A few graybeard quarterbacks such as Greg Landry, Johnnie Walton and John Reaves have found the United States Football League a pleasant stage for a final act and a decent paycheck. Craig Morton, who spent 18 seasons as a quarterback in the NFL, is opting instead for a second career.
Even though he never before coached in his life, Morton now has the job from which Red Miller was fired by Denver Gold owner Ron Blanding two weeks ago.
In his debut last week, Morton coached the Gold to a 21-19 win over Birmingham. Tonight he will try to extend his record to 2-0 when the Gold (5-8) plays the Washington Federals (1-12) at Mile High Stadium (9 p.m. EDT, WMAL-AM).
Blanding fired Miller after a Gold losing streak reached four games. Miller, who in the NFL had a 40-22 record as coach of the Broncos, was popular with the Denver fans and his dismissal caused a local ruckus. Offensive coordinator Whitey Dovell resigned in protest.
Blanding thought Miller's coaching style was too conservative; Miller argued that Blanding had refused to spend enough on quality players. The disputes continued, in private and public, until the firing on May 19.
After a week, and a fifth consecutive loss, Blanding replaced interim head coach Charley Armey with Morton, and last week the Gold beat the Stallions to close within one game of Los Angeles and Oakland in the race for the Pacific Division lead.
Morton, who played quarterback for Miller and Dan Reeves in Denver as well as for Tom Landry in Dallas, has found that diplomacy is an integral part of his job.
"It's been an, uh, enlightening experience," Morton said. "This is obviously all new to me. I've never coached before and I'm getting the chance to do all the things I ever wanted to do when I was playing. I'll try to build on Red's system and add a few things of my own.
"There's no resentment between Red and me. I hope all the excitement about that is in the past. We're friends and we talked. When I got the job, Red said he hoped I'd do a great job."
Unlike some cities that have greeted their USFL teams with varying brands of indifference, Denver has supported the Gold. Most USFL officials call it the most successful franchise in the league. Games at Mile High Stadium regularly attract 35,000. Blanding had no intention of alienating those fans and replaced one popular coach with a local favorite.
Federals Coach Ray Jauch, who has experienced rumors of dismissal ever since owner Berl Bernhard promised changes after the fifth game of the team's ongoing nine-game losing streak, said, "I think things have quieted down in Denver. Either you stand behind your coach or you let him go. The owner in Denver never stood behind Red."
Bernhard has vowed his support of Jauch, despite reports that the team had searched for replacements, including Calvin Hill.
Morton may have Blanding's support but he does not yet have a great deal of talent to work with. The Gold has had quarterback problems all season and is now starting Fred Mortensen. In its victory over the Stallions, Denver gained only 171 yards in total offense. Running backs Larry Canada amd Harry Sydney are responsible for most of the team's offense.
"It's their defense that looks tough to me," said Jauch. "They are a very physical team."
The Federals, who appear to be improving in recent weeks without ever winning, will be hurting at the wide receiver position.
Mike Holmes will miss his second game in a row with a knee injury and Mike Harris, who suffered a compound fracture of a finger on his left hand, may also miss the game. Vince Kinney, who once played for the Broncos with Morton, will start if Harris is unable to play.