The Legacy of the Position: Rams, Quarterback
While the needs vary each year, the NFL Draft brings hope and optimism to every single franchise. Many view this hope as being for the fortunes of the franchise and in a lot of ways they are correct. New faces to the organization can spark championship dreams. But there is another kind of hope that needs to be discussed. The hope is that player lives up to the standards set before him by those who once stood in his shoes for the franchise. According to numerous reports, including Pro Football Focus, the Los Angeles Rams need to replenish their quarterback room. Let's take a look at their illustrious history of the position and the standards that have already been set.
When one thinks of Cleveland, one rarely think of high-flying attacks through the air. The weather is just a bit too cold and the sky just a little too overcast for an offense predicated on the pass to truly flourish. In their early days, the Cleveland Rams relied on running backs to pass the ball, players such as Bob Snyder, Parker Hall and Mike Kabealo. While Hall was named an All-Pro in 1939, the team still relied heavily on the ground, not the air.
That philosophy began to change in 1945 when they drafted Bob Waterfield out of UCLA, As the first true quarterback in team history, Waterfield shone brightly on the biggest stage as a rookie. In that magnificent season, he won the NFL championship and was named the league MVP.
Even before the team had finished its championship run, they knew that they would have to leave town. There was a new football league emerging the following year, the AAFC, and it featured a team from Cleveland led by an Ohio icon, Paul Brown. The Rams knew that they could never compete with the allure of Paul Brown, so they left for sunny Los Angeles where Waterfield could further develop his cannon arm.
By 1950, Bob Waterfield was thrown into the first great quarterback controversy in league history. The Rams had drafted fellow future Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin out of Oregon the year before and wanted to give him an opportunity to start. All year long and right through the championship game against the Browns, the two battled for supremacy With both starting half of the games that year. Bob Waterfield saw the writing on the wall and despite his league-leading 57.3% completion percentage and a Pro Bowl invitation, he began to ponder retirement.
What was phenomenal about this particular controversy is that teams stuck in a similarly sticky situation usually decide on one or the other sometime before the playoffs. But the Rams never did so and paid a steep price in that year's championship game, losing a heartbreaking game to the Browns by just two points.
The following year allowed less drama in the quarterback room as Waterfield started all but two games and was invited to his final Pro Bowl while leading the team to victory over the Browns in the NFL Championship Game. That's when things got interesting. While both quarterbacks played, Bob Waterfield struggled as the starter and despite leading two touchdown drives and doing well as the team's placekicker, coughed up two costly interceptions.
Meanwhile, Norm Van Brocklin was waiting in the wings, knowing deep within his soul that he was ready for his championship moment. That moment came late in the fourth quarter as he lofted a gorgeous 73-yard bomb to Tom Fears, giving the Rams a lead that they would never relinquish. At last, the City of Angels had an NFL champion all of its own.
From there, Bob Waterfield's career wound down. Like two years before, he started half of the team's games in 1952 but the team didn't win anything that year and he decided to retire when the season concluded, giving the starter's duties entirely to his faithful adversary.
When he took over the reins full-time, Norm Van Brocklin blossomed as the Rams' starting quarterback, going to three straight Pro Bowls. Individual accolades aside, the Rams began to get older as some of their best offensive weapons such as Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch and Tom Fears both retired near the end of the decade. Without Bob Waterfield breathing down his neck for playing time, Norm Van Brocklin could never win the NFL championship with the Rams and was out of the city by 1958, going to Philadelphia where his legend became lore.
Just a few years after Van Brocklin's departure, the team drafted Roman Gabriel out of North Carolina State University. Standing 6'5" and weighing 225 pounds, the man was seemingly built out of granite and sent from Heaven itself. But looks can be deceiving and the young quarterback struggled with inconsistency throughout much of the first five years of his career.
The 1967 season turned out to be his turning point as he went 11-1-2 as a starter and threw a career-best 25 touchdown passes. He would never top that number for the rest of his career. That season was the start of something special for him as well as the Rams. Beginning that year, Roman Gabriel would reach three straight Pro Bowls while consistently leading his team to the playoffs. His time in Los Angeles peaked in 1969 when he was voted the NFL MVP after throwing 24 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions while passing for 2,549 yards and completing 54.4% of his passes.
