“Sure, luck means a lot in football. Not having a good quarterback is bad luck.”—Former Miami Dolphins coach and Football Hall of Famer Don Shula quoted in Norman R. Augustine, Augustine's Laws (1997)
At first, I read the above quote as a quip from Don Shula. But, given certain events in his career—not to mention this past weekend in the NFL playoffs—I think he might have simply been speaking the brutal truth.
After all, Shula—from all accounts, a religious man—must have been thanking the Almighty for much of his career. I’m not talking about the coach having a young Dan Marino or even two other Hall of Fame quarterbacks in their prime, Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese, but also possessing a journeyman QB who, when called on in an emergency to replace the latter two when they were badly injured, performed superbly: Earl Morrall.
When Johnny U. went down with an injury early in the ’68 season, Morrall guided Shula's Baltimore Colts to a 13-1 record, deservedly taking MVP honors. In Super Bowl V, when Unitas was hurt in the big game itself, Morrall stepped in again, this time becoming the first substitute quarterback to rally his team from a deficit to claim victory in the championship contest.
Finally, in the Dolphins’ 1972 season, Morrall—rejoining his former coach, Shula—stepped in yet again when Griese got hurt, keeping the team on track for an undefeated season, before gracefully stepping aside when Griese was ready to take the reins again.
If Shula was watching TV on Sunday, he must have groaned over what the Pittsburgh Steelers did to the Dolphins in their playoff matchup. More particularly, he must have winced as his old team’s backup QB, Matt Moore, was pressed into making his first playoff start when regular QB Ryan Tannehill was injured a few games before. Moore gave it his best shot, but was a sitting duck for much of the day in the face of the Steeler defense (including one brutal hit that left many observers fearing he had a concussion).
The only solace Shula might have taken over the weekend was that, compared with the Dolphins, the luck of the Oakland Raiders was downright catastrophic. Once Derek Carr was felled for the duration with an injury, the Raiders blew their last two regular-season games. The team’s fans, who had not experienced a wild ride to the Super Bowl since 2002, sensed that, unlike Jeff Hostetler with the New York Giants a quarter-century ago or Tom Brady with the New England Patriots a decade later, a backup would not leap off the bench and convey them to the Promised Land.
It was bad enough that Matt McGloin joined Carr among the injured before this weekend’s playoff game against the Houston Texans. Left to pick up the fallen standard was rookie Connor Cook (pictured), third on the depth chart, in his first start. Ever. Let’s just say he looked like a deer caught in the headlights.
By the end of the 27-14 loss, Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio must have felt afflicted not just with bad luck, but with very bad luck.