By Zane Miller
As Los Angeles Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel entered the 1969 season, he sought to continue his success with the team since taking over the starting job in 1966, as he had earned a winning record in all three of his seasons as full-time starter. Despite a 10-3-1 record in 1968, the Rams missed the playoffs and were ready to remedy that going into 1969. However, they would not only make the postseason, but would also be the beneficiaries of Gabriel having his most memorable season in the NFL.
Gabriel’s best regular season performance of the year came on October 5th at home against the New Orleans Saints, as he threw for four touchdowns and 228 yards with no interceptions with the Rams easily taking a 36-17 victory to improve to 3-0 on the season. The team would keep their undefeated record alive until a late-season collapse saw them lose their final three games of the season, with Gabriel at quarterback for every game of 1969.
Gabriel completed the 1969 campaign with a league-leading 24 touchdown passes and a sixth-place tally of 3,102 passing yards, just 70 back of fifth-place Craig Morton of the Dallas Cowboys. This impressive showing led to Gabriel being named as a first-team All-Pro along with earning MVP honors, both of which would be the only time he would claim these awards during his career.
With the Rams earning the Coastal Division title, they would travel to take on the Minnesota Vikings on December 27th. Although Los Angeles was able to pull ahead to a 17-7 lead at halftime, the rest of the contest would be all Vikings as the Rams could only muster three points in the second half, with the Vikings winning it 23-20. Despite the loss, Gabriel threw for two touchdowns and 150 yards, finding rookie tight end Bob Klein for a touchdown in the first quarter and veteran tight end Billy Truax in the second. However, a couple of crucial mistakes would help seal the Rams’ fate, as Gabriel also threw an interception and was sacked for a safety late in the game to compound the team’s second half collapse. However, thanks to the Playoff Bowl, the Rams still had one more chance to end their season on a high note.
The final Playoff Bowl would take place on January 3rd, 1970, as the Rams traveled to the neutral site of Miami to take on the Dallas Cowboys. Although the matchup was only a consolation game, the Rams took full advantage, winning in a 31-0 shutout after leading 14-0 at halftime. Gabriel was dominant throughout the game, throwing for four touchdowns and 224 yards, with two touchdown passes going to wide receiver Jack Snow.
Gabriel continued to play for Los Angeles through the 1972 season, before heading to the East Coast to take the starting role for the Philadelphia Eagles. This stint would not go nearly as well, as Gabriel had a losing record in each of his three seasons as starter with the Eagles and would retire following the 1977 campaign.
After retiring from on-field action, Gabriel joined the NFL on CBS broadcasting crew in 1978 and 1979, before becoming the head coach of the NCAA’s Cal Poly-Pomona Broncos from 1980 to 1982. He briefly entered the United States Football League ranks as the offensive coordinator for the Boston Breakers in their inaugural 1983 season, but would not be retained as the team relocated to New Orleans the following year. Gabriel resurfaced in 1991 with a head coaching role once again, this time with the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks of the World League of American Football, later better known as NFL Europe. However, the team went winless and disbanded following their debut season. Gabriel’s #18 jersey was officially retired by North Carolina State University, his alma mater, and would be inducted into the North Carolina State Athletic Hall of Fame in 2012.
With all of the statistics in mind, I grade Gabriel’s 1969 season at an A, as the first-round playoff exit holds back an MVP-worthy regular season performance.
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