Originally published by the Professional Football Researchers Association in ‘The Coffin Corner,’ Volume 36, Number 5, September/October 2014.
By John Turney
As with many players on the NFL stage, Roman Gabriel had a career that unfolded in distinct parts. Sometimes an injury, such as with Gale Sayers, marks a divide. Other times it’s a trade that causes a separation. Sonny Jurgensen first sat behind Norm Van Brocklin, then had his prime years, and finally split time with Billy Kilmer with the Redskins from 1971 to 1974.
ACT I: The Curtain Raiser
When is ordinary really extraordinary? Or can 'average' be stellar? In Gabriel’s early career, there were glimpses of the star he would become. He was excited to be drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, believing head coach Bob Waterfield would impart the knowledge that Gabriel would need to start his NFL career off on the right foot. The Rams selected him with the number one overall pick in the 1962 NFL draft and then engaged in a bidding war for Gabriel with the Oakland Raiders, who chose him in the AFL draft.
Zeke Bratkowski was entrenched as the starter, and it seemed to Gabriel the new coach had little interest in him.
Gabriel sat most of the season, playing in only two games, until Week 10. The Rams were 1–9. The week before, an unheralded Ron Miller got the start and went 2 for 11 and threw a pick. So, perhaps desperate, Waterfield started Gabriel. The Rams tied the Vikings and Gabriel went on to start the final three games, all Rams losses. But the stats pointed towards improvement. The Rams offense averaged 254 yards in the first 10 games and 331 yards per game with Gabriel starting. It was a trend that continued through Gabriel’s early years.
But the Rams chose quarterback and Heisman winner Terry Baker in the first round in 1963, perhaps because they had little faith in the quarterback they had chosen in 1962. Baker started the first game but Bratkowski received the nod the next four weeks. With the Rams offense averaging 9.2 points a game and 211 yards of total offense, their record stood at 0–5. Gabriel started the final nine games and the Rams went 5–4 in that span, the offense doubled its output in points and averaged over 50 yards a game more in total offense.
Again, it seems that increase in production failed to impress the Rams, who took Bill Munson, another quarterback, in the first round of the 1964 NFL draft. And this time, when the season began Munson was the starting quarterback. Gabriel also injured a knee in preseason and started the season on the injured list. Munson began well, winning two games, tying one, and losing none.
In Week 5, however, the Bears picked Munson off four times and Gabriel finished the game. Gabe started the next six, winning three before giving way to Munson for the rest of the season. With Munson as the starter, the Rams were 2–4–2 and averaged 16 points a game and 235 yards in offense. With Gabriel, the Rams were 3–3, averaged 23 points and just under 300 yards of offense a game.
Harland Svare noted that Gabriel was not accurate as a passer and named Munson the starter. He lasted 10 games, and the Rams record was 1–9. The offense was averaging 272 yards and 16 points a game and that poor production caused Svare to hand the keys to the offense to Gabriel.
Gabe's first opponents were the Green Bay Packers, who would end the season as NFL champions. Gabriel passed for 255 yards and the defense clamped down on the Packers as the Rams won, 21–10. The following week the Rams rolled up 380 yards of offense on the Cardinals for another win.
The next week the Rams faced the Cleveland Browns, who would face the Packers in the NFL Championship Game a few weeks later, and Los Angeles beat them handily. They lost to the mighty Colts in Week 14, 20–17, in a game Baltimore had to win and were forced to play Tom Matte as the quarterback. In the games Gabriel started, the team averaged 27 points and 365 yards of offense.
So when is "average" better than average? From 1962 through 1965, Gabriel started 23 games, and in those games, the Rams were 11–11–1, exactly .500. In the 33 games not started by Gabriel, the Rams were 4–27–2 for a winning percentage of .133.
Moreover, in the games started by Gabriel in that span the Rams averaged 21 points a game and 304 yards of offense; in the others, the Rams averaged 15 points and 256 yards of offense.
In addition, there was the number of “quality wins” to consider such as the win over the eventual conference champions in 1965. In three previous years, there were two other wins over the Packers and wins over contending teams like the Colts and Lions. Over the four-year period of Gabriel’s role as an understudy, his passer rating was 74.0 at a time when the NFL–AFL average was 64.0, and the other Rams quarterbacks combined for a 57.3 rating.
