There is this one
slow, sad truth about pro quarterbacks: almost to a man they are deadly dull.
It is as if the game they dominate, with its brute violence and constant pain,
has leeched them of precisely those qualities—fury, rage, sharpness of
tongue—that make other, lesser men appear more interesting. For every Joe
Namath or Joe Kapp, caustic and cocky, there are five Bart Starrs, so clean and
straight and self-effacing that they make one yearn, say, for the ribald
companionship of Saint Francis of Assisi. Craig Morton (see cover), suffice it
to say, is no Joe Namath. Nor is he a Saint Francis, or so claim the young
ladies of Dallas.
Last week, as the
Cowboys prepared for their first Super Bowl, Craig Morton's already legendary
reputation for deathless dialogue took a new turn. He developed laryngitis.
Forbidden by his doctor to speak for two days, and afterward in a whisper,
Morton kept to his Playboy-modern apartment, attended only by a game plan, a
girl named Patty and the sounds of silence. In a way. muteness suits Morton, a
quarterback whose plays, for the past seven games, have been called from the
bench. Talking with him—or at him, to be accurate—one almost expects the back
door to fly open and a breathless Mike Ditka or Pettis Norman, the messenger
tight ends, to rush in with the latest fresh quote from Coach Tom Landry.
Dig the scene: it
is freezing cold in Dallas, so cold that the syrup in the ubiquitous Texan
drawl has congealed into fudge. A cheery oak fire crackles in Morton's
fireplace; the game balls dangling from the ceiling cast amorphous shadows.
"Seven game balls," whispers Morton. "Three of them from the
Cowboys." The firelight plays odd tricks with the decor: a gold-plated
Model 94 Winchester .30-30; a gaudy, grinning statue of Cyrano de Bergerac; a
bronze beetle on the cocktail table; a chinchilla rug fully six feet square;
masses of gnarled wrought iron that resolve themselves into lamps and
chandeliers. A photograph of John Wayne, wearing the black eye patch and wicked
grin of Rooster Cogburn, pulsates on the far wall. "Good luck, Craig,"
says Wayne's gritty handwriting.
whispers Morton. "I'll need it. I'm hurtin'." Yes, he is. Including the
laryngitis, which will have passed by the time he begins hutting his audibles
in Miami, he is currently sporting six separate injuries of greater or lesser
magnitude. During the off season, the doctors who rebuild football players
transplanted a tendon from Morton's foot into his right shoulder to repair a
separation. His passing elbow is infected. "I rubbed it raw on AstroTurf
and an infection set in, but it's pretty much cured by now," he says. Not
so the three-inch gash in his passing hand, inflicted by a Cleveland cleat in
the Cowboys' 6-2 "baseball" victory last Dec. 12. A small, suppurating
hole remains in the palm, just north of the lifeline.
courtesy of the 49ers' Stan Hindman in the NFC title game, and a sore butt that
has tailed him all season round out the injury picture. Painful as all these
wounds are, nothing bothers Morton more than the wasting disease of the scalp
that won him his nickname on the team. Morton, at 27 the Cowboys' wavy-haired
bachelor plenipotentiary to the football groupies of this world, is starting to
lose his hair. When that fact became evident, Don Meredith—always the one for a
gentle witticism—began calling him Curly.
No man in
football has a better understanding of what Craig Morton has been through this
year than Meredith. As the prime target for those deafening Dallas boos when
the Cowboys blew a big one, which was often, Meredith ultimately chose early
retirement rather than face anymore Big D grossouts: "You dawg! You yaller
houn'! Whyncha get a tail so you can tuck it between your laigs?" In July
of 1969, Morton was driving to San Francisco from a weekend at Russian Lake
when he heard the news of Meredith's retirement on the radio. "I almost
wrecked the car," he recalls. "I had to pull over to the side of the
road and yell." Aha! So he once was capable of yelling. Could that
laryngitis be psychosomatic? As Meredith said last year when Morton was named
captain: "Curly's going to find out there's a lot more to being a leader
than just going out and calling a coin toss."
Morton can call
much better than that, of course. In the risky business of checking
off—changing the play at the line of scrimmage when a defensive set becomes
obvious—Morton has long been an acknowledged master, and this skill helps
explain why he regained his job from Roger Staubach, who started the first two
Cowboy games this season. In the third game, the first of two losses to the
Cardinals, Dallas was on its five and Staubach failed to see Larry Wilson—the
man who virtually invented the safety blitz—lined up over tackle, ready to do
his thing. Staubach sent Walt Garrison into the left side, and Wilson zapped
him for a three-yard loss. In the next game, against Atlanta, Morton was the
starter. Two games later, against Kansas City, he spotted Johnny Robinson
pussyfooting up for a safety blitz. Craig went audible and hit Bobby Hayes
behind everybody—right where Robinson normally would have been—for an 89-yard
touchdown. "Against the 49ers," Morton says, "I called 10 or 12
audibles, most of them pitchouts to Duane Thomas." That in itself indicates
Morton is capable of daring, since pro quarterbacks rarely check off to a
running play. It won the championship for Dallas.
is right about the need for learning leadership on a team as cerebral as the
Cowboys. "Don conveyed more confidence," says Danny Reeves, the
player-coach whose elevation to the hierarchy early this year vastly improved
communication between Landry and his troops. "Craig has great
self-confidence, but the problem is getting it across to the others."
In effect, the
Cowboys have played two seasons: in the first, they went 5-4 and were drubbed
by St. Louis and Minnesota; in the second, they went 24 quarters without giving
up a touchdown and won seven straight games. During the second season, Landry
called most of the plays, ostensibly to relieve Morton of the added pressure of
calling the plays on top of reading defenses (something he is demonstrably good
at) but perhaps also to show that Landry's own head—which might have rolled had
the Cowboys collapsed—was still among the most astute in football. "No
quarterback likes to have plays called from the sideline," says Reeves,
"but Craig was man enough—mature enough—to accept the help. If we hadn't
been successful, I'm sure he would have rebelled. But it worked."
was the emergence of Duane Thomas as a game-breaking runner, the superb
stiffening of the Cowboy defense and the spirit of cohesion that infused the
team. " Cleveland was the tester," Morton says. "We had a way of
going under for those guys when something went against us. In the Browns' game,
when Bobby Hayes dropped a punt for a safety, we began to get it together.
Before, we might have caved in with the bad break. Well, there it comes again.
Fate, you know. But everyone sort of said, 'That's O.K., Bobby. We'll get it
back.' And we did and we won and we kept on winning."