1974 Los Angeles Rams: QB Turmoil & An NFC Championship Game Trip

In the first year of Chuck Knox’s coaching tenure, the Rams jumped into contention behind a trade for veteran quarterback John Hadl. The 1974 Los Angeles Rams followed the opposite path—after a slow start, Knox traded Hadl in midseason, and the Rams still reached the NFC Championship Game.

Regardless of who was playing quarterback, Hadl or his successor James Harris, the key to the Rams offense was giving the football to Pro Bowl running back Lawrence McCutcheon. Running behind a line led by another Pro Bowler, left guard Tom Mack, McCutcheon rolled up over 1,110 yards.

Los Angeles had a pair of big-play threats at wide receiver. In an era when receivers didn’t rack up big numbers for catches, Harold Jackson and Jack Snow combined for 54 receptions, and were each around 17 yards-per-catch.

In Harris’ nine games as the starting quarterback, he completed 54 percent of his passes, and had an 11-6 TD/INT ratio, both of which were good in historical context. He also generated 7.8 yards-per-attempt, which is good in any context. It was all enough that, even with Hadl’s slow start and the instability it caused, for the Rams to at least be league-average on offense—they ranked 13th in a 26-team league for points scored.

That’s enough to win when you have the league’s stingiest defense. Los Angeles had a terrific defensive line. Jack Youngblood was one of the game’s premier defensive ends, and made All-Pro. Fred Dryer was on the other end, and he recorded 15 sacks. The interior was manned by veteran Pro Bowler Merlin Olsen, and pass-rusher Larry Brooks, who picked up 11 sacks coming up the middle.

With that kind of a pass rush, it’s easy to see why these Rams had ball hawks in the secondary. Strong safety Dave Elmendorf and cornerback Charlie Stukes each intercepted seven passes in what was then just a 14-game schedule. The linebacking corps was led by Pro Bowler Isiah Robertson. Los Angeles was the best in the NFL in points allowed.

That defense went on display right away in Week 1, limiting a respectable Denver Broncos team to 52 yards on the ground and keying a 17-10 win. Then the D spun a shutout in the home opener against New Orleans. McCutcheon ran for 102 yards; Hadl threw TD passes to Snow and Jackson and the final was 24-zip.

Things started to go awry on a road trip to face mediocre New England. While Jackson’s six catches went for 102 yards, Hadl also threw two interceptions, the team lost three fumbles and the Rams lost to the Patriots 20-14.

The running game got cranking again at home against the Detroit Lions, who were bound for a .500 season. The final rush margin was 207-65, with McCutcheon going for 124 yards in tough 16-13 win.

It was the following week’s road trip to Green Bay that would prove a seminal moment for both franchises. Hadl was awful—he went 6/16 for 59 yards and threw two interceptions. The Los Angeles offense was lifeless in a 17-6 loss. Knox had seen enough. He benched Hadl and opted for Harris. And for some reason, he found the Packers to be a willing trade partner.

Eight days after this debacle, Green Bay handed over two first-round draft picks, a second-rounder and a third-rounder for the 34-year-old Hadl. It was a king’s ransom that might make a future generation of Rams fans think of a similar deal the team made when they gave up the right to draft Robert Griffin III in 2012.

In the meantime, Harris was now Knox’s man behind center. At 3-2, Los Angeles met San Francisco, who was 2-3. The 49ers, after being the NFC West’s best team in the early part of the decade, were falling into sub-.500 territory. Elmendorf got the party started in this game with a 52-yard Pick 6. Harris was brilliant, going 12/15 for 276 yards, three touchdown passes and no interceptions. The result was a 37-14 rout.

L.A. went on the road to face the mediocre New York Jets. Harris struggled in this one, going 6/15 for 49 yards. A two-touchdown favorite, the Rams were trailing 13-6 going into the fourth quarter. But they were running the ball. McCutcheon finished with 139 yards on the day. He scored twice in the final period and Los Angeles got out of old Shea Stadium with a 20-13 win.

