1976 Los Angeles Rams: A 3rd Straight NFC Championship Game

The 1976 Los Angeles Rams marked Chuck Knox’s fourth year coaching the team and they marked his fourth playoff trip. They also marked his third straight appearance in the NFC Championship Game. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the ’76 Rams also marked the third straight defeat in the NFC title game.

A great defensive line was a key foundation for success in this era, and the foundation of that line was defensive end Jack Youngblood. With 14 ½ sacks, Youngblood was named 1st-team All-Pro. Larry Brooks was a Pro Bowler at defensive tackle getting 14 ½ sacks of his own coming up the middle. Another All-Pro, Isiah Robertson, was at linebacker. And the secondary had some major ballhawks. Corner Monte Jackson intercepted ten passes in what was then a 14-game schedule. Jackson also got All-Pro recognition. On the other corner, Rod Perry intercepted eight passes.

In other words, it was tough to get a pass off against the Rams, and you did so at your own risk. The Los Angeles defense ranked third in the NFL for points allowed.

The L.A. offense also ranked third in the league, and that was impressive considering that frequent injuries left them with major quarterback instability. Everyone from incumbent James Harris to newcomer Pat Haden to young Ron Jaworski got multiple starts. Injuries to Harris and Jaworski were one reason. A dispute between owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who favored Haden, and Knox, who supported Harris, was another.

Harris and Haden started the bulk of the games, and both had reasonably good—and similar—numbers. Each was in the high 50s for completion percentage, which was solid in this era. They each had interception percentages a hair below 4—another stat that might look bad to a modern audience but was rather good in this era of football. Harris’ 9.2 yards-per-attempt was excellent, and Haden’s 8.5 was awfully good in its own right. Only Jaworski, who started two games, struggled.

What this boils down is that, beyond the drama, the Rams were getting good quarterback play. Harold Jackson was one of the NFL’s top big-play threats and he caught 39 balls for better than 19 yards a pop. Ron Jessie emerged as a Pro Bowl wideout, catching 34 passes and averaging a dazzling 22.9 yards-per catch.

Throughout a coaching career that would eventually take him to Buffalo and Seattle, Knox was known for producing running games. This 1976 Los Angeles Rams team was no different. Lawrence McCutcheon made the Pro Bowl with over 1,100 yards. John Cappelletti ran for nearly 700 more. The offensive line was anchored by center Rich Saul.

Jaworski, who had led the team to a playoff win in 1975, with Harris injured, got the start in Week 1 at Atlanta. He didn’t play well, got hurt and the Rams clung to a 13-7 lead after three quarters against a bad team. What they were doing was running the ball—a 232-62 edge in yardage with both McCutcheon and Cappelletti clearing the 100-yard threshold. Haden threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to Jessie to open the game and Los Angeles pulled away to a 30-14 win.

A high-profile showdown with the contending Minnesota Vikings was up next. The road game would be in the late afternoon TV window. It was a clash of styles. McCutcheon and Cappelletti each had 100-yard games. Viking quarterback Fran Tarkenton countered with a big game. Each team missed a couple of field goals. A game whose result would reverberate down the stretch in the fight for playoff position ended in a 10-10 tie.

The home opener was against a terrible New York Giants team. L.A. was sluggish—they spotted the Giants a 10-0 lead and were still stuck in a 10-10 tie in the fourth quarter. But that opportunistic defense came up with four interceptions on the day. Harris threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Cappelletti to get the lead, and the Rams won 24-10.

A Monday Night home date with division rival San Francisco was up next. The 49ers had been down the past couple years, but they would trend upward again in ’76. Like on this night. The Rams couldn’t run the ball. Harris had decent numbers—16/27 for 201 yards and no mistakes. But there were no points. And L.A. lost 16-0, in a game where they had been a (-13) favorite.

At 3-1-1, the Rams were now a half-game back of the 49ers. This was an era when there was only one wild-card, and the NFC East had multiple contenders. It certainly wasn’t panic-button time, but the time to start playing with some urgency was here.

At home against mediocre Chicago, Los Angeles jumped out to a 10-0 lead behind Harris. He got hurt, Jaworski came in, and the offense bogged down. The Rams trailed 12-10 in the fourth quarter. McCutcheon’s 18-yard TD run got L.A. back on top, and they won 20-12.

A similarly unimpressive win came at lowly New Orleans. Each team turned it over five times and the score was tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter. Haden threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Harold Jackson and Los Angeles escaped the Bayou, 16-10.

