At first glance, you wouldn’t think him to be one of the most electric players in the NFL. Standing at 5-foot-8 and a generous listed 165 pounds, he’s somehow one of the handful of talents in the league that has the ability to score a touchdown on any given play he touches the ball. A man that can simultaneously act as an offensive catalyst and demoralize a defense in the blink of an eye. A player who has to fit the constraints of an offense perfectly. Who has to have a coach that knows how to utilize him best and keep him fresh given his diminutive stature. It’s not an easy task, but it’s worthwhile from a roster evaluation perspective. Because if you’re missing out on what he offers to your team, you’re not only passing over a game changer, but a dynamic leader in his own right.
Despite the odds, that player is Taylor Gabriel, who has dealt with concerns about his size his entire football playing career.
Somehow, from high school in Texas and college in Abilene Christian, to the NFL, these natural obstacles have never quelled Gabriel. For good reason, they’re always sitting there in the back of his mind. That’s because those criticisms have become his fuel. These doubts have become his battle cry, as one of the smallest players in the NFL assuredly has one of the biggest hearts.
Regardless of every circumstance, Gabriel has built a reputation in league circles. Defensive minds across the board understand that landing a well-struck shot on the receiver takes away his threat to collapse a game plan. This is a constant struggle for Gabriel. But no one has ever been able to properly hit him with that in mind. He’s too quick and elusive for that. He’s too smart and savvy to leave himself susceptible to a catastrophic injury.
In general, Gabriel is oozing with too much confidence in his own abilities to let that happen. From Berea, Ohio with the Browns, to Flowery Branch, Georgia with the Falcons, he’s always been a professional who speaks his mind first, then chooses to back his assessments up. Only a select few are capable of speaking their mind and then justifying that boldness.
“There’s nothing that I’m not able to do,” Gabriel told Bleacher Report last August.
Gabriel has been (unfairly) compared to game greats such as the Steelers’ Antonio Brown. Others would downplay the comparison, attempting to lower expectations. Gabriel chooses to relish in being seen as one of football’s best names. Unprompted, he chooses to believe he can always strive for better, a mentality that has served him well.
“Not saying I’ll be Antonio Brown, but the little things he does I feel I can be similar with. In and out of his breaks,” said Gabriel. “Being confident in catching the ball and turning a four-yard catch into a 60-yard touchdown. Those are things I do have in my game, but at the same time it’s opportunity.”
There can be a tendency to laugh in someone’s face if they’re not backing down from a comparison with a future Hall of Famer. Especially when no aspect of their career has lived up to same level of impact so far. But that cackling drives Gabriel, because he knows it’s present, even when he can’t see it. At least, he convinces himself that it is, for his own sake to continually shove his success in those who actually do laugh.
“Small football players aren’t supposed to make it,” he’ll remember people telling him. “Football is too dangerous for you,” he stows as a reminder from those who are supposed to support him. None of those words matter, nor do they have any substance. Gabriel is proof.
In order to be the best, you have to believe you’re the best, bar none. Gabriel certainly isn’t lacking in that trust in himself.
That noted comparison confidence came while Gabriel was still riding high with the Falcons, the team that gave him another chance after being released by the NFL’s perennial punchline in the Browns. Cleveland didn’t know what it had in Gabriel, and the organization didn’t seem focused on finding out more. A fact that Gabriel’s used to by now, but not uncomfortable with.
For when you’re as small as Gabriel is, every perceived slight is an actual slight. It has to be. If he was going to survive as a professional football player, he couldn’t be sustained off endless pats on the back. The occasional critic serves as a juxtaposition for him to constantly put his best foot forward.
Ironically, the Falcons moved on from Gabriel too, but not before experiencing the greatest of hardships and achievements with him. Not before appreciating what he offered to their team and offense for two seasons on a grand scale. This time, the departure was different. This time, it was a springboard that has Gabriel discussing the simultaneous top peak and failure of his career to this day.
The infamous 25-point blown lead by the Falcons in Super Bowl LI became an immediate internet meme. It became a subject of humor and revelation of one of the most elaborate collapses in sports history. One that Atlanta was forced to relive over and over for the past year, and will continue to have it replayed for posterity. Gabriel was a part of that unfortunate wrong side of history. A fact that will live on with him until he and whatever team he plays for can finish the long climb.
