Most football fans know that the 1972 Miami Dolphins are still the only team in NFL history to complete a perfect season. Many are also aware that backup quarterback Earl Morrall played a key role in that 17-0 season.
On this day 50 years ago, Morrall was thrust into action following an injury to starting quarterback Bob Griese. Morrall tossed two touchdowns in relief as the Dolphins defeated the San Diego Chargers 24-10 to give head coach Don Shula his 100th career victory.
Setting the Stage
The Dolphins were a perfect 4-0 as they arrived at the Orange Bowl on Oct. 15, 1972. Miami had reached the Super Bowl the year prior, but had never won its first five games.
Coming off a win over the Baltimore Colts, San Diego was 2-1-1. To that point, the Chargers were 4-1 all-time against the Dolphins.
Down Goes Griese and in Comes Morrall
The contest was scoreless early on when Griese took a big shot following a pass attempt. A promising start for the Dolphins in 1972 had apparently hit a huge roadblock as Griese was on the turf in agony with an obvious break to his leg. He also dislocated his ankle.
Shula, however, didn’t panic.
Acquired in the offseason, Morall had helped Shula reach Super Bowl III as a member of the Baltimore Colts. At 38 years old, Morrall was experienced. On that October afternoon at the Orange Bowl, he proved he was ready to lead.
With the score tied 3-3 in the second quarter, it was a defensive score that put Miami ahead for good as Dick Anderson returned a fumble 35 yards for a touchdown. The next two scores would come courtesy of Morrall’s right arm.
Morrall finished the day 8-for-10 passing for 86 yards. His 19-yard touchdown strike to Howard Twilley gave the Dolphins a 17-3 lead late in the first half. In the third quarter, Morrall delivered an 18-yard touchdown pass to Paul Warfield as Miami seized control.
With less than five minutes remaining, San Diego finally found the end zone on a touchdown pass from John Hadl to Cid Williams, but never mounted any serious threat. The teams put up comparable offensive numbers, but Miami forced three turnovers to just one for the Chargers. Lloyd Mumphord and Jake Scott each recorded interceptions in the victory.
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For San Diego, the loss would begin a 5-game losing streak. The Chargers would finish 4-9-1.
The Dolphins, on the other hand, would go a perfect 14-0 during the regular season with Morrall under center. Morrall would lead Miami to victory in the AFC Divisional round against the Cleveland Browns before Griese, in relief, rallied the Dolphins to victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship. Griese would start Miami’s 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII.
As for Shula, he would go on to win 347 games as a head coach — the most in NFL history. Win No. 100 was bittersweet as Shula lost his quarterback in the process. That victory came on this day a half-century ago.
Photo credit: Jim Kerlin/Associated Press
Mike Ferguson is the managing editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.