But despite his consistency over those three years, he could never lead his team to the championship and by 1972 that had gotten old for management. Like Norm Van Brocklin nearly 15 years earlier, Roman Gabriel left for Philadelphia in 1973 where he found a fountain of youth for a brief moment of glory and was invited to the Pro Bowl in his first year as an Eagle
After Roman Gabriel left, the Rams spent a lot of years searching for "Mr. Right". They enjoyed the last great year of John Hadl in 1973 when he was named an All-Pro. After Hadl, they enjoyed the services of James Harris who not only was invited to the Pro Bowl in 1974, but was the only Black quarterback in the league, bringing hope to those who strove to be in his cleats. Pat Haden took over in 1977, promptly made the Pro Bowl that year and would have led the team all the way to the Super Bowl two years later had he not gotten hurt early in the year. Instead, it was Vince Ferragamo who started much of 1979 and led the team to the Super Bowl where they would lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After losing a heartbreaker in the Rose Bowl Stadium, the Rams entered quarterback purgatory for the next two decades. At first, it was Haden and Ferragamo who battled for the starting spot in the early 1980s. Then a long succession of afterthoughts followed including Jeff Kemp, Dieter Brock, Steve Bartkowski, Jim Everett, Chris Miller and Tony Banks.
By 1999, much had changed for the organization. they had moved from Los Angeles to Saint Louis in 1995 and had yet to reach the playoffs since losing to the 49ers in the 1989 NFC Championship Game. Going into the 1999 season, coach Dick Vermeil was running out of patience with his team and was getting desperate for a winner. So that offseason, he drafted receiver Torry Holt and traded for running back Marshall Faulk and quarterback Trent Green. At the time, Green seemed perfect for new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's aggressive attack.
However, Green was hurt during the second to last preseason game and the team had to quickly turn to his unheard-of understudy, Kurt Warner. At the time, much of Warner's story was unknown to the NFL world. Soon, people would hear about his being a graveyard shift stock boy in a Hy-Vee grocery store in the middle of Iowa while lighting up the scoreboard as the quarterback of the Iowa Barnstormers, an Arena League team. He wanted a chance in the NFL. He needed one and when his time came, he was ready.
The team rallied around Kurt Warner that year as he led them to the Super Bowl, where they defeated the Titans to claim their first championship since 1951. This was just the beginning of one of the best feel-good stories in NFL history. After his league and Super Bowl MVP year, Kurt Warner won the league MVP again in 2001 but left the Super Bowl disappointed as the Rams lost to the soon-to-be dynastic Patriots.
After that dark night in New Orleans, Kurt Warner's time in Saint Louis quickly came to an end as the team turned to Marc Bulger by 2003. Warner was gone by 2004 as Bulger would eventually earn two Pro Bowl invitations, but lead the team to the playoffs just in 2003 and 2004, never more.
After losing to the Falcons in the 2004 playoffs, the Rams fell on some really hard times and were quickly stuck in the muck of never having a solution at the game's most visible position. They thought they had something in Sam Bradford, the first overall pick in 2010, but after tearing his ACL in his second year, he was never the same and could never shake the notion of being injury-prone. After Bradford petered out, the team looked to Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis and Nick Foles as the answer to their conundrum. They were not and by 2016 (by way of trade) they owned the first overall pick in the NFL Draft, selecting Cal's Jared Goff.
By now, the Rams had just moved back to Los Angeles and were looking for a fresh start. They hoped that Goff would be the start of a new, glorious era for the franchise. Even though he struggled as a rookie, it turns out that it was just the coaching staff that was weighing him down. After Sean McVay was hired as the Rams' coach in 2017, Goff's career blossomed. While his potential eventually evaporated, Goff still led the team to the playoffs in three out of the four years he spent learning from his youthful coach.
By 2021, the team was hungry for another Super Bowl triumph and traded Goff to the Lions for Matthew Stafford. Stafford turned out to be exactly what the team needed to get over the hump and he won the Super Bowl in his first year as a Ram.
So here is where we stand. the 2022 season was an absolute disaster for the Rams as injuries and poor play doomed the franchise from the very beginning. Somewhere along the way, talk began to circulate about Matthew Stafford's health. He's in his mid-30s and isn't getting any younger. Logically, it would make sense for the Rams to at least consider drafting a quarterback to soak up any knowledge Stafford may spew. So who will it be? With their highest pick in the draft being in the early second round, will the team draft Florida's Anthony Richardson? Or will they somehow luck into projected first-rounder Kentucky's Will Levis? We shall see this weekend whom the Rams select.