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.