An easier game was up against Seattle, a franchise in its first year of existence. Monte Jackson delivered a Pick-6 and Harris threw a touchdown pass to Jessie. That was a part of a 24-point haymaker the Rams landed in the first quarter. The running game took over, to the tune of a 206-50 yardage advantage and the result was a 45-6 rout.

Los Angeles traveled to Cincinnati to face a contending team in a big Monday Night game. A couple of early Ram drives ended in field goals. That was costly, because the Bengals played well late, L.A. lost three fumbles and a fourth-quarter defensive collapse led to a 20-12 loss.

This was the start of a crucial three-game stretch that would continue at home against the contending St. Louis Cardinals and then go up to San Francisco for a massive NFC West showdown. Rosenbloom pinned the blame for the Cincinnati loss on Harris and ordered Haden into the lineup.

The move seemed to work—Haden threw a 65-yard touchdown pass to Harold Jackson and Los Angeles built up a 21-6 third-quarter lead against a team they had decisively beaten in last year’s playoffs. But then the pass defense, normally so good, fell apart. A good Cardinal offense rallied and the Rams lost 30-28.

Los Angeles was 6-3-1 and San Francisco was 6-4. The NFC East, with Dallas, Washington, and St. Louis, now seemed to have a lock on the wild-card. The Rams-49ers showdown on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving had gotten even bigger.

Haden got the start. He only completed three passes and the running game was non-existent. But if you think this is leading to a description of defeat, you would be wrong. The defense played its best game of the year. They forced six turnovers, two of them interceptions by Monte Jackson. The Rams pulled away in the second half to win 23-3.

Now in control of the division, Los Angeles had a manageable home games coming up with New Orleans and Atlanta, both NFC West teams until the realignment of 2002. The Ram running game got humming against the Saints, with 323 rush yards. They won 33-14. The following Saturday against the Falcons, L.A. rolled up a 210-59 edge in rush yardage, while Haden went 13/21 for 214 yards. The result was a 59-0 beatdown.

Going into the season finale, Los Angeles was 9-3-1. Dallas was 11-2 and leading the race for the 1-seed. Minnesota was 10-2-1, but the Rams did have the tiebreaker on the Vikings. L.A. could potentially rise to the 2-seed.

They took care of their own business on Saturday night at mediocre Detroit. After falling behind 17-3, Harris got the opportunity to turn the offense around. He and Harold Jackson hooked up on a 27-yard touchdown pass. A field goal cut the lead to 17-13. Harris finished 10/17 for 113 yards and led one more TD drive. The Rams won 20-17.

Los Angeles didn’t get the break they needed—Minnesota won. When Dallas lost, the Vikings vaulted to the 1-seed. The Rams would play the Cowboys in the Divisional Playoffs.

Dallas had humiliated L.A. in the previous year’s NFC Championship Game, so there was more than a little payback also in the mix here. A tough, physical game ensued. The Rams trailed 3-0 after the first quarter. Haden ran in from four yards out for a 7-3 lead. But in the second quarter, L.A. allowed a blocked punt that set up a TD and left them in a 10-7 halftime hole.

Neither team could get a running game going. Both Haden and counterpart Roger Staubach threw three interceptions. But Los Angeles put together a fourth-quarter drive. They kicked a tying field goal—a play where Dallas was whistled for roughing the kicker. Knox took the points off the board and continued the drive. It paid off. McCutcheon’s 1-yard TD run gave the Rams a 14-10 lead.

Late in the final period, the Rams were lined up to punt. Once again, it got blocked. A potential nightmare scenario loomed, as the Cowboys were set up on the 17-yard line. But the L.A. defense met the moment, stopping Dallas on downs. The next time the Rams lined up to punt, they weren’t taking any chances. They took a safety and preserved a 14-12 win.

A trip to Minnesota on the day after Christmas would settle the Super Bowl berth. The game started off well enough for Los Angeles, as they drove down inside the 10-yard line. Then the special teams woes continued. A field goal was blocked and returned 90 yards for a touchdown. The Rams dug themselves a 17-0 hole. Haden would go 9/22 for 161 yards, while McCutchen ran for 128 yards. They fought back and cut the lead to 17-13. But the hole was too deep, and another season ended in this round, 24-13.

Knox had done arguably his most impressive coaching job, navigating the quarterback instability. But this was his high point in Los Angeles. While the Rams won the NFC West again in 1977, they lost in the Divisional Playoffs. The tension between the coach and the front office led to a parting of the ways. Los Angeles would eventually reach the Super Bowl in 1979. But the franchise would not actually win one until 1999, when they were in St. Louis. It took until 2021 for the Ram organization to win a Super Bowl title while in the city of Los Angeles.