Rams' opportunities led to getting Knoxed out
By Doug Krikorian, columnist
Updated: 01/11/2009 10:46:28 PM PST
The NFL playoffs are now in full swing, and I watch them with a detached indifference although I suspect I would have liked the San Diego Chargers to do well since, after all, they're the only team left in this part of California.
There, of course, was a time when two NFL entries were in the vicinity - the Rams and Raiders - but they bolted the scene after the 1994 season, leaving a huge professional football vacuum in the Los Angeles basin that figures to remain indefinitely.
What these playoffs do for me is inspire remembrances of those seven seasons I covered the Rams during the 1970s for the old L.A. Herald Examiner, six of which climaxed with the team performing in the playoffs.
But those teams I chronicled always experienced frustration in the postseason, and, ironically, finally made it to the Super Bowl - the 1979 Rams would lose it 31-19 to the Pittsburgh Steelers - the season after I departed the beat to become a full-time columnist.
Indeed, the Chuck Knox Rams of that period would win five straight NFC Western Division titles, and probably should have made a couple of Super Bowl appearances.
But an array of factors conspired against those ill-starred Rams, foremost of which was Knox's horrifyingly conservative game plans that were easily exploited by the two coaches, the Minnesota Vikings' Bud Grant and the Dallas Cowboys' Tom Landry, whose teams always wound up eliminating Knox's troops in the playoffs.
Knox could have been a Hall of Fame coach - his clubs were fundamentally sound, well-drilled and disciplined-but he had a stubborn streak that prevented him from reaching such exalted status.
He refused to deviate from his run-run-run, pass-only-when-you-have-to philosophy that resulted in the Rams owner at the time, Carroll Rosenbloom, finally firing Knox after the 1977 season that ended in bitter disappointment at the Coliseum in a driving rainstorm with Knox's team being upset 14-7 by the Vikings.
Grant, as he had on two previous occasions, once again got the better of Knox, even though Grant had to go with a backup quarterback named Bob Lee with Fran Tarkenton sidelined by an injury.
Despite Knox's immense regular season success with the Rams-he was 54-15-1 - Rosenbloom decided he had seen enough of Knox being outcoached in the postseason, which was certainly the case.
But I always thought Knox's fate was doomed the previous year against the Vikings in an NFC title game when he made a decision that backfired horribly. The match was played at the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn., on Dec.26, 1976, in front of a raucous crowd of 48,446 in freezing temperatures.
The Rams took the opening kickoff, and methodically marched down field behind the stout running of Lawrence McCutcheon and John Cappelletti.
Pat Haden mixed in a pass or two, and it seemed, finally, the Rams were destined to get past the Vikings and make it to the Super Bowl.
Their offensive line, featuring Rich Saul, Tom Mack, John Williams and Doug France, was opening sizable holes for McCutcheon and Cappelletti.
The drive bogged down after the Rams had gained a first down on the Vikings 9-yard line, from where, predictably, they ran the ball three straight times. Still, they made it inside the Minnesota 1-yard line when they faced fourth down.
"We had about six inches to go to score a touchdown," Saul, the Rams' center, would lament afterward. "Six inches! All the players wanted to go for it. We had the Vikings back on their heels. I'm certain we would have made it."
In the old Met press box, Rosenbloom and his general manager, Duke Klosterman, sat behind me, and both were hoping Knox would not send in the field-goal team.
The Rams had looked so dominant - and quickly would assume vital momentum with a touchdown. And it would be a stirring emotional triumph for the Vikings to hold the Rams to only a field goal.
Predictably, Knox, ever cautious, sent in his kicker, Tom Dempsey. I looked back at Rosenbloom and Klosterman. Both were shaking their heads in disgust.
But what happened next enraged the two gentlemen.
Dempsey's kick was blocked, and the Vikings' defensive back Bobby Bryant returned it 90 yards for a touchdown.
"Six inches!" Rich Saul kept saying afterward. "We would have scored. No way they would have stopped us. But, instead ... ."
Instead, the Vikings were up 7-0, and Rosenbloom was pounding the table in front of him in frustration.
"This is ridiculous!" he said. "We never should have kicked in the first place."
The Rams never recovered from that most unfortunate play - and would go on to lose 24-13 and lose the opportunity to play the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XI at the Rose Bowl.
Knox never recovered from it, either, at least not in the unforgiving judgment of Rosenbloom.
But at least in those days there was a team in our midst for which to have a passionate rooting interest.
Now we in the Los Angeles area must turn to San Diego for solace.
Who ever would have thought the Rams, who had become such an iconic part of the L.A. sporting scene, soon after Knox's exit would depart for Anaheim?
Who ever would have thought the Rams eventually even would depart Anaheim for St. Louis, where they would wind up winning a Super Bowl?
It's all become a little surreal, especially the continuing bizarre phenomenon of the second largest metropolitan area in America being without an NFL franchise now for 15 years.