champions of the then two separate National and American Football Leagues, was played between the NFL's Baltimore Colts and the AFL's New York Jets. This was the first game bequeathed the moniker--Super Bowl. The previous two such games were retroactively dubbed Super Bowl I and II. Nineteen point underdogs, the Jets were considered a mere speed bump on the way to the coronation of the Colts as professional football's kings and enshrinement as one of the best teams ever to play the game. The Jets had other plans. Joe Namath famously "guaranteed" a win for the Jets, and even though Broadway Joe was named Super Bowl III's MVP, his team's defense delivered, intercepting the Colts' Earl Morrall three times.

Johnny Unitas, one of the best pigskin passers to ever line up under center (and my childhood hero), was the Colt's starting QB in 1968, but was injured early in the season and replaced by journeyman Earl Morrall. Still, the Colts nearly ran the tables that year behind the MVP performance of Morrall, losing only to Cleveland in the regular season--a loss they avenged by blistering the Browns 34 to 0 in the NFL Championship Game. Morrall, a veteran of 12 years in the NFL during which he had never earned a permanent starting position on any of the four teams for which he played, performed so well that even after Unitas was healthy enough to return to duty, Colts coach Don Shula kept him in the starting line-up.

Four years later, the 1972 Miami Dolphins lost their starting QB, Bob Griese, to an injury early in the season. Dolphins coach Don Shula (yep, same one) turned to his 38-year-old back-up, Earl Morrall (yep, same one) and this time his team did run the tables, finishing the regular season without a loss. Griese returned to duty to lead the Dolphins through the play-offs and into NFL immortality. But, Morrall, so old that his teammates had a rocking chair placed in the locker room for him, was the true hero of Miami's yet unequalled undefeated season.
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