Missed flea flicker still super memory 25 years after fact

January 12, 1994|By John Steadman

He never was one to offer a cheap alibi or to blame others. Those are qualities that distinguish Earl Morrall as the consummate professional. He has for too long had to live with a play that went wrong and influenced the outcome of the most astonishing of all Super Bowl games -- which transpired exactly 25 years ago today.

It was the case of the failing "flea flicker."

Morrall purposely didn't watch the film version until late last summer because he wasn't interested in reviewing his most disappointing moment in a long, distinguished quarterbacking career.

"I have no excuses," he said. "You can't change the result, so why try to explain it?"

But there's another element to what happened and his Baltimore Colts teammate, Tom Matte, says it's wrong even remotely to blame Morrall in the 16-7 loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III, which was the first time the championship was designated by Roman numerals.

"It's a part of football," insisted Matte. "We were all in it together. We just got beat. But when I took the handoff from Earl and ran to the right, stopped and passed the ball back, I threw it in a difficult position for him to catch it. He had to reach for it and, when he turned his body, kind of blocked off some of the left side of the field."

Morrall then wasn't able to locate his primary receiver, Jimmy Orr, who, when realizing he wasn't being recognized, began to frantically wave his hand at the 10-yard line. He resembled a man on a life raft signaling a passing ship in hope of rescue.

An almost-certain touchdown awaited if only he got the ball. There wasn't a Jet within 20 yards. But Morrall didn't see Orr. There were only a limited number of seconds for the so-called "moment of decision" when a quarterback has to instinctively implement a judgment and either go for the completion, throw the ball away or resign to being sacked while surrendering a loss of yardage.

Morrall was at ground level, without the elevated advantage of those watching from the stands or press box, and the traffic around him would soon get more congested. The play was known as "439-Flea Flicker." The clock was winding down to close out the first half and the Colts were at the Jets' 42-yard line. This was an ideal setting for a surprise.

"I took the handoff and ran to the right," was how Matte began to describe it. "Then I pulled up and threw the ball to him in a slightly backward direction. Meanwhile, Orr was kind of finessing his way down the opposite side of the field. My toss, a lateral to Earl, was a little high and off to the right. He caught it and turned to see Jerry Hill open in the middle and that's where he went."

Meanwhile, Orr was uncovered but had, for some reason, virtually vanished off Morrall's optical screen. Morrall's first look downfield showed fullback Hill in the middle, an easy target, so he went there. The Jets were putting on pressure and the Colts quarterback's reflexive intuitions told him he better expedite whatever it was he was going to do.

He quickly elected to "feather" the pass to Hill, but Jim Hudson cut in front to make the interception. The Jets thereby escaped a score and held on to a 7-0 halftime lead over the Colts. It was Super Bowl III. Date: Jan. 12, 1969. Place: Miami's Orange Bowl.

Baltimore, before the kickoff, had been described as one of the standout forces in National Football League annals and installed as a plausible 16 1/2 -point favorite. But the Colts, this so-called wonder team, came out flat, a condition brought on by massive overconfidence, and were ready to be had.

The end result qualifies as the most momentous upset since the Super Bowl was originated. Baltimore had won 15 of 16 games, including a 34-0 pounding of the Cleveland Browns for the NFL title.

With quarterback Joe Namath boldly predicting a Jets' Super Bowl victory at a Thursday night banquet, it meant he thereby called his shot and helped make it reality with a performance that included 17 completions in 28 attempts for 206 yards.

"It wasn't a fluke the Jets beat us that day," said Matte. "We never got in gear because of careless mistakes. Maybe it was lack of concentration. We had the better personnel and if we played them 10 additional times we would have won each time. That's not to take anything from the Jets. It's what I like to think is an objective evaluation."

The game, from the perspective of semantics, was the first to be called a Super Bowl. The outcome also enabled the American Football League, which would soon merge with the NFL, to gain respectability.

Earl Morrall was not the victim, merely one of 39 players on the losing side.

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