1977 Los Angeles Rams: The End Of The Knox Era

The 1977 Los Angeles Rams came into the season looking to take that next step—after three straight losses in the NFC Championship Game, they were seeking the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance. Instead, the step they took was backward—an early playoff exit that spelled the end of head coach Chuck Knox’s otherwise successful tenure in L.A.

Los Angeles was dealing with quarterback instability and controversy. James Harris, the previous incumbent, had the support of Knox, but not of ownership. Harris ended up in San Diego. The Rams had a young backup in Pat Haden who had played a lot of consequential games in 1976. But the front office made a move that could be either described as “bold” or “desperate.” They signed the legendary, but aging, Joe Namath.

Namath would only start four games, not play particularly well, get hurt, and retire. Haden took over and started the final ten games of what was then a 14-game regular season. Haden made the Pro Bowl. His 57 percent completion rate, 7.2 yards-per-attempt and 2.8 percent interception rate were all solid numbers by the standards of the era. He had a big-play threat in Pro Bowl wide receiver Harold Jackson, and a reliable tight end in Terry Nelson.

Haden’s emergence was heartening, but the real key to the offense was a potent running game. Lawrence McCutcheon had a Pro Bowl year, running for over 1,200 yards. John Cappelletti and Wendell Tyler were both reliable change-of-pace backs. The offensive line had a trio of Pro Bowlers in center Rich Saul, veteran left guard Tom Mack and left tackle Doug Frances. They also had a 24-year-old right guard in Dennis Hannah who was on the verge of breaking out as a Pro Bowler himself.

It all added up to an offense that produced the fourth-most points in the NFL. And the defense was even better, ranking second in points allowed. Jack Youngblood recorded 9 ½ sacks. He was joined in the Pro Bowl by defensive tackle Larry Books and linebacker Isiah Robertson. The secondary trio of Pat Thomas, Monte Jackson and Bill Simpson combined to intercept 16 passes.

The season began poorly in Atlanta. The running game didn’t fire up, and they lost three fumbles. Namath couldn’t get anything going in the air and the Rams lost to a mediocre team, 17-6. Things trended back upward in the home opener against Philadelphia. The Rams pounded a bad Eagles team on the ground, to the tune of a 220-31 rush yardage edge. Namath threw a couple early touchdown passes to get the lead and Los Angeles churned out a 20-0 win.

A game with San Francisco was a penalty-ridden affair both ways, and the Rams clung to a 17-14 lead after three quarters. They had the running game going and were preventing the 49ers from doing the same. It made the difference in the final period, as L.A. pulled away to win 34-14.

A Monday Night visit to face the playoff-bound Chicago Bears would be a threshold point in the season. After taking an early 13-0 lead, the defense had an uncharacteristic letdown, giving up two long touchdown passes. They couldn’t stop the great Bear running back, Walter Payton. Namath threw four interceptions and before the night was over, suffered the injury that forced a quarterback change. In the meantime, Los Angeles dropped a 24-23 decision and fell to 2-2.

The NFC West—which then included the Falcons, 49ers, and New Orleans Saints—wasn’t very good. But this was also an era where there was just one wild-card berth available in a four-team NFC playoff bracket. Which meant that a 2-2 start could trigger a little more urgency than would be the case today.

L.A. hosted New Orleans, and while the Rams were sloppy, losing three turnovers, they were also controlling the line of scrimmage. McCutchen ran for 126 yards, the defense did its job and a 14-7 win put the Rams back on track.

Another Monday Night date awaited, this one with a perennial contender in the Minnesota Vikings. The Rams were ready. In the first half, Haden threw for two TDs and ran for another, building a 21-0 halftime lead. The final rush yardage advantage registered in at 283-98, with a 102-yard night from Tyler. Los Angeles collected three turnovers and committed none. That’s the recipe for blowing out a contender 35-3.

But there was a letdown in New Orleans a week later. Haden played well, going 17/26 for 251 yards and no mistakes. Harold Jackson caught eight passes for 127 yards. But the Rams were pounded on the ground, giving up 253 rush yards. They lost 27-26 on a late field goal.

A home game with the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in their second year of existence, was the ideal medicine. Haden threw an early 51-yard touchdown strike to Harold Jackson, McCutcheon ran for a TD and it was 17-0 by the half. The final was 31-zip.

Los Angeles traveled to Milwaukee, where the Green Bay Packers used to play three of their home games each year. The Rams took advantage of a bad team, shutting down the Packer running game, building a 17-0 lead by halftime, and winning 24-6. Los Angeles kept the winning going on their return trip to San Francisco. McCutcheon ran for 100 yards, the defense allowed just 92 passing yards and the Rams played clean football. They won 23-10.

The last three weeks had been against subpar competition, but L.A. had the feel of a team that was gaining steam. They took the show on the road to mediocre Cleveland. Neither team took care of the ball very well, with ten combined turnovers. But with McCutcheon going for 104 yards, the Rams enjoyed a decisive 216-90 yardage edge on the ground, and they won 9-0.

Los Angeles was sitting on an 8-3 record. Atlanta was still in pursuit at 6-5. The Falcons had a head-to-head win over the Rams from the season opener and the rematch was still to come, so L.A. couldn’t count on a tiebreaker. In the broader NFC picture, Los Angeles was a game ahead of 7-4 Minnesota, in the race for the 2-seed. The Rams trailed the 9-2 Dallas Cowboys in the push for the 1-seed, and the tiebreaker scenario there didn’t look promising.

A big battle with the defending Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders was up. By the time kickoff arrived on the West Coast, Atlanta had lost to New England. The NFC West was now there for the taking. Playing at home, the Rams came through. They won the turnover battle 6-2. Trailing 14-13 in the fourth quarter, Haden went up top to Harold Jackson for a 43-yard touchdown pass. With the 20-14 win, the Rams were now 5-for-5 in winning division titles in the Knox Era.

That took a little of the juice out of the Falcons’ visit to L.A. for the regular season’s penultimate game, but the Rams were still playing for playoff position. They outrushed the Falcons 265-64, led by 152 yards from McCutcheon. The 23-7 win clinched the 2-seed and a home game in the divisional playoffs. When Dallas won on Monday Night, it took the top seed out of play and locked Los Angeles’ playoff position in.

The Rams closed the season with an early Saturday afternoon game in Washington. The Redskins were trying to stay alive in what proved a futile effort to catch the Bears for the wild-card spot. Haden split time with the new backup QB, Vince Ferragamo, and McCutcheon saw limited duty. A 17-14 loss ended the regular season with a 10-4 record.

Minnesota was coming to Los Angeles on the day after Christmas for the game that would conclude Divisional Round Weekend. The Rams had lost to the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game in both 1974 and 1976. They were a playoff nemesis. But this year, Los Angeles had been the far superior team, and they came in as a (-10) favorite.

But the weather was decidedly uncooperative. Heavy rain left the field in an unplayable mud. Photos from this game are iconic, with jerseys almost indecipherable. Any talent edge was negated. McCutcheon was able to grind out 102 yards, but that was answered by 101 from Minnesota’s Chuck Foreman. Haden threw three interceptions. The Rams trailed 14-0 in the fourth quarter and lost 14-7.

It was a bitter pill—enough that it marked the end of Knox’s tenure. He stepped down after the season. Fortunately for both the coach and the franchise, there was still more success ahead. Knox would turn both Buffalo and Seattle into contenders over the next decade. And the Rams? They made it back to the NFC Championship Game in 1978, and finally reached the Super Bowl in 1979.