Former NFL Head Coach Chuck Knox, who coached three teams including the Los Angeles Rams, passed away Sunday.
When Rams fans clamor about the blue and yellow uniforms, much of what they’re clamoring for is what was embedded in the Chuck Knox era. Old-school football. “Ground Chuck.” Games were won in the trenches. Defenses were unburdened. A catch was a catch. The running game was the dominant, and Monday Night Football was an event.
And success on the field.
Under Knox, the Rams emerged as Super Bowl contenders each and every year under his management, but a championship alluded the team and hence hall of fame greatness.
When Knox was let go after four years after making the playoff in each, there wasn’t a revolt by the players as was the case when George Allen was let go the first time by the Rams only to return to be fired again. At that time, it seemed that Rams fans were aware that the team needed a change to get them over the hump because just winning the division and then losing in the playoffs wasn’t enough. With a remarkable 54-15-1 (.771!) record as head coach with the Rams, unemployment didn’t last long. He went to the Buffalo Bills then to the Seattle Seahawks and turned both teams into winners, but once again the elusive Lombardi Trophy eluded him.
He returned to Los Angeles, to Hollywood, a town where everyone loves a good sequel.
The return was his last stop in his NFL head coaching journey as the last head coach of the Los Angeles Rams had before moving to St. Louis.
The birth of “Ground Chuck”
The Knox era began when Robert Irsay traded the Los Angeles Rams for the Baltimore Baltimore Colts with Carroll Rosenbloom. Rosenbloom was the man in charge of the Colts during the time of the great Johnny Unitas and Colts run of NFL Championships, the guy who fired Don Shula for losing against the New York Jets in Super Bowl III, then rebounded by winning in Super Bowl by besting the Dallas Cowboys.
These were the days when system was the key. A tried and true method for victory. Players weren’t drafted to mold into a system, they were drafted because they already fit it. Head coaches weren’t hired to tailor the system to the players. Guys had to already be able to fit.
There wasn’t the open passing game back then. Being a quarterback was open season for defenders. Quarterbacks were merely regulated to managing a foil for the running game. You didn’t need to have great skills, accuracy or arm strength. All you had to do was hand the ball off and on third-and-long complete a pass now and again.
It was in this environment that field goal kickers became a hot commodity and games won with scores of 10-7 or 17-14 were not only common, but just as exciting.
There were no palaces. No domes. When it rained, teams played in the mud. When December came around, the snow blanketed the field and the Rams Super Bowl hopes froze in the cold against the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.
When Chuck Knox was the leading the Rams, they dominated the NFC Western Division.
The offense centered around RB Lawrence McCutchen and relied in the stout defensive front with defensive ends, Jack Youngblood, Fred Dryer, defensive tackle, Merlin Olson and middle linebacker, Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds.
The Rams won more games then they lost and during that time, but they also continued a “quarterback controversy” tradition harkening back to the days of Bob Waterfield vs. Norm Van Brocklin and Bill Munson vs. Roman Gabriel.
Under Knox, whomever was sitting on the bench was better then the quarterback starting. The Rams went through John Hadel, then James “Shack” Harris, then Ron Jaworski and then Pat Haden.
Sitting above the fray was Rosenbloom leaving it to Knox, a players coach, to figure it out.
He stood on the sidelines. Stoic. The game plans in his hands, wrapped up like a baton, pounding his other hand, demanding excellence.
For the most, part the players responded.
My favorite memory of that period was sitting high in the Coliseum next to my father, which on this day was the perfect location to watch WR Harold Jackson against the Dallas Cowboys catch four touchdown bombs from John Hadel.
But its not the regular season wins against the Cowboys or Vikings that I remember the most—it was those hard to take losses in the playoffs against those teams because of the “what ifs” and what Rams could’ve been which remain my lasting memories.
The touchdown by WR Ron Jessie which wasn’t called a touchdown on a below zero day in Minnesota leading to a field goal which was blocked and ran back for a touchdown. The phony penalty at the goalline by OT Ron Schibilli called by a line judge who said, “I don’t know who moved, but I think it was the Rams.” Or the bomb pass by Cowboys QB Roger “The Dodger” Staubach, a bullseye between the Rams safety and cornerback into the hands WR Drew Pearson putting the playoff game out of reach.
The were wins as well in the playoffs, like the one against the Air Coryell Cardinals, when Jack Youngblood picked off the pass and ran in for the touchdown only to be followed up in the NFC Championship game at home against the “Hail Mary” Cowboys.
This game has for me became the most humiliating loss of my life—the reason I hate the Cowboys.
We often sat in the lower section where my family had season tickets, though my father, who loved the full field vision often sat in the seats way up high. He came down at halftime and said, “It’s time to go home.”
The final Chuck Knox era blow to my heat was the Rams losing the “Mud Bowl” in Los Angeles to the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs.
A game noted for one thing, the Rams get the Vikings at home for a playoff game—finally only to have it rain all week in Southern California.
For some unknown reason, the football Gods just never wanted the Chuck Knox Rams in the Super Bowl.
You never know how lucky you are until it’s gone
Like many other fans, I liked Chuck Knox. He was a good coach.
Through the years, my pain is less prevalent but the scars remain as a lifelong Rams fans of the “Ground Chuck” era. Nonetheless, I fondly look back and now given my age appreciate more then ever what I missed most about the Chuck Knox era— the chance and opportunity our team had each and every year to win the Super Bowl.
In hindsight, maybe Carroll Rosenbloom pulled the plug too quickly. We’ll never know.
His sequel with the Anaheim Los Angeles Rams never came close to the blockbuster performance of the Coliseum Rams—although he did give us the “Ground Chuck” we remembered fondly with RB Jerome Bettis.
When the Rams left Los Angeles, Knox was our team’s last head coach. Even though the Rams weren’t winning, there was always a comfort level knowing that he was on the sidelines. That’s what Chuck Knox brought to the Rams. A foundation of winning.
Hall of Fame greatness may have eluded Knox because he never made it to the Super Bowl. Still, he has to be considered one of our greatest coaches.
Coaches are often judged solely on wins and losses and when it’s all said and done, and Knox was a winner. He was the epitome of what it meant to be a NFL head coach in the 1970’s.
He was our coach.