The next team he gets to make that venture with is the Bears. As one of the rare current players on Chicago’s roster to have Super Bowl playing experience, Gabriel laments that that the defeat is still fresh on many’s minds.
“It was heartbreaking, to still be talking about it a few years from now, it was very heartbreaking,” said Gabriel. “At the same time, I’m focused on what we have going on here. I’m trying to get back to the Super Bowl as a Chicago Bear.”
Gabriel can appreciate those events in NRG Stadium as another teaching tool for the Bears around him that may go through the same experience. To appreciate the moment if they get that opportunity at Halas Hall. To make the most of every climb, because you don’t know when you’ll have the tools to get back up again.
Remember, Gabriel’s not supposed to be here, playing at this level. He wasn’t supposed to last this long. NFL defenders were supposed to punish him and make him regret deciding football was a worthwhile endeavor. Yet there he is, running with the top athletes in the world. In some cases, running past them altogether and creating highlight reels on the fly. He’s the archetype of being thankful for what you have, where you are, and where you’re going
To his credit, at 27-years-old with an abundance of seasoning as a veteran that’s seen it all, Gabriel is as cool and calm as ever. That’s preparation that will show him the light with the Bears, and in turn reflect on Chicago’s team as a whole.
If Gabriel can make it in football, why can’t they? If he can excel and embarrass defenders attempting to take his head off, why should they be afraid of a fresh era of potential success? If he’s filled with a multitude of swagger, talent, and a small dose of humility, why can’t they stay grounded while enjoying themselves?
This is a receiver that’s a testament to the stars the Bears are reaching for. Gabriel is a literal example of the good will a team is trying to establish when no one quite believes in them yet. That’s improved when he’s on your team, offering factual, first-hand evidence to the dissenters on an individual basis every day.
More than anyone with the Bears, Gabriel has the most applicable experience of playing with a high-flying, high octane offense.
The 2016 Falcons were one of history’s most unstoppable buzzsaw offenses. They had a multitude of offensive options that struck fear in defensive coordinators attempting to decide what to take away. This offense that came in waves is how they built that fateful 25-point lead in a Super Bowl. It’s how Gabriel came away with one of the nastier routes run in a national view on an international stage in the big game: a 35-yard gain that doesn’t get enough acclaim.
The key to this explosive offense was league MVP Matt Ryan. The maestro that kept everyone humming, in sync, and prepared to attack at a moment’s notice. Ryan, as with any great quarterback, was the catalyst that had mastered the use of Gabriel and every weapon in Atlanta’s offense that made them so precarious to deal with. His mastery morphed the Falcons into the death machine they became.
If the Bears are going to accomplish the same. If they’re going to help Gabriel get over his heartbreak in his third NFL stop, then the symphony conductor will be Mitchell Trubisky. The quarterback who acts as the face of the franchise and possesses the keys to the car too.
After working with a similarly talented and cerebral passer in Atlanta, Gabriel is wasting no time buttering up the man under center in Chicago. Now’s the time to get in his good graces. Now’s the time to freshen up on offensive concepts and let people know of your presence at each mention, even when they’ll absolutely never forget. Gabriel’s relationship with Trubisky is crucial in the light of never letting the quarterback down, should he test his faith in him, and setting the tone from the outset.
“The guy can sling it, man,” said the big play Gabriel, talking his second-year quarterback up. “The first thing I asked him when I signed was ‘how’s your deep ball?’”
It’s through these light friendships with the Bears that Gabriel can ingratiate himself into the re-energized atmosphere with the organization. How he can inject himself into an evolving culture that focuses on fun, creativity, and being on the cutting edge. How he, his quarterback in Trubisky, and teammates focus on being great, and staying great.
If there’s one thing the undersized Gabriel can teach these Bears, it’s to treasure the moments and journey to come. The smiles and celebrations they’ll share. The grind and toll on their bodies that they’ll sacrifice for the ultimate goal. To not waste their dedication and close bond in a tight-knit brotherhood should they get to the Super Bowl together.
Because if they get that oh so rare opening, it’ll be time to squeeze out every drip of triumph in the moment as possible. This is a team on the rise that can’t afford to be wasteful, or ride too high or low with momentum. To stay the course. It’s a lesson Gabriel is already accustomed to that he’s more than willing to apply once more.
“Not taking anything for granted, I think that’s a lesson you can learn,” Gabriel heartily embraced about playing at the pinnacle. “It’s football, man. It can switch from down to down within seconds.”
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.