1973 Los Angeles Rams: An Era Of Success Begins

 In 1965, the NFL expanded to have four teams per conference make the playoffs. They retained that format after merging with the AFL in 1970. But in spite of the more generous playoff standards (albeit still stingy by the standards of our own day), the Rams only sniffed postseason play twice over the ensuing eight years. It’s not that they were uncompetitive—there had been some notable near-misses. But they weren’t getting to the Dance. The 1973 Los Angeles Rams started a new era—they hired Chuck Knox as the head coach and started an eight-year run of going to postseason play.

Knox wasn’t the only—or even the most notable—new addition to the Rams in ’73. The front office traded for veteran quarterback John Hadl from San Diego. While Hadl’s completion percentage (52.3) and interception percentage (4.3) were at or below the middle of the league, his 7.8 yards-per-attempt ranked second among starting quarterbacks. That, combined with the team’s success, got the 33-year-old quarterback runner-up status in the 1973 NFL MVP voting.

Hadl’s big-play target was Harold Jackson, an All-Pro who caught 40 balls for nearly 22 yards a catch. The running game was led by 1,000-yard rusher Lawrence McCutcheon, who ran behind Pro Bowl left guard Tom Mack and averaged better than five yards a pop. Fullback Jim Bertelsen was another Pro Bowler, rolling up 854 yards. The Ram offense scored more points than anyone in the NFL.

The defense had a terrific front four. While not the original “Fearsome Foursome” of NFL lore from the 1960s, these Rams still had a Pro Bowl defensive end in Jack Youngblood, who recorded 16 ½ sacks. Merlin Olsen was one of the game’s elite defensive tackles. Larry Brooks and Fred Dryer were terrific pass rushers themselves. The front seven was further augmented by Pro Bowl linebacker Isiah Robertson, and the Ram defense ranked fourth in the league for points allowed.

Los Angeles opened on the road with a late afternoon start in Kansas City. The Chiefs were a consistent contender, and they would have a winning season in 1973. The Rams were a slight underdog. But Hadl threw a pair of first-half touchdown passes. McCutcheon ran for 120 yards on 21 carries. Bertelsen got the rock 28 times and muscled for 143 yards. L.A. churned out a 23-13 win.

The home opener was against the Atlanta Falcons, a division rival in the NFC West as it existed through 2001. Hadl went 12/15 for 142 yards. A balanced rushing attack produced over 200 yards. The Rams blew out what would prove to be a good Falcon team, 31-zip.

Knox would eventually earn the nickname “Ground Chuck” for his success running the football here in Los Angeles, and in later years with Buffalo and Seattle. The running game kept pounding in San Francisco. The rush yardage edge was 223-99. Facing a 49er team that had won this division in the first three years since the merger, L.A. blew open a close game in the second half and won 40-20.

The Rams went on to visit the lowly Houston Oilers. Hadl opened things up with a 38-yard touchdown strike to Jack Snow, then found Jackson for a 15-yard TD pass. The Hadl-to-Jackson combo worked again from 69 yards out. Los Angeles built a 31-12 lead and then held on to win, 31-26.

Riding high at 4-0, L.A. was set to host the Dallas Cowboys. A playoff perennial and just two years removed from winning it all, the Cowboys would be good measuring stick for where Knox’s team was at. Hadl and Jackson went off. They connected on two TD passes of over 60 yards, another from 36 yards, and a 16-yard scoring pass. Jackson caught seven balls overall for 238 yards. Hadl went 12/22 for 270 yards and no picks. The Rams again built a comfortable lead, this time at 37-21, and again let it get close. But they again won, 37-31.

Green Bay was a subpar team and Los Angeles went back to ground and pound when the Packers came to town. They ran for 244 yards, allowed just 35 on the ground, got another Hadl-to-Jackson TD pass and won 24-7.

Another big benchmark game awaited, this one a road trip to Minnesota. The Vikings were having a big year and their rivalry with the Rams would be one of the many great storylines of 1970s NFL football. On the road, L.A. couldn’t get the running game going and Hadl threw a couple interceptions. The defense played well, but the Rams took their first defeat, 10-9.

They were still 6-1. San Francisco would fall hard this year, and Atlanta, at 4-3, was the nearest challenger in the division. A road trip to play the Falcons on the first weekend of November was a chance to put the NFC West race to bed early. But it didn’t go well. Hadl played poorly. The running game was so-so. Atlanta made some big plays in the passing game. While the Ram defense kept the Falcons out of the end zone, they did allow five field goals. A 15-13 loss tightened up the division race.

There was only one wild-card spot available, so a close divisional fight meant urgency. Los Angeles played like it when they came back home to face division rivals in New Orleans and San Francisco. Hadl returned to form against the Saints, going 13/25 for 221 yards and spreading the ball around in a 29-7 win. Then the veteran QB delivered a 12/22 for 216 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions line in a 31-13 rout of the 49ers.

Los Angeles was 8-2, with Atlanta chasing at 7-3. Point differential was the tiebreaker that followed head-to-head in those days, so it was still up in the air how that would play out. The wild-card picture involved the Redskins and Cowboys in the NFC East, both 7-3.

Thanksgiving brought a gift to the Rams—Dallas lost to Miami. Since L.A. had a head-to-head win over the Cowboys, they were in position to clinch a playoff berth. The road trip to play New Orleans in Tulane Stadium proved a struggle. The Rams trailed 13-10 in the third quarter. But Hadl flipped a four-yard TD pass to Bertelsen for the lead. McCutcheon rolled up 152 yards. Los Angeles punched their long-awaited playoff ticket with a 24-13 win.

Atlanta was staying in pursuit, so there was no room to let up. L.A. went to Chicago, and McCutcheon racked up another 152-yard day in a 26-0 win. The Falcons lost to the Buffalo Bills and MVP running back O.J. Simpson. Los Angeles was two games up with two to play.

The penultimate game was on Monday Night against a terrible New York Giants team. By the time kickoff arrived, the Falcons had lost, and the Rams clinched. In an era when division winners were seeded by a pre-determined rotation there was nothing left to play for. Merit-based seeding was still two years off.

Los Angeles still tuned up for the playoffs by pounding the Giants on the ground and rolling up a 40-6 win for the national TV audience. And they beat a pretty good Cleveland Browns team at home 30-17, behind a 231-96 rush yard edge and a 5-0 turnover margin.

The Rams were 12-2, as were the Vikings. In a merit-based world, Los Angeles would have been the 2-seed and hosting 10-4 Dallas, who had won the NFC East. But in the world of 1973, the rotation called for the Rams to travel to Big D. So, this long-awaited playoff game would be on the road against Roger Staubach and the Cowboys.

In a late Sunday afternoon game that ended Divisional Round Weekend, Los Angeles just took too long to get started. They dug a 17-0 hole. Hadl and the offense fought back and closed to 17-16 in the fourth quarter. They had Dallas backed up. But Staubach threw an 83-yard touchdown pass that all but sealed it. The final was 27-16.

It was a disappointing way to end the season, but it doesn’t change that 1973 was still a breakout year. The Rams would keep on making postseasons, doing it under Knox through 1977, and then with Ray Malavasi from 1978-80. While they suffered their share of heartbreak, lost four NFC Championship Games, and never won it all, they still reached the Super Bowl in 1979 and retain a place in memory as one of the iconic teams in a storied decade. That all began in 1973.