Thursday, February 15, 2018

Forgotten Superstars:Craig Morton

Photo Credit: Peter Miller AP Photo
The Forgotten Superstars universe is back with another segment and as I've noted before, this series, despite its name, isn't always about superstars.

I belong to a Facebook group that strictly discusses the NFL of the "Golden Era of 64-94" and someone made a well, ridiculous statement comparing Joe Namath to Craig Morton, so after the thread, I started thinking about Morton's story and I thought he'd be a good fit for the series.

Craig Morton's stats might be similar to Joe Namath, but there really wasn't a comparison, Namath was a talented passer that was eroded away by knee injuries that were destructive at that time, but would be easily fixed today.
Morton, on the other hand, was a good, not great quarterback that might be better remembered if not for a few bad breaks in fortune.

A natural dropback passer, Morton was drafted by the Cowboys in the first round of the 1965 draft (5th overall) and looked to be blocked for a long time by starter Don Meredith, who was just 27 when Dallas drafted Morton.
An interesting note considering the discussion that brought Morton to mind- Who was the other quarterback drafted in the first round that year, seven picks behind Morton?- Joe Namath by the Cardinals, who couldn't sign Namath, who preferred the AFL Jets.
St.Louis Joe doesn't have the same ring as Broadway Joe, does it?

Morton would occasionally play in his four seasons behind Meredith, when Meredith was injured (Which was still more than you think a young QB would play in those times), but still looked to be blocked over the long term before Meredith surprisingly retired at the young age of 31.
If you really like the "What if" game- try these two questions without answers.
Imagine if Meredith had played until he was 39 (the age when Morton retired), Meredith's final year would have been 1977 so it could have been Meredith bringing Dallas to four Super Bowls (winning two and losing two in that time) and six NFC Championship games ( the four Super Bowl teams plus losses in 1972 and 1973), how much would that have affected the career of Roger Staubach, who either would have been a career backup or Staubach likely would have been traded elsewhere as Morton eventually was?
The other question- Would Monday Night Football have been as successful without Don Meredith sparring with Howard Cosell in the early '70s when MNF began?
Interesting to consider.

Back to Morton, who took over the starting job and despite constant shoulder problems would lead Dallas to two division titles in his first two seasons as a starter and brought the Cowboys to a Super Bowl against the Colts.
More unfortunate bounces as some of the craziest plays that you'll see in arguably the worst played Super Bowl ever saw Morton's Cowboys, who were likely the better team, lose on the final play of the game to the Baltimore Colts 16-13.
No matter the quality of the game, with some breaks (watch the NFL Films highlights of that game, every bounce went the way of the Colts) and it would have forever been Super Bowl-winning quarterback Craig Morton, just as we remember guys like Mark Rypien, Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer, etc.

The following year in 1971 saw the Cowboys as the favorites to win the Super Bowl, yet with head coach Tom Landry paralyzed by indecision on whether to use Morton or Roger Staubach as the starter and Landry getting to the point of using the two on alternate plays, the Cowboys stumbled to a 4-3 record halfway through the season.
Finally, the team asked Landry to make a decision between the two, without offering a preference other than a selection.
The selection of Staubach began the Cowboys NFC reign of terror as the Cowboys would make the playoffs every year except one for the remainder of Staubach's playing days and would win the Super Bowl at seasons end.
Morton did have another chance as he started all of the 1972 season after Staubach suffered a separated shoulder in the pre-season, leading the Cowboys to a 10-4 record and the wild card (In 1972, there was just one wild card team) after finishing second to 11-3 Washington in the NFC East.
Again, Morton would come up short in the playoffs as Dallas trailed San Francisco 28-16 with minutes remaining.
Landry inserted Staubach into the game, watched him produce two touchdowns in 90 seconds and pull off a miracle 30-28 victory.

Morton would not start another game in Dallas as he sat behind Staubach for the 1973 and half of the 1974 season before a shocking mid-season trade with division rival New York.
Can you imagine making a trade of a quarterback that has taken you to a Super Bowl in mid-season to a division rival, no matter how crummy that rival is? ( The Giants were 1-5 when making the trade and finished 2-12) ?
Morton had signed a "Future's Contract" with the WFL's Houston Texans in an attempt to find a team to start on and the Cowboys decided to get something for him before the WFL contract kicked in.
Morton signed his contract with Houston, but wouldn't have played there as the Texans moved to Shreveport, Louisiana halfway through the WFL's only full season.
Dallas received the Giants first and second-round picks for Morton and turned the first-rounder into Hall of Famer Randy White.
The Giants received two and a half years of mediocre football as they went 8-25 under Morton, who threw 29 touchdowns against 49 interceptions.
Morton's immobility meant he needed to be protected by a good offensive line and the Giants didn't even approach average in protection as Morton was sacked 99 times as a Giant.

The Giants were ready to move on from the 34-year-old Morton and swung a trade with Denver for their vagabond veteran Steve Ramsey in a trade immortalized in the book "Orange Madness" by the then-unknown Woody Paige with the quote "Our shit for their shit".
Morton brought the Broncos to their first playoff berth, division title, and AFC championship all in his first year despite numbers on the surface don't look special (1929 yards, 14 touchdowns and 8 interceptions), but his season was exactly what the Broncos needed with the best defense in the conference, Morton just needed to avoid mistakes.
Morton led the Broncos into the Super Bowl and ran into his old friends in Dallas, who mauled him with several sacks and allowed Morton to complete just eight passes in the game (Four of the Eight were thrown to Cowboys) before driving him from the game in the third quarter.
Denver's only touchdown in the 27-10 loss was scored with Norris Weese taking the snaps.

After the 1977 season, despite the Denver success, the Broncos tried to replace Morton constantly.
In 1978, Morton held off Norris Weese for the starting job and guided the Broncos to a repeat division title and in 1979, the Broncos went to the playoffs as a wildcard at 10-6 with Morton as the main starter, but Weese started six games and with Morton throwing more interceptions than touchdowns in 79 (19 picks to 16 scores), the Broncos again attempted to replace Morton.
Denver traded their number one pick to the New York Jets for Matt Robinson and expected Robinson to be their anchor at quarterback.
Instead, Robinson was so bad (2 touchdowns to 12 interceptions in seven starts) that by the end of the 8-8 season that saw Red Miller lose his job, it was Morton with more starts with nine.

With Robinson gone for 1981, Morton notched arguably his best statistical season under new head coach and former teammate Dan Reeves as the Broncos just missed the playoffs at 10-6.
Morton threw 21 touchdowns and notched his only season of over three thousand yards passing for the surprising Broncos, who weren't knocked from the playoff picture until the final week of the season when they lost to the Chicago Bears.
However in that game, with the Broncos knowing a win would give them the AFC West title and a loss would leave them on the outside (Denver would tie with San Diego at 10-6, but lose a tiebreaker), Morton threw for under 100 yards and three interceptions, before Steve DeBerg entered the game in a 35-24 defeat.
That was the last stand for Morton, who would start just three games for the 2-7 Broncos in the 1982 strike year and the 39-year-old would retire at the end of the season.

Morton was out of football for less than a year as in the middle of the 1983 USFL season, Morton was hired to replace his old coach Red Miller as the head coach of the Denver Gold.
Morton would finish at 12-12 over his season-plus with the Gold and would be replaced by Mouse Davis for the final season of the league.
That was the last football job for Morton, who now is retired and living in Northern California.

A superstar?
No, but the Forgotten Superstars series isn't always about being a superstar, sometimes it's just bringing back a memory or two.
We welcome Craig Morton to our Forgotten Superstar universe and coming soon I'll have another addition as well...

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