June 8, 2013

1973: Eagles Pay Heavy Price in Trade with Rams for Roman Gabriel

On June 8, 1973 the Philadelphia Eagles took a major step in revamping their offense by acquiring QB Roman Gabriel from the Los Angeles Rams. The acquisition of the 32-year-old quarterback came at great cost, however – they gave up All-Pro WR Harold Jackson, FB Tony Baker, and their first round draft choices for 1974 and ’75 plus a third round choice for 1975.

Gabriel had been taken by the Rams in the first round of the 1962 NFL draft out of North Carolina State (second overall). Big, especially for his time at 6’5” and 220 pounds, and with an accurate throwing arm, he showed potential during his first four seasons but shared time with Zeke Bratkowski, Terry Baker, and Bill Munson. The arrival of George Allen as head coach in 1966 brought improvement to the team in general and Gabriel in particular, who no longer faced challenges for the starting job. Operating in a ball control offense that complemented a ferocious defense, Gabriel took few risks and threw few interceptions. Over the course of the five seasons through 1970, the Rams went 49-17-4 during the regular season, although they lost both of their postseason games. The big quarterback was selected to the Pro Bowl three times (1967, ’68, and ’69) and was a consensus NFL MVP selection in 1969.

Things began to unravel after Allen’s departure following the 1970 season, and Gabriel suffered with tendonitis in his throwing elbow in ’72. His numbers dropped appreciably as he passed for 2027 yards (his lowest total since 1965) and he tossed more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (12).

Earlier in the offseason, the Rams acquired QB John Hadl from San Diego and Gabriel sought a trade. Because he had a no-trade, as well as no-cut, clause in his contract, he filed suit against the Rams, saying that his no-trade clause had been invalidated when Carroll Rosenbloom became owner of the Rams through a franchise swap for the Baltimore Colts with Robert Irsay.

Since Gabriel’s approval was necessary for any trade to occur, he was allowed to negotiate with other teams and agreed to terms with the Eagles the week before the deal, with the condition that a trade could be worked out. The suit was withdrawn in order to clear the way for the transaction with Philadelphia, but Rosenbloom, reacting to negative local press, nearly called off the trade at the last minute.

With regard to the players the Rams received in the trade, WR Harold Jackson was returning to the organization he had been with originally. A 12th round draft pick by LA in 1968, he appeared in just two games on special teams and was traded to the Eagles. His star rose quickly in Philadelphia as he led the NFL in pass receiving yards in ’69 with 1116 while catching 65 passes and scoring nine touchdowns. In four years with Philadelphia he caught a total of 215 passes for 3493 yards (16.2 avg.) and 21 TDs and was twice selected to the Pro Bowl, including after a 1972 season in which he led the league in both pass receiving (62 catches) and yards (1048).

FB Tony Baker played for the Saints before coming to Philadelphia, gaining selection to the Pro Bowl in 1969 when he led the NFL in average gain per carry (4.8) while rushing for 642 yards on 134 attempts and catching 34 passes for 352 more yards and another TD. Dealt to the Eagles during the ’71 season, he was coming off a year in which he ran the ball 90 times for 322 yards (3.6 avg.). He had nearly been traded to Atlanta during the ’72 season for RB Jim “Cannonball” Butler, but Butler flunked the team physical. The acquisition of FB Norm Bulaich from the Colts made Baker expendable.

The Eagles were coming off a 2-11-1 record in 1972 and were especially dreadful on offense, despite the presence of Jackson. They ranked at the bottom of the league in points scored (145) and touchdowns (12). Veteran QB Pete Liske gave way to John Reaves, the team’s first round draft choice out of Florida, and while Reaves had his moments, he also lost all of his starts. Head Coach Ed Khayat was fired and successor Mike McCormack sought to bolster the attack.

Gabriel did indeed make a difference in 1973. Dubbed “The Messiah” by the media and hopeful fans, his offseason regimen of martial arts training helped in overcoming his arm problems. 6’8” WR Harold Carmichael took over Harold Jackson’s place in the starting lineup with admirable results as he led the NFL in catches (67) and receiving yards (1116). Together with 6’4” rookie TE Charle Young and 6’3” WR Don Zimmerman, the receiving corps became known as “The Fire High Gang”. Gabriel led the NFL in pass attempts (460), completions (270), yards (3219), and TD passes (23) and he was selected to the Pro Bowl as well as receiving Comeback Player of the Year recognition. The team scored 310 points and 34 touchdowns, and while the record was still under .500 at 5-8-1, it was a notable improvement.

Gabriel played another four years with the Eagles, but with far less success. When a strike by the NFL Players Association delayed the start of training camps in 1974, Gabriel chose to report after three weeks and prior to a settlement, which damaged his relationship with his teammates. The club started out at 4-1 but then lost six straight games and Coach McCormack benched Gabriel in favor of rookie QB Mike Boryla for the final three contests of the season. His numbers declined to 1867 passing yards with 9 TD passes and 12 interceptions.

Gabriel regained the starting job in 1975 but lost it again to Boryla during a poor season that proved to be the last for McCormack. With the arrival of Dick Vermeil as head coach in ’76, he remained in a backup role for the last two years of his career, first to Boryla and then Ron Jaworski. Overall with the Eagles, Gabriel completed 661 of 1185 passes (55.8 %) for 7221 yards and 47 touchdowns with 37 interceptions. The team went 12-25-1 during his starts.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the Rams improved to 12-2 and won the NFC West in 1973 under new Head Coach Chuck Knox. Harold Jackson (pictured below) maintained his All-Pro form, catching fewer passes in a ball control offense (40) but averaging 21.9 yards per reception as he gained 874 yards and scored 13 TDs, including four in one game in which he accumulated 238 yards on 7 catches against the Cowboys. In five years with the Rams, he was selected to the Pro Bowl on three occasions. Tony Baker, utilized as a short-yardage specialist, ran the ball 85 times for 344 yards and 7 TDs. He lasted just one more year before moving on to San Diego.

The first round draft choices that the Rams obtained in the Gabriel deal were used to take RB John Cappelletti, the Heisman Trophy winner out of Penn State, in 1974 and G Dennis Harrah from the Univ. of Miami in ’75. The third round pick in 1975 went for Auburn TE Dan Nugent. Cappelletti was a serviceable back in LA for five years before moving on to the Chargers, rushing for a total of 2246 yards. Harrah became a mainstay on the offensive line for 13 seasons and was selected to the Pro Bowl six times. Nugent saw no action with the Rams and, converted to guard, was traded to the Redskins in 1976 for two draft choices.

The Gabriel trade was typical of deals made by the Rams that allowed them to stockpile high draft picks. They remained contenders throughout the decade, going to the playoffs in eight straight seasons and reaching the Super Bowl once. Meanwhile, the Eagles traded away more high draft choices in 1974 for LB Bill Bergey, who helped solidify the defense. They remained a mediocre team, breaking even at 7-7 that year and dropping to 4-10 in 1975. The situation would not improve until 1978, Dick Vermeil’s third year with the franchise. Ultimately, Roman Gabriel would not be a part of the team’s rise, and despite his fine first year with the club, the trade ultimately proved to be more of a hindrance to the club’s progress than a benefit.