Didinger: Roman Gabriel re-energizes his career with the Fire High Gang

They were known as the Fire High Gang, the Eagles' receiving corps of 1973: wideouts Harold Carmichael and Don Zimmerman and tight end Charle Young.

Carmichael was 6-8, Young was 6-5, and Zimmerman was 6-4, so they were inviting targets for quarterback Roman Gabriel.

"All I have to do," Gabriel said, "is fire high."

The name stuck.

They had their coming out party on October 14, 1973. The Eagles were winless 0-3-1 but they were making progress in their first season under head coach Mike McCormack. They tied the Giants, 23-23, in New York's final game at Yankee Stadium and they lost a 27-26 heartbreaker to Buffalo when kicker Tom Dempsey missed a short field goal in the final seconds.

"We're really close," Gabriel said. "I know people don't want to hear it but it's the truth."

The Eagles finally had their breakthrough in Week 5 at St. Louis and it was the Fire High Gang that led the way. Carmichael set a career high with 12 receptions for 187 yards and two touchdowns. Young had two catches for 44 yards. Zimmerman had five receptions for 58 yards, including the game-winner in the Eagles' 24-23 victory.

"It was a long time coming," McCormack said, "but I'm really proud of the team. We've had some tough losses, they don't come much tougher than the last one (the loss in Buffalo), but the guys never quit. We were down in the fourth quarter today but they kept fighting. Hopefully, this is the start of something."

It was the start of a slight uptick in the Eagles' fortunes. They would win two of the next three games, including a 30-16 win over Dallas ending an 11-game losing streak to their division rival. They split their final 10 games to finish with a 5-8-1 mark, which might not sound like much but represented a big improvement over the 2-11-1 record of the previous year.

The story of the season was the arrival of Gabriel, who was acquired in a huge trade with the Los Angeles Rams. The Eagles dealt star receiver Harold Jackson and two first-round draft picks to the Rams for the 33-year-old Gabriel, who played 11 seasons in Los Angeles and was the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1969.

Gabriel developed a sore arm in his final season with the Rams, which is why the team was willing to trade him, but a grueling conditioning program with martial artist Gus Hoefling put the zip back on Gabriel's fastball and he found new life throwing passes to the Fire High Gang.

The day in St. Louis, Gabriel completed 29 of 45 pass attempts for 379 yards and three touchdowns. His passer rating was 113.1. In the fourth quarter, he brought the Eagles from behind, throwing a 27-yard touchdown pass to Carmichael then driving the team the length of the field to hit Zimmerman with a 24-yard scoring pass in the final seconds.

The Cardinals put two defenders on Carmichael and jammed Young with a linebacker, but they left Zimmerman one-on-one and Gabriel took advantage. Zimmerman was a rail-thin 195 pounds, a 12th-round draft pick (No. 300 overall) from tiny Northeast Louisiana University (the same school that produced current head coach Doug Pederson), but he made the catch and broke a tackle to get across the goal line.

"The trade for Gabe made us a football team," McCormack said. "We thought we were trading for a leader, but we got a super leader instead."

Gabriel was re-energized by the move to Philadelphia. He established career highs in pass completions (270), completion percentage (58.7), and yards passing (3,219) that year. His yardage and his 23 touchdown passes led the league and earned him Comeback Player of the Year honors.

The Fire High Gang put up big numbers, too. Carmichael led the league in receptions (67) and yardage (1,116), while averaging 16.7 yards per catch. Young had 55 catches for 854 yards (15.5-yard average) and was NFC Rookie of the Year. Zimmerman had 22 receptions for 220 yards. They accounted for 18 of Gabriel's 23 touchdown passes.

"That was a fun year," Gabriel said, years later looking back over his NFL career, which ended after the 1977 season in Philadelphia. "I was pretty much written off after my last year with the Rams. But the Eagles took a chance on me and I was so grateful. It was a young team that was trying to build something and they wanted me to be a part of it. I loved Philadelphia. It's a great city with great fans. It's still a great memory.".

"It was a different feeling, throwing to receivers who were taller than I was," the 6-5 Gabriel said, "but I enjoyed it."

An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here. He is also the author of The Eagles Encyclopedia: Champions Edition which is in bookstores now.

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