1975 Los Angeles Rams: The Return to the NFC Championship Game

Chuck Knox came to the Rams in 1973 and immediately put the team in the playoffs. In 1974, he went one step further and reached the NFC Championship Game. The good news about the 1975 Los Angeles Rams is that they continued their success and returned to the NFC title game. The bad news is that the upward trajectory did not continue, as they fell short of the Super Bowl.

The best defense in the NFL fueled the Rams, and that defense was anchored by an elite front four. Jack Youngblood was a 1st-team All-Pro, recording 15 sacks at defensive end. Fred Dryer was on the other end, and he made the Pro Bowl with 12 sacks. Merlin Olsen was 35-years-old, but the tackle still had 7 1/2 sacks and punched a Pro Bowl ticket of his own.

There were two more Pro Bowlers at linebacker, in Jack Reynolds and Isiah Robertson. Free safety Bill Simpson intercepted six passes. No one in the league allowed fewer points than this Los Angeles D.

James Harris made history in 1975. He had won the quarterback job midway through ’74, but this year he became the first African-American to open the season as his team’s starting QB. Harris lived up to the confidence. His 55 percent completion rate was eighth in the NFL. His 7.5 yards-per-attempt was fifth. And while a 5.3 interception rate is very high by our modern standards, in this era, it put Harris in the middle of the league. He was efficient and he made big plays.

The playmaking capacity of the passing game was helped by the presence of Harold Jackson. His 43 catches led the team, and those catches went for 18.3 yards a pop. Ron Jessie was a good second receiver, catching 41 balls for 547 yards.

Lawrence McCutcheon led a balanced running game with 931 yards, and he made the Pro Bowl. McCutcheon got support from backup halfback Cullen Bryant, and fullback Jim Bertelson. Pro Bowl guard Tom Mack led the offensive line. The Rams offense wasn’t dynamic, but at 11th in a 26-team league for points scored, it was more than enough to win.

The season opened with a visit to another perennial NFC contender, the Dallas Cowboys. In the late afternoon TV slot, the season could not have started much worse. Harris only completed one out of ten passes for five yards. He threw three interceptions. Harris was pulled for young backup, Ron Jaworski. The Rams fell behind 18-0 before scoring a meaningless touchdown late in an 18-7 loss.

A road trip to San Francisco saw the offense continue to struggle. They trailed 14-3 at the half. It took the special teams to bail the Rams out. At 14-6, they blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown. Placekicker Tom Dempsey, who five years earlier set an NFL record by kicking a 63-yard field goal when he was in New Orleans, came through here. Dempsey nailed a 51-yard field goal for the lead. The Rams got out of town with a 23-14 win.

The home opener was against the playoff-bound Baltimore Colts. Trailing 7-0 in the second quarter, Harris finally started to heat up. He hit Jackson with a 37-yard touchdown pass. Trailing 13-10 in the fourth quarter, Los Angeles got a 25-yard touchdown from McCutcheon, and a Harris-to-Jessie touchdown pass. They won, 24-13.

Harris had his best statistical game of the young season at lowly San Diego, going 15/26 for 226 yards. McCutcheon ran for 112 yards. But with Dempsey missing a couple field goals, the Rams could not finish drives. Fortunately, the Chargers had the same problem, and the game went to overtime at 10-10. Finally,  a Dempsey field goal won it.

L.A. came back home to face the Atlanta Falcons. Harris got the scoring started with a  44-yard touchdown pass to tight end Bob Klein. Harris went 14/25 for 200 yards on the afternoon while the running game produced a 218-63 edge in rush yardage. The Rams churned out a 22-7 win.

Another dominant rushing performance came at home against the New Orleans Saints. This time the yardage margin was 223-96. Los Angeles took a 24-0 lead by halftime and coasted in to a 38-14 win.

The schedule was soft, but there was no question that the Rams were surging now. They went to Philadelphia to play a bad Eagles team on Monday Night Football. Harris and Jackson put on a show. They connected on TD passes from 54 yards and 30 yards. Harris also hit Jack Snow with a 42-yard scoring strike. With a 28-3 lead, the defense got in on the fun, with a couple of touchdowns of their own. The final was 42-3.

