November 24, 2010

1974: James Harris Rallies Rams to Win Over Vikings

The Los Angeles Rams were coming off of a division title-winning season in 1973, their first under Head Coach Chuck Knox, and were leading the NFC West again with a 7-3 record as they faced the Minnesota Vikings on November 24, 1974 at the Memorial Coliseum. The team featured a conservative offense with an effective ground game that was led by RB Lawrence McCutcheon and a solid defense.

What was surprising was the change at quarterback six games into the season. 34-year-old veteran John Hadl, who had been obtained from the Chargers prior to the ’73 season and proceeded to put together a Pro Bowl performance, started the year but, in an astonishing move, was traded to Green Bay for five draft picks in October. His replacement was James Harris (pictured above), a castoff from the Buffalo Bills.

The 6’4”, 210-pound Harris had started a total of three games in three years with the Bills before being waived in 1972. Signed by the Rams for ’73, he sat on the bench backing up Hadl, but now he was being handed the starting job for a contending team in midseason. If the inexperience factor was not enough, the fact that the Grambling product was at that point the only African-American starting quarterback in the NFL added to the pressure. Thus far, he had risen to the challenge, as the club had gone 4-1 with him leading the offense.

The Vikings, under eighth-year Head Coach Bud Grant, were the defending NFC champions. They were still known for their defense, although age was beginning to creep into the picture. The offense featured QB Fran Tarkenton, a 14th-year veteran, and versatile RB Chuck Foreman. Minnesota was also 7-3 and leading the NFC Central division. Moreover, the Rams had lost to the Vikings in each of their last five meetings.

There was a huge crowd of 90,266 fans at the cavernous Memorial Coliseum, the most to watch a Rams game since 1959. It was an unseasonably hot day in which the temperature rose to 90 degrees at field level.

There was no scoring in the first quarter, but Fred Cox put the Vikings on the board in the second quarter with a 36-yard field goal. Minnesota followed with a 96-yard drive in five plays that was highlighted by Tarkenton passes of 48 yards to WR Jim Lash and 45 yards to WR John Gilliam. Foreman ran for a one-yard touchdown that made the score 10-0.

The Rams came back as Harris led them on a 63-yard, 10-play drive for their first score. Harris capped the drive himself as he dove for a TD from a yard out, but David Ray’s extra point attempt hit the right upright and was unsuccessful – even though the Vikings had only 10 players on the field – and Minnesota maintained a four-point advantage at 10-6.

The Vikings came back on their next possession that started with just 48 seconds left in the half, moving 65 yards in seven plays, five of which were passes. Foreman’s second TD occurred on the last of those throws from Tarkenton, from 12 yards out. Minnesota held a 17-6 lead at the half.

LA had been dogged by mistakes and penalties in the first half. In particular, a 60-yard punt return for an apparent TD by RB Cullen Bryant was called back due to a clip. The large and restless crowd had been doing its share of booing.

In the first possession of the third quarter, Harris injured his ankle on a 10-yard scramble and was forced to miss a series. In relief, rookie Ron Jaworski completed his first regular season NFL pass, of 19 yards to WR Lance Rentzel, although a second, to TE Bob Klein down to the Minnesota one yard line, was called back due to clipping. 15 more yards were tacked on when Coach Knox was penalized for arguing the call.

With his ankle re-taped, Harris came back into the game. Another scoring opportunity was missed when rookie RB John Cappelletti fumbled after catching a Harris pass at the Vikings’ 20, with Minnesota recovering. In the meantime, the Vikings offense had turned conservative and no points were scored in the period.

However, the Rams offense came alive in the fourth quarter. The Vikings had been pinned down deep in their own territory following an excellent punt by LA’s Mike Burke that went out at the Minnesota six (Burke had a great day, and greatly helped in the battle for field position, as he dropped five punts inside the 20 and four of those inside the 10). Following a sack of Tarkenton by DT Larry Brooks, the Rams were able to get good field position on the ensuing punt (and despite a penalty on the return) at the Vikings’ 43.

Harris threw to WR Jack Snow for a 24-yard gain, and followed up with passes to Cappelletti for five yards and McCutcheon for 13 down to the one yard line. From there, Harris again gained the last yard, diving into the end zone for a touchdown. Getting the PAT this time, the Rams were now behind by 17-13.

The Vikings got the ball back with eight minutes remaining and again faced inspired play by the Los Angeles defense. The defensive line of ends Fred Dryer and Jack Youngblood and tackles Merlin Olsen and Larry Brooks was especially effective in throttling the Vikings. They were forced to punt again, with the Rams taking over at their 31 yard line with just under four minutes on the clock.

Harris was once again able to find holes in Minnesota’s five-deep coverage. He first threw to WR Harold Jackson, who made a diving catch at the sideline for a 15-yard gain. Then he hit Cappelletti for eight yards and Klein for 17 down to the Vikings’ 23. Following the two-minute warning, Harris tossed to Cappelletti once again for six yards and then to McCutcheon, who gained nine yards to the eight yard line. With 1:14 remaining to play, Harris lobbed a pass into the end zone over substitute CB Jackie Wallace that Snow pulled in for the go-ahead touchdown.

Minnesota had time for one last shot, but Tarkenton was intercepted by LB Ken Geddes to nail down the 20-17 win for the Rams.

Los Angeles outgained the Vikings, with 380 yards to 301, and had the edge in first downs with 25 to 18. Each team turned the ball over once, although the six LA penalties had been costly.

James Harris completed his last ten passes and was successful on 24 of 37 overall for 249 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Lawrence McCutcheon gained 64 yards rushing on 15 carries and added 7 pass receptions for 58 yards. Jack Snow (pictured at left) also caught 7 passes, including the game-winning TD, and gained 91 receiving yards.

For the Vikings, Fran Tarkenton connected on 19 of 35 passes for 217 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Chuck Foreman was the leading receiver, with 9 catches for 88 yards and a TD, as well as leading ground gainer with 49 yards on 12 attempts, including a score.

Chuck Knox called the second half comeback “the best half of our season. We made it hard on ourselves, but I'm real proud of the way our guys hung in there.”

“I give more of the credit to the offensive line,” said Harris. “Minnesota had us pretty well covered and I had to look for secondary receivers. They gave me time to do that.”

“The play was a quick go,” said Snow of the winning TD. “Wallace came up to bump me at the start. I made a little quick move and got past him. James laid it right out there. No man could drop a pass so perfectly placed. There was no way I was going to flub it. This moment has been a long time coming.”

The Rams were able to clinch the NFC West following the next night’s win by the Steelers over New Orleans. They ended up at 10-4 and beat the Redskins in the Divisional round of the playoffs before meeting up once again with Minnesota in the NFC Championship game and losing this time, 14-10. The Vikings had gone on to win the NFC Central for the sixth time in seven years, also with a 10-4 tally, and handily defeated the Cardinals to get to the conference championship game. They lost to Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.

James Harris surprised the skeptics, ranking second in the NFC in passing (85.1 rating). His overall numbers were modest, due to the nature of the offense and his not starting for the whole season, as he passed for 1544 yards with 11 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. But he topped NFC passers in yards per attempt (7.8) and yards per completion (14.6) and the club went 7-2 in his starts. Harris was selected to the Pro Bowl and was named MVP of the game.