The Los Angeles Rams have taken the biggest gamble of the 1974 season, and if last Sunday's 20-13 win over the surprisingly stubborn New York Jets is any indication, they may have to hustle a bit to make it pay off.
Five days before the game, the Rams gave veteran Quarterback John Hadl to the Green Bay Packers for five high future draft choices. The Rams' windfall could prove to be the biggest chunk of future a team ever received in one trade, but for the present the deal left the Ram quarterbacking, and its Super Bowl hopes, in the inexperienced hands of James Harris. In five previous National Football League seasons Harris had started only three games. His backup, second-year man Ron Jaworski, had never thrown a pass in a regular season game.
After the slumping Hadl was benched three weeks ago in the second half of the 17-6 upset loss to, ironically, Green Bay, Harris took over and gave the Rams some much sought-after offensive punch. The following week against San Francisco he completed 12 of 15 passes for 276 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a fourth as the Rams won 37-14. Last Sunday against the Jets he completed only 6 of 15 for a paltry 49 yards, but he did run 12 yards for the first Ram touchdown. Certainly, he seems good enough to take the talented Rams to the division title in the erratic NFC West, but whether the Los Angeles quarterbacking is up to playoff and Super Bowl standards is another question.
The decline and departure of Hadl came with stunning swiftness. After Harris' fine game against the 49ers, Ram Owner Carroll Rosenbloom was asked about his deposed quarterback's status. "We expect John to be with us a long time," Rosenbloom answered. Yeah, like a day.
Rosenbloom insists that the sudden Hadl trade to Green Bay came about by chance, not design. He had brushed aside other inquiries about the veteran's availability and says the call he made to Packer Coach Dan Devine two hours before the trading deadline was purely personal. But Devine seized the opportunity to make the Rams an offer they could not refuse. In return for Hadl, Los Angeles will receive the Packers' first- second-and third-round draft picks in 1975 and their first-and second-round picks in 1976.
Rosenbloom sounds a bit like Chill Wills when he talks, his raspy voice heavily sincere as he articulates his words. A favorite phrase is "the Ram family," about which he speaks with emotion. "We feel the happiness of our team is the most important thing," he said last weekend. "John Hadl is human and he wanted to start. But how could our players appreciate and relish a victory if they see a member of their family sad?
"We would not have made the trade if we hadn't thought it was best for John. This gives him the chance to start immediately. I've been heartsick about the Hadl thing all week. It's a gamble for us. I guess the fans will fire me if I'm wrong."
There were a lot of people, including Hadl, who had trouble swallowing Rosenbloom's one-big-family talk. "I'm only mad at myself that I thought it would be different here than with any other team," Hadl told Mai Florence of the Los Angeles Times. "They give you this stuff about being a great guy and a team leader and part of the family, but in the final analysis it's just cold business."
And pretty good business, too. Rosenbloom had implied that Hadl would have remained on the Ram bench, which hardly seems to indicate that he is a property worth five high draft picks. Hadl may have been the NFC's Player of the Year in 1973, but the suspicion arises that the Ram risk was carefully calculated. In his first six games last year, all victories, Hadl was magnificent, completing 60 of 93 passes for 13 touchdowns, with only two interceptions. But after that he went sour. League statistics indicate that Hadl's performance in the last eight games would have ranked him no higher than 18th among NFL quarterbacks. In the divisional playoff against Dallas he completed only seven of 23 passes in a disappointing 27-16 loss. Experience is supposed to count in playoff games, but Hadl was intercepted on the first play from scrimmage and fumbled the ball away late in the fourth period. This year his slump continued.
The man who finally sat Hadl down, Head Coach Chuck Knox, was virtually unknown when he took the Ram coaching job last year. In fact, an L.A. television station could not find any sponsors for a proposed Chuck Knox Show. Knox had spent the previous 10 years coaching offensive lines for the Jets and the Lions, yet of seven teams looking for a head coach in 1973, only the Rams made him an offer. It was Knox' first head coaching assignment since a three-year stint at Ellwood City (Pa.) High in the late '50s.
Knox' formula for winning is improving individual performance—"You do it by outworking your opponent"—but he has also demonstrated an uncanny gift for judging talent. Last year he put six new starters into what had been a so-so Ram defensive unit, and it became the best in the NFL. In revamping his running attack he developed the league's deepest set of runners, a group that amassed the third-highest rushing total for a season in NFL history. Los Angeles led in total offense, too, and in the regular season lost only two games, one by one point, the other by two.
Knox' most productive move (he was not instrumental in the acquisition of Hadl from San Diego) was putting Lawrence McCutcheon into the starting backfield. McCutcheon, who prefers to be called Lawrence because his brother is named Larry, was drafted in the third round in 1972, but a slow recovery from knee surgery kept him out of the back-field that year. In 1973 Knox gave him another chance, and McCutcheon fumbled the ball away three times in three exhibition games. But Knox did not give up on him. Ram Scout Tank Younger taped a handle to a football and presented it to McCutcheon for his personal use. Everybody chuckled, but McCutcheon stopped dropping the ball. He started predicting that he would gain 1,000 yards and teammates and sportswriters had trouble hiding their smiles. But despite missing two full games and half of another, McCutcheon ended up with 1,097 yards, the most ever by a Ram. This season McCutcheon already has had four 100-yard games and leads the NFL with 649 yards' rushing. Now he is talking of a 1,500-yard season, and nobody is hiding a smile.
For all his success, Knox' reputation as a judge of talent rides now on his decision to make Harris the Rams' No. 1 quarterback. No one has ever doubted Harris' throwing ability, least of all Harris himself, but his early pro career hardly inspired confidence. It started in Buffalo in 1969. The first headline he got in the Buffalo Evening News, on Jan. 29, 1969, read, "A 6-4 Negro QB, Harris, Drafted 8th by the Bills." The pressure was on. An alumnus of Grambling, he was called by one scout, "a black Joe Namath," and in September 1969 he attracted national attention when he became the first black quarterback to start an opening game in the NFL. He was confident enough. "I actually thought I was great," he says now with an easy smile. But he was injured that day, hardly played again that season and saw little action in 1970. The confidence died or, as he puts it, "I withdrew into a shell." After the opening game of the 1972 season Buffalo let him go, and he was waived out of the league. He went to work in Washington in the Department of Commerce's Office of Minority Enterprise. "Things started looking downhill," he says. "I stopped working out." Younger, another of the many Grambling people in pro football, persuaded Tommy Prothro, then coaching the Rams, to give Harris a chance.
With Los Angeles, Harris tried a new approach. "I decided just to do the best I could, and not compete," he says. "I had never relaxed in Buffalo, and it had hurt my performance." As backup quarterback he willingly marked time, and now that he has been thrust into a starting role again, he is not afraid to admit that he feels the pressure. Still, as he says, "Passing's my meal ticket. That's why I'm here. I feel confident when I'm dropping back to pass. I'm not going to miss a man who's open, and there's almost always somebody out there who's open."
Harris heard of the Hadl trade while driving down a Los Angeles street. A traffic light had just turned yellow in front of him, and his foot was poised over the brake pedal, when the news about Hadl came over his radio. His foot never moved, and his car floated right through the light and the intersection. The Rams are gambling that he'll float them as smoothly to the Super Bowl.