ACT II: The Spotlight
In May 1966, the Raiders offered Gabriel a $100,000 contract for the 1967 season. Head coach George Allen promptly declared Gabriel the starting quarterback, and he remained the Rams starter through 1972. It was, according to Gabriel, Allen’s assurances that he’d play that kept Gabriel from hopping leagues.
The Rams, under Allen, Gabriel and the Fearsome Foursome defense, were winners for the first time since the 1950s, and Gabriel proved himself to be one of the best quarterbacks in football and a star player during that span. The Rams were 8–6 in 1966. Allen brought in running back Tom Moore for that season, and under the system installed by Ted Marchibroda, Moore set a record for catches by a running back with 60. The offense was especially proficient in Week 10 versus the New York Giants when the Rams set a record for most first downs in a game (38) that stood until 1988.
In 1967 the Rams were division champs, going 11–1–2, and Gabriel threw for 2,779 yards and 25 touchdowns. In the final two weeks the Rams beat Green Bay and Baltimore to secure the division title, and both weeks Gabriel was named the AP Offensive Player of the Week for his contributions. The voting for the MVP awards was completed the week before the final game and had it been taken after the final game, when Gabe bested Unitas, perhaps the voting would have gone differently. Gabriel's TD passes and wins topped Unitas.
In 1968 the Rams were 10–1–1 after 12 weeks but two close losses cost them the division crown but Gabriel was still voted to the Pro Bowl. A year later, in 1969, Gabriel was voted the NFL MVP by the AP, UPI and NEA when he threw for 24 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He was also a consensus First-team All-Pro selection.
Daryle Lamonica had more wins in pro football (36). Lamonica, Fran Tarkenton, and Sonny Jurgensen were the only quarterbacks who threw for more touchdowns in those three seasons.
And while Rams receiver Jack Snow was a fine player, he wasn’t in the category as some of those Lamonica, Tarkenton and Jurgensen were throwing to—players such as Charley Taylor, Fred Biletnikoff and speedsters like Homer Jones and Warren Wells. Clearly, Gabriel had arrived at the top of his craft.
The prime of Gabriel’s career, from 1966–1975, was full of such successes. In that decade-long span, only Fran Tarkenton completed more passes and started more games as a winning quarterback (77 to 74), and only Tarkenton and John Hadl threw for more yards and more touchdowns than Gabriel.
With a change in ownership and a desire to go in a new direction, the Rams traded Gabriel to Philadelphia in 1973. Los Angeles had traded for quarterback John Hadl earlier in the year and Gabriel was not happy about it. Offered a king’s ransom for Gabriel, the Rams pulled the trigger on a trade with the Eagles, acquiring star wide receiver Harold Jackson, running back Tony Baker, two first-round picks and a third-round choice.
His skills continually impressed scouts as well. Ermal Allen, the Cowboys top scout said of Gabriel "(he) is the best quarterback in professional football at looking the defensive man off. He'll look one way and then turn and throw it on target the other direction". Allen added, "he has only given up three percent interceptions in his career—far better than anyone else and he doesn't get trapped much. He will throw the ball away if he has to".
The following season the Eagles won four of their first five games, and in the one loss, which came in Week 1 versus the Cardinals, Gabriel just missed on four passes near the goal line in the closing seconds. The Eagles were inches from victory. In Week 6 they lost by a touchdown to Dallas in a classic hard-fought game, then went on to lose the next five in a row, taking their record to 4–7. For the first time in his career, Gabriel was benched, and the Eagles won their last three under Mike Boryla. Boryla did to Gabriel what Gabriel had done to Rams quarterbacks in his early years.
ACT III: The Denouement
Gabriel was a backup for the next two seasons as the curtain started to close on his career. In 1976 Dick Vermeil took over the Eagles head-coaching position and went with the younger Boryla as the starter.
In 1977 the Eagles acquired Ron Jaworski from the Rams and Gabriel was the backup, seeing the field almost exclusively as the holder for placekicks. He did fill in briefly during the first game of the season after Lee Roy Selmon sacked Jaworski and shook him up. Gabriel came into the game to finish the series, completing a 15-yard pass to Vince Papale, which was short of the first down. Jaworski, with the cobwebs out, came back the next series and finished the game. A few weeks later, for the same reason, Gabriel entered the game versus the Lions and threw his final two passes, both incomplete.