San Francsico made their return trip to SoCal. Even though the 49ers did not have a good team in ’75, the Rams continued to struggle against their traditional rival. They built a 14-0 lead by halftime, but the running game suddenly went quiet. They couldn’t salt it away. San Francisco quarterback Steve Spurrier made some big plays in the passing game. Los Angeles blew the lead and lost the game, 24-23.

The Falcons, along with the Saints, were each NFC West rivals of the Rams prior to the realignment of 2002. L.A. made their return visit to Atlanta in mid-November. The Ram running game continued to struggle. But they defended the run impeccably. Jessie caught ten passes for 151 yards. It was enough offense to get a 16-7 win.

A home date with lowly Chicago proved to be the tonic the running attack needed. McCutcheon rolled for 114 yards to key an easy 38-10 win. Los Angeles went on to Detroit for a Thanksgiving Day game. Harris tossed an 11-yard TD pass to Jessie for a 7-0 lead. Harris then hit Jackson on scoring plays from 38 and 17 yards. The Rams won 20-0 and were soaring at 9-2.

The NFC West did not have a viable challenger. Moreover, prior to 1978, the regular season schedule was only 14 games. Los Angeles was closing in on the division title. When San Francisco lost on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, it was official—the Rams were NFC West champs for the third straight year.

Now, it was time to focus on getting home games for the playoffs. Minnesota, the two-time defending NFC champ, was 10-1. Over in the NFC East, Dallas and the St. Louis Cardinals were tied at 8-3. Los Angeles was situated in the 2-spot, but that could change for either good or bad in these final three weeks.

A road trip to New Orleans brought bigger problems than playoff seeding. Harris injured his shoulder and had to leave the game. The Rams won a strange game—a safety, two field goals, a defensive touchdown, and missed extra point added up to a 14-7 win. But Harris’ health was now in question.

Harris tried to go the next week at home against a bad Green Bay team, but his shoulder wouldn’t last. Jaworski came in. After spotting the Packers a 5-0 lead, the Los Angeles running game pounded out 195 yards, the defense did its thing, and the Rams pounded out a 22-5 win. It was enough to secure at the least the 2-seed.

Minnesota lost and was also 11-2, but the Vikings still had the tiebreaker. Both teams were playing in separate nationally televised finales on Saturday. The Rams had the tougher draw—the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in prime-time.

It turned out not to matter. Minnesota wrapped up the 1-seed in the early afternoon game. Pittsburgh, having secured the top spot in the AFC, only had Terry Bradshaw play for a half. The L.A. defense intercepted three passes and won 10-3. The Rams had closed the season with a sparkling 12-2 record. Now it was time to try and reach their first Super Bowl.

They hosted NFC East champ St. Louis on the Saturday after Christmas. Harris still wasn’t ready, but the Rams were a 6 ½ point favorite. The oddsmakers’ confidence was justified. Jaworski ran for an early touchdown. Then the defense took over.  Youngblood intercepted a pass and went 47 yards to the house. Simpson came up with a Pick-6 of his own, going 65 yards for a touchdown. Los Angeles was rolling at 21-0.

They were doing everything well. McCutcheon ran for over 200 yards. Jaworski went 12/23 for 200 yards and made no mistakes. He hit Jackson on a 66-yard touchdown pass. The lead grew to 28-9, before some late Cardinal action made the final score cosmetically respectable at 35-23.

The next day, Los Angeles watched as wild-card Dallas upset Minnesota on a last-second desperation touchdown pass. The Rams were hosting the NFC Championship Game.

There were still two lingering issues. One was who would play quarterback. Harris was deemed healthy enough to go, so Knox gave him the call. But the bigger problem was whether or not this game with Dallas would be different than that disastrous season opener.

It was different—only worse. Harris misfired on two passes, threw an interception, and was pulled. The great Ram defense was being carved up by Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach. Jaworski came in to a 21-0 deficit. He threw two interceptions of his own. L.A. only rushed for 22 yards. By the time they scored, they were in a 34-0 fourth-quarter hole. The ultimate 37-7 defeat was a serious humiliation at the end of an otherwise splendid season.

Knox continued to win in the ensuing years, but he never got over this hump. He made it back to the NFC Championship Game in 1976, but came up short again. In 1977, the Rams won the NFC West, but they lost in the divisional round. It was 1979, under Ray Malavasi, when they finally got to a Super Bowl. The organization itself was in St. Louis by the time the Rams finally won it all in 1999. Not until 2021, did the Ram franchise win a title in the city of Los Angeles .