In case Saints fans may have missed it yesterday, especially with all of the “hype” and excitement associated with the new Saints 2018 rookie class and undrafted free agents who were participating on the final day of the Saints 2018 Rookie Mini-Camp this past weekend; word spread across the NFL that legendary former head coach Chuck Knox had passed away at the age of 86.
So WHY should you care as a Saints fan?
Understandably, if you’re a fan of the Saints but younger than the age of 35, then chances are you’ve never heard of Knox, who was famously the head coach of one of the Saints’ long-time rivals during the “early years” of the franchise’s now 52-year history: the Los Angeles Rams.
Knox compiled a regular-season record of 186-147-1 and went 7-11 in the playoffs during his 22 seasons as a head coach. He coached the Rams (54-15-1) from 1973 to 1977, the Bills (37-36) from 1978 to 1982, the Seahawks from 1983 to 1991 and the Rams (15-33) again from 1992 to 1994.
He was named the AP Coach of the Year in 1973, 1980 and 1984 and also won the UPI version of the award in 1983 and 1984.
But it was his time during the early to late 1970’s as head coach for the Rams, that “older” Saints fans will never forget.
Why so, you ask?
Simply because back in those days, Knox and his Rams teams TORTURED the Saints — and made the New Orleans franchise their designated “whipping boys’.
The Rams dominated the old version of the NFC West Division in those days, which was before the onset of the San Francisco 49ers dynasty under the legendary duo of head coach Bill Walsh and QB Joe Montana that began with the 1981 season.
However, most older Saints fans’ “favorite memory” associated with yesterday’s notable passing of the legendary Knox, likely would be the events that took place at the Superdome during what was otherwise a very forgettable 1977 NFL season.
Up until that season, the Rams had literally OWNED the series between the two teams, with the Rams holding a then 12-3 advantage — with all three of the Saints wins coming in New Orleans at the old Tulane Stadium, where the Saints would play for the final time during the 1974 season before the Superdome officially opened in August of 1975.
The NFC West in the mid-to-late 1970’s still was Chuck Knox and the Rams’ domain, but little did they realize on this fateful day that at the Superdome, that they would be in for the fight of their NFL lives.
It was a day when the New Orleans Saints shocked the Pro Football world and a NFL coaching legend.
The date was October 30th, 1977.
The Rams were (4-2) and were coming off a huge win the week before over the NFC “powerhouse” Minnesota Vikings, who had just been in the Super Bowl the previous season.
The Saints meanwhile were only (1-5), having just gotten beat by the then-St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, by a score of 49-31.
Suffice it to say: the Saints WERE NOT expected to win on this particular day.
However as fate would have it: the “football gods” had other plans.
Having just beaten the Saints by a score of 14-7 two weeks earlier out in Los Angeles, Knox and his Rams team arrived at the Superdome that day as double-digit favorites.
But thanks to some impressively hard-running on that day by Saints RB Tony Gabreath, New Orleans found itself tied with the Rams at 10-10 early in the 2nd quarter.
Then, it was a bit of “trickery” by then-Saints head coach Hank Stram, that actually gave the boys in Black and Gold a fighting chance to beat the Rams, for once.
Stram had Saints defensive tackle Elois “Elo” Grooms report into the Saints huddle as an eligible receiver.
As the ball was snapped, the 6-foot-4, 260 pound Grooms somehow managed to sneak into the end zone completely unnoticed, and was WIDE OPEN.
Punter and place-kick holder Tommy Blanchard then quickly rose to his feet, and lofted a pass that seemingly hung in the Superdome air forever, before it landed softly in Grooms’ hands for the 3-yard touchdown reception, and Knox and a stunned Rams squad suddenly found themselves trailing by a score of 17-10.
It was at that point, that the Rams realized: they were in for a fight for their lives — at least on THIS particular day.
However, with the Saints being WHO they were at that time (which was a bad football team minus its star QB with Archie Manning sidelined with an injury), the defense quickly surrendered 10 points, on a Pat Haden TD pass to Harold Jackson, and a 27-yard field goal by kicker Rafael Septien, and Los Angeles went into the locker room at half-time with a 20-17 lead.
Fortunately for the Saints, they weren’t ready to simply “roll over” and allow Knox and the Rams to run away with the easy victory in the 2nd half, as they had previously in the past.
Late in the 3rd quarter, a 1-yard TD run by Galbreath, who led the Saints in rushing that day with an even 100 yards on 20 carries, put the Saints back on top by a score of 24-20.
But the Rams answered back with a drive of their own, and after eating up nearly 5 minutes worth of clock on a methodical drive that literally “took the life” out of the Superdome crowd of 59,023 (remember: there weren’t any sell-outs at the Superdome back in those days), it was a 2-yard run by RB Lawrence McCutcheon that put the Rams back on top by a score of 26-24 (their 2-point conversion pass attempt fell incomplete) with less than 6 minutes remaining on the game clock.
But there was plenty of football still left to be played.
Could the Saints — without Archie Manning — somehow pull out the win?
Not everyone who was actually watching the game by this point figured that they would, but once again on this particular afternoon, the Saints were simply tired of being the Rams’ designated “punching bag”.
Saints back-up QB Bobby Scott took charge in the Saints huddle after the kick-off, and with a brilliant mix of passing and running the football, with the help of RB Chuck Muncie, drove the Saints deep into Rams territory.
Muncie was hurt too, with a bad ankle, missing the first half, but playing in the 2nd half. He actually got 92 yards on 17 carries with one good leg — and this was against a Rams team that had the best rushing defense in the NFC.
The Saints got down inside the 20, before a 3rd down incompletion saw the drive stall at the Rams 14-yard line.
It was kicker Rich Szaro‘s 31-yard field goal that then put the Saints up by a score of 27-26 with less than 3 minutes remaining.
After Haden and the Rams offense couldn’t muster a drive to answer back with a game-winning kick of their own, Scott and the Saints offense got the ball back and ran out the remainder of the game-clock with the Rams finally out of time-outs; pulIing off what was considered to be a monumental upset at the time.
“This was a game we had to win”, a jubilant Stram said to the media after the stunning upset over their long-time divisional rivals.
“This is a ‘stepping-stone’ for our program”.
As fate would have it: Stram — although he didn’t realize it at the time — couldn’t have been any further off with his evaluation of his team on that day.
The Saints would only win ONE MORE GAME the rest of that season, and finished the 1977 season on a 4-game losing streak that included an embarrassing 33-14 home loss to the (0-26) expansion team the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who got their franchise’s first win EVER with an equally historic upset of a heavily-favored New Orleans team.
Stram was fired by then-Saints owner John Mecom, Jr. a few months later, by his front-office cronies at that time and was eventually replaced by linebackers coach Dick Nolan.
In his two years as head coach, Stram and the Saints only managed to win a grand total of seven games (4-10 in 1976, 3-11 in 1977).
As for Knox?
After a home playoff loss to those same NFC powerhouse Minnesota Vikings by a score of 14-7 on a saturated, rain-soaked field in a game which has been called the “Mud Bowl” (click HERE to read), Knox was fired due to ownership’s frustration that he had not been able to reach the Super Bowl.
The legendary head coach whose teams tortured the New Orleans franchise for what seemed like forever back in those days, saw his tenure as the opposing head coach that an older generation of Saints fans “loved to hate” (but still respected), come to an end in the ‘slop’ of his own home stadium.
For older Saints fans, yesterday’s news served as a reminder of the not-so-great memories of the days when Knox’s teams routinely beat their Black and Gold heroes on a seemingly unwavering basis.