Gabriel’s arm strength was his calling card in his early years; he could step into the pass and fire it downfield. He was a noted runner as well. From 1966 through 1972, no Rams running back rushed for more touchdowns than Gabriel, and only 16 running backs in the NFL rushed for more. From 1966 to 1969, Gabriel rushed for 18 touchdowns, which was 11th best in the combined AFL–NFL. And for his career, no QB ran for more touchdowns than Gabriel. Gabriel was the short-yardage runner for the Rams
Said his coach Dick Vermeil: "I had the pleasure of being on the L. A. Rams staff in 1969 when Roman was in his prime. He was as good as the very best at that time. Great competitor, a leader, tougher than any QB playing. He had a very strong arm and was a real worker. No one at that time was preparing to play each week with more effort than Roman was at that time, he was a real student
of the game.
"In 1971, I went back to the Rams with Tommy Prothro as his offensive coordinator and QB coach, a position I did not have the experience to do real well at that time; Roman was always respectful, very helpful and patient with me. I learned a lot from him! He was a true pro. His arm went dead on him during that period, 1971 or ’72, but he hung tough and did the best he could without making excuses. I will always admire this guy and consider him a player that impacted my career and life. I’m a better person for having had the opportunity to coach Roman."
Phil Olsen remembers Gabriel for his toughness: "He was remarkably athletic and, even though this was a time when few athletes trained year round, he was consumed with a desire to be physically fit. He was big and very strong for a quarterback and on many passing plays, he would refuse to go down until two or three defenders had pounded on him. Gabe would simply stand in the pocket and absorb punishment just like a boxer taking body punches from an opponent. He completed a lot of passes while dragging defenders with him. I was rehabbing a knee following surgery in 1971 and spent a lot of time in the training room so I saw a lot of Gabe. Week after week, he would come in for treatment following games.
"He’d have bruises all over his body from the pounding he’d taken. Some weeks, it looked like someone had been beating on him with a sledgehammer. In spite of all the pounding he absorbed, I never heard him complain or grouse about it. He was simply one tough dude."
Gabriel was always proud of his ability to avoid interceptions. When he retired after the 1977 season, he held the NFL record for the lowest interception percentage and held it until Joe Montana broke it. The advent of shorter passes and the West Coast types of offense prevalent now reduce that statistic to an afterthought. At the time, however, it was a remarkable achievement, even when he was compared to his peers such as Unitas, Tarkenton, Jurgensen, Brodie and other great quarterbacks
of the time. Gabriel is now tied for 67th in lowest career interception percentage at 3.3 percent and none of the players ahead of him were active when Gabriel played. To find another person from his era, you have to drop to the 111th spot, to Joe Theismann at 3.8 percent.
To find a true peer of Gabriel (anyone who played in or before 1970) you have to look down to two who are tied for 124th and 132nd, respectively, to find Bill Munson at 4.0 percent and Fran Tarkenton at 4.1.
From 1965 until early 1972, Gabriel started 89 straight games, tops until both Ron Jaworski and Joe Ferguson surpassed it in 1983, with Jaws setting the mark with 116 in 1984. Brett Favre blew the numbers away with his massing 297-game mark, but nothing was made of Gabriel besting the mark of 88 set by Johnny Unitas. Currently, Unitas's 88 games rank tenth and Gabriel’s 89-game streak is ranked ninth.
Gabriel’s NFL accomplishments followed a stellar college career at North Carolina State University, where he was voted All-American twice and as well as being twice voted the ACC Player of the Year. He was voted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1989 and was on the ACC’s 50th Anniversary Football Team announced in 2003.
Gabriel left North Carolina State in 1961 as the school record holder in rushing touchdowns (he still ranks 15th), passing yards (also currently ranks 15th), passing completions (currently 14th), and touchdown passes (currently tied for ninth). His 60.4 percent completion rate is a single-season record was not bettered until 1988 and still ranks as eighth best in N. C. State history, remarkable given where college football has gone in the passing game since 1961. His 34 touchdowns, both running and passing, is still eighth in school annals in that category. while at NC State Gabriel was a two-time All-American and also a two-time ACC Player of the Year in 1960 and 1961 and set 22 school records, nine conference records, and was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame for those accomplishments.
Gabriel left the Rams as the leader in virtually every passing category and even after 40 years, he is still the team record holder in career touchdown passes, the Greatest Show on Turf teams notwithstanding. His five touchdowns in a game is also still a record he holds with Van Brocklin, Waterfield, Vince Ferragamo, Jim Everett and Kurt Warner.
Gabriel’s career, like any great performance for an athlete or an actor, is worthy of our applause and adulation. It certainly has stood the test of time.