The road game in San Francisco was on Monday Night Football. Harris was efficient, going 12/20 for 150 yards and avoiding mistakes. They weren’t running the ball well and drives often bogged down. But with the defense locked in, it was enough to squeeze out a 15-13 win.

Atlanta, after nearly making the playoffs in 1973, was going through an awful season and the Ram defense completely bottled up the Falcons, allowing just 164 total yards. Harris threw a 40-yard touchdown strike to Jackson in the first quarter, then later came back to him for a 25-yard scoring toss. L.A. rolled to a 21-0 win.

The Falcons, along with the Saints, joined the Rams and 49ers in the NFC West prior to the realignment of 2002. Los Angeles made their return to trip to New Orleans on November 17. The Rams were 7-2, the Saints were 3-6. This was a chance to put the division race away.  

Playing in Tulane Stadium, New Orleans’ home prior to the construction of the Superdome, L.A. was exceptionally sloppy. They put the ball on the ground seven times, lost three of those, and dropped a 22-7 decision. Los Angeles was still comfortably in control of the NFC West with four weeks left, but there was still work to do.

A showdown with the Minnesota Vikings, the defending NFC champs, was next. Playing at home, the Rams were trailing 17-6 after three quarters. But their defense was playing well. So was Harris. He finished the game at 24/37 for 249 yards and avoided mistakes. Los Angeles rallied and a nine-yard touchdown pass to Snow was the game-winner in a 20-17 triumph.

When New Orleans lost on Monday Night, the NFC West race was over. So, for all practical purposes was the purpose of the season. Homefield advantage among division winners was settled by a rotation system, rather than merit. This was the last year of that system, and it meant the final three games would have no meaning.

The Rams made their return trip to Atlanta. In a game they led 13-7 at the half, Elmendorf’s 57-yard Pick-6 broke it open. L.A. held Atlanta to 19 yards on the ground, won turnover margin 5-0 and took home a 30-7 triumph.

A Monday Night date with the Washington Redskins was against a team seeking to clinch a playoff spot. Harris threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Jackson in the first quarter, and the Rams built a 10-0 lead. But perhaps the difference in urgency was a factor the rest of the way. The L.A. pass defense was soft on this night and they ended up losing 23-17.

The finale was against playoff-bound Buffalo and their great running back. O.J. Simpson. Harris went 9/17 for 170 yards to key a 19-14 win. After all the quarterback turmoil of the season’s first half, Los Angeles was 10-4, as were the three other playoff teams in the NFC. By the standards of today’s tiebreaking system, the Rams would have been the #1 seed. Under the rotation system of ’74, they would get the Divisional Round at home, but faced the prospect of going to Minnesota for the NFC Championship Game.

The Redskins made a return trip west for a game that would close Divisional Round Weekend on Sunday. Harris put L.A. on the board with a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Bob Klein. But by halftime, Washington had nudged out to a 10-7 lead.

What Los Angeles was doing was running the ball and stopping the run. As a byproduct of that, they were getting turnovers. The Rams added a couple field goals and held a 13-10 lead late in the game. Robertson then got the biggest of the six turnovers L.A. would collect—a 59-yard Pick-6 that sealed the 19-10 win.

It was on to Minnesota for the NFC Championship Game. Harris made some big plays, going 13/23 for 248 yards. But he was also intercepted twice. The biggest—and most controversial—came in the third quarter. Trailing 7-3, Los Angeles had 2nd-and-goal on the 1-yard line. Mack was called for illegal motion. Replays showed he hadn’t moved. But forced to throw, Harris was intercepted in the end zone. The Rams also lost three fumbles, but this goal-line sequence was clearly the biggest moment in a 14-10 loss.

Knox was still 2-for-2 in making postseasons, and that’s a streak that would extend to 5-for-5 through the end of his tenure following the 1977 season. But it’s a tenure that never got to the Super Bowl. This was the first of three straight NFC Championship Game defeats.