By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
Without quarterback Sam Bradford, the St. Louis Rams are toast.
That’s the perception around most water coolers today, and it’s hard to disagree. But be careful, people, and I offer that warning not so much because I know what backup Shaun Hill can do but because I know what backups Earl Morrall and Kurt Warner did do.
Like Hill, they were career backups who became starters because of preseason injuries, and they flourished in their new roles. Morrall led the Colts to Super Bowl III. Warner led the Rams to Super Bowl XXXIV. And let’s get something straight before we proceed: That doesn’t mean Hill experiences similar success. It’s simply a reminder to distraught Rams’ fans that the improbable can happen when you lose your starting quarterback this early … with these guys the proof:
EARL MORRALL, Baltimore, 1968 — With Hall-of-Fame quarterback John Unitas battling elbow tendinitis, the Colts acquired the 34-year-old Morrall in late August, and good thing they did. He took over for Unitas, who suffered a muscle tear in his throwing arm in the final exhibition game, and led the Colts to a 13-1 record, NFL championship and Super Bowl III berth. Morrall, who led the league in passing and touchdown passes, failed to throw a scoring pass only once, beat all four teams (Detroit, the New York Giants, Pittsburgh and San Francisco) that gave up on him during his pro career and was named the league’s MVP. Two years later, he would relieve Unitas in Super Bowl V to score the Colts’ first Super Bowl victory and in 1972 would come to Miami’s rescue, relieving an injured Bob Griese to win nine straight starts as the Dolphins produced a perfect 17-0 season.
STEVE YOUNG, San Francisco, 1991 — Following an elbow injury to Joe Montana in the first preseason game, Young stepped in as the starter and led the 49ers to a 4-4 record before getting hurt himself. He didn’t return until the 15th game but played well enough to drive the 49ers to a 10-6 record and produce the league’s best passer rating. That’s the good news. The bad: The 49ers, 14-2 the year before, missed the playoffs for the first time since 1982 and Young’s future appeared in doubt. Only it wasn’t. He never relinquished the starting job, and three years later led the 49ers to their fifth Super Bowl victory — setting a single-season record for passer rating and winning the league’s MVP award. He was also named Super Bowl MVP.
STAN HUMPHRIES, San Diego, 1992 — When starter John Friesz was injured in the first game of the preseason, GM Bobby Beathard move quickly to acquire Humphries from Washington. The move made sense since it was Beathard — as GM of the Redskins — who drafted the guy and since the Chargers and Redskins ran the same offense. After dropping their first four games, the Bolts won 11 of their next 12 to reach the playoffs for the first time since the 1982 strike-truncated season, and, yeah, that’s a big deal. To this day, the Chargers are the only NFL team to reach the playoffs after losing their first four starts. Two years later, Humphries would lead the Chargers to their first … and only … Super Bowl.
KURT WARNER, St. Louis, 1999 — A virtual unknown buried on the Rams’ depth chart, Warner was thrust into the starting lineup after Trent Green was sidelined for the season with torn knee ligaments suffered in his third preseason game. Sound familiar? “We’ll rally around Kurt Warner,” said then-coach Dick Vermeil, “and we will play good football.” Of course, that was before Vermeil had seen Warner work with the first-team offense, but he was right. The Rams didn’t just play good football; they played better football than anyone else — with the club winning its division, its conference and Super Bowl XXXIV. Oh, and Warner? He wasn’t so bad, either. He led the league in touchdown passes (41), completion percentage and passer rating and was named the league and Super Bowl MVPs.