Thursday, October 14, 2010
Following a 6-7-1 season in 1972 (their first sub-.500 record since 1965), the Los Angeles Rams had a new look for 1973. Gone was Head Coach Tommy Prothro, successor to George Allen, and in his place was Chuck Knox, a long-time assistant with the Jets and Lions. Gone also was QB Roman Gabriel after 11 years with the Rams, traded to Philadelphia and replaced by another 11-year veteran, John Hadl, who was obtained from the San Diego Chargers.
The Eagles, desperate for a franchise quarterback, had given up much to obtain Gabriel. The Rams received two number one draft picks, a number two selection, RB Tony Baker, and most significantly, WR Harold Jackson (pictured above). The swift 5’10” (at most), 175-pound Jackson had led the NFL in both pass receptions (62) and receiving yards (1048) with the offensively-challenged Eagles. He had originally been drafted by the Rams in the 12th round out of Jackson State in 1968, was only active for two games, caught no passes, and was dealt to Philadelphia, where he quickly blossomed. His homecoming would prove to be a productive one.
The revamped Rams got off to a 4-0 start and on October 14 faced their biggest test to date as they hosted the Dallas Cowboys at the Memorial Coliseum. The Cowboys, perennial contenders under Head Coach Tom Landry, were 3-1 and coming off of a tough loss at Washington the previous Monday night.
There was a big and enthusiastic crowd of 81,428 present in the cavernous stadium. The Rams came out throwing as Hadl passed to FB Jim Bertelsen for a 12-yard gain on their first offensive play. Two plays later, Jackson caught his first touchdown pass of the game, speeding past FS Charlie Waters to go 63 yards.
Jackson caught a second scoring pass, of 16 yards, before Dallas got on the board thanks to a 30-yard interception return by CB Mel Renfro to make the score 14-7 at the end of the first quarter.
Turnovers put the Cowboys in a deep hole as they lost two fumbles by kick returner Les Strayhorn and had two passes intercepted in the first half, by CB Eddie McMillan and LB Isiah Robertson, that set up a touchdown and field goal, respectively.
Hadl connected with Jackson for two more long touchdowns, of 67 and 36 yards, in the second quarter. In addition, David Ray kicked field goals of 27 and 37 yards. Meanwhile, the Cowboys scored once, on an eight-yard run by RB Calvin Hill. The Rams had a 34-14 lead at halftime and Hadl had already completed 9 of 14 passes for 217 yards with the four TDs to Jackson.
However, Dallas made a strong comeback in the second half. QB Roger Staubach threw two touchdown passes, of six and 10 yards, to WR Otto Stowe. The Rams scored just once more, on a 35-yard field goal by Ray in the third quarter.
After the second Stowe touchdown, the Cowboys were at the LA one yard line and down by 9 points at 37-28 with five minutes left in the game; they elected to go for the short eight-yard Toni Fritsch field goal. Now behind by six points, Dallas got the ball back but DB Al Clark intercepted a Staubach pass at the LA 32 with 2:31 left on the clock. With the time running down to under two minutes remaining and the crowd cheering wildly, the Rams needed to maintain possession to run the clock out and seal the win; RB Larry Smith did the job as he gained five yards and a first down. Los Angeles held on for a 37-31 win.
The ground-oriented Rams had difficulty running against the number one-ranked “Doomsday Defense” of the Cowboys. Adding to LA’s running woes, RB Lawrence McCutcheon, second-leading rusher in the NFC coming into the game, suffered a pulled hamstring and didn’t play in the second half (he gained just 15 yards on three carries). McCutcheon was another new face who had contributed mightily to LA’s early success, having appeared in just three games – all on special teams – in his 1972 rookie season. Short-yardage specialist Tony Baker (12 rushes for 24 yards) also went down with a shoulder separation. Jim Bertelsen led the team with 52 yards on 17 carries.
However, the line protected Hadl well and allowed the passing game to compensate to devastating effect. While the Rams gained 104 rushing yards on 40 attempts (2.6 average gain), Hadl (pictured below) completed 12 of 22 passes for 279 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. Of that, Harold Jackson caught 7 passes for 238 yards and the four TDs.
For Dallas, Roger Staubach was successful on 15 of 25 throws for 173 yards with two TDs and three interceptions. Otto Stowe led the receivers with 6 catches for 86 yards and both touchdowns. Calvin Hill paced the team in rushing with 51 yards on 15 attempts and a TD.
“This is my finest hour in the NFL”, Harold Jackson said. “I feel I can run the deep post and just about get open every time. The key is I have to outrun the free safety. Charlie Waters told me after the game he made me look like I was All-World. He's a good player and I appreciate his saying that.”
Added John Hadl, “The two long touchdown passes were both off play action. Harold runs a post pattern and I just look for the last move he makes and try to throw it where I think he'll be."
“The Rams are a fine, great team with momentum,” said Dallas Coach Landry. “But the Rams beat a good football team. It's tough to come back from a Monday night game like we had to play. We wanted to win more than anything but we left everything on the field in Washington, particularly emotionally.”
Los Angeles went on to win the NFC West with a 12-2 record and the Cowboys recovered to win the NFC East at 10-4. The two teams met again in the postseason, in a Divisional playoff game, and Dallas came away the winner by a 27-16 score. The Cowboys went on to lose the NFC Championship game to the Minnesota Vikings.
Harold Jackson’s performance against the Cowboys came in the midst of a string of four games in which he caught a total of 13 passes for 422 yards for an impressive 32.5-yard average with 8 TDs. For the year, he had 40 receptions for 874 yards (21.9 average) and 13 touchdowns. He was a consensus first-team All-NFL selection (AP, NEA, Pro Football Writers of America, Pro Football Weekly) and went to the Pro Bowl for the third (of an eventual five) times. Upon his retirement, following the 1983 season, Jackson ranked second in career pass receiving yards (10,372) on his 579 catches, even though during his prime he played for a running team and in an era when zone defenses had largely curtailed the long passing game.
John Hadl ranked first in the NFL in percentage of TD passes (8.5) and yards per completion (14.9, tied with Atlanta’s Bob Lee), second in yards-per-attempt (7.8, again tied with Lee), and third in passing (88.8 rating) and touchdown passes (22). He, too, received All-Pro and Pro Bowl recognition, although in his case it was something of a last hurrah. Showing signs of decline the following year (and with the younger James Harris ready to take over), he was traded to Green Bay at midseason, and by his last two seasons (1976-77) was strictly a backup.