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Earl Morrall dies at 79; saved Dolphins' 1972 season

The NFL lost its version of Forrest Gump when Earl Morrall passed away Friday at age 79.

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.

His 21-year career was literally incredible. If someone provided a synopsis, you wouldn't believe it. In that way, it's somewhat surprising that no football-loving cinephile has attempted to bring his career to the screen.

Drafted by the 49ers in the first round after leading Michigan State to the Rose Bowl and playing shortstop and third base in the College World Series, Morrall was dealt to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a pair of first-round draft picks.

Although Morrall earned a Pro Bowl nod in his first season as a starter, the Steelers promptly flipped him to Detroit in exchange for the greatest player in Lions franchise history, Bobby Layne.

That trade instigated a long pattern of NFL teams giving Morrall a chance, watching him provide above-average quarterback play, then seeking a superior option.

More than a decade after entering the league, Morrall's career finally reached its apogee as Don Shula's leprechaun with two of the greatest teams in NFL history.

When Unitas suffered a career-altering elbow injury in the final preseason game of 1968, Morrall led the Baltimore Colts to a 13-1 record en route to the Most Valuable Player award and a Super Bowl appearance.

Two years later, Morrall replaced an injured Unitas in the Colts' Super Bowl V triumph over the Dallas Cowboys' "Doomsday Defense." To this day, Morrall remains the only quarterback to come off the bench and lead his team to a come-from-behind Super Bowl victory.

When the Colts unceremoniously dumped Morrall the following season, the 38-year-old signal-caller followed Shula to Miami. The defending champion Dolphins were forced to turn to their new backup when Bob Griese went down with a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle in Week 5.

Morrall was a revelation, surpassing Griese's production to lead the 1972 Dolphins to 11 consecutive wins during the only undefeated season in NFL history.

Playing four more seasons under Shula, Morrall became the oldest quarterback to start and win an NFL game. He announced his retirement in 1977, after a legendary three-decade odyssey.

"All Earl ever did was win games for me, whether it was as a starter or coming off the bench," Shula said Friday in a statement released by the Dolphins. "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."

As Gregg Rosenthal suggested on Friday's edition of the "Around The League Podcast," a fitting tribute would be renaming the Comeback Player of the Year award in honor of one of professional football's most remarkable careers.

Morrall's career highlights:

» Won the Rose Bowl and played in the College World Series for Michigan State

» NFL Most Valuable Player, 1968

» Starting quarterback on the losing side of the NFL's greatest upset: Joe Namath's iconic Super Bowl III guarantee that cemented the NFL-AFL merger

» First Comeback Player of the Year as well as AFC Player of the Year on the NFL's only undefeated team, 1972

» Developed Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde as the University of Miami's quarterbacks coach in the 1980s

The "Around The League Podcast" NFL Schedule Extravaganza will change the way you look at everything.

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