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JIM MURRAY

Ground Chuck Just a Pilot Away From Air Knox

September 16, 1990|JIM MURRAY

SEATTLE — They called him Ground Chuck. They called his football the School of Hard Knox. They said he played football 10 yards at a time, the way sandhogs built tunnels under rivers. Or miners dug coal. They recommended his teams wear lanterns and carry canaries.

They called his team the Seahawks, but the wise guys said they should be called the Moles. They got touchdowns the way gophers get plants.

But he did more with less than anyone who ever coached the game. After all, even Vince Lombardi had Bart Starr. Tom Landry had Roger Staubach. Chuck Noll had Terry Bradshaw. Paul Brown had Otto Graham. Don Shula had Bob Griese. Dan Reeves, John Elway. John Madden had Snake Stabler, Tom Flores, Jim Plunkett. Even Mike Ditka had Jim McMahon. And of course, Bill Walsh had Joe Montana.

Chuck Knox had Dave Krieg. And Ron Jaworski. And Jim Zorn. And Pat Haden. And James Harris. And Joe Ferguson. These weren't your basic Slingin' Sammy Baughs.

Chuck Knox is "the best coach never to get to the Super Bowl." He is, probably, the only coach ever to be fired after winning five successive divisional championships and going 12-2, 10-4, 12-2, 10-3-1 and 10-4 in the process.

The owner complained he didn't look good winning. Not Hollywood enough. It reminded you of the woman who screamed hysterically for someone to save her baby son from drowning, and when someone did, she looked accusingly at him and said, "Where's his hat?"

He had gotten his team within one foot of the Super Bowl twice. The first time, his Rams had the ball on the Minnesota one-foot line, fourth down and goal to go in a scoreless tie. They lined up for a chip-shot--no, a tap-in--field goal. It was blocked--and a Minnesota safety ran the ball back 90 yards for a touchdown. The Rams never recovered.

Another year, the Rams had the ball on the Minnesota one-foot line again, first down and goal to go, when the Minnesota tackle, Alan Page, with nothing to lose but a six-inch penalty, jumped offside. But the official ruled the Ram guard, Tom Mack, had drawn him off. After the Rams were moved back five yards, their quarterback, James Harris, on a rollout, threw an interception. Goodby, Super Bowl, once again.

Knox got shuffled off to Buffalo after that, and the next year the Rams fluked into the Super Bowl on a 9-7 record, the worst to make that summit. The gods were trying to tell Knox something.

Wherever he went, he never got a quarterback. Don Shula got Dan Marino. Chuck Knox got Dan Doornink. Bill Parcells got Phil Simms. Knox got Brian Bosworth.

Knox was trying to win no-limit poker hands with two treys.

Were the wounds self-inflicted? Well, when Chuck Knox took the Ram job in 1972, he was quoted as saying that quarterback was "just another position." He enlarged on the philosophy by explaining that if the supporting cast were strong enough, the quarterback needn't be all-world.

It was just as well he felt that way. Because he had to go to war against the all-worlds, like Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach, with Haden, Harris and Hadl.

He almost brought it off. Knox teams were--like the coach--resourceful, patient, smart, dogged, undiscourageable. An elite unit. They just had one weakness. Knox played the cards he was dealt--and he always came up an ace short. Whenever he called, the other guys had a higher hole card: the quarterback.

At Buffalo, the quarterback was a good Joe--but Ferguson, not Montana or Namath. Knox had to win games the old-fashioned way, by wagon train, not jet.

Hardly any team has ever made the Super Bowl without that old ace in the hole, the super quarterback.

Knox came closer than anybody. Has he had occasion to revise his earlier thinking? Is quarterback more than "just another position?" Is Ground Chuck about to become Air Knox?

Throughout their history, his Seahawks have drafted running backs No. 1 (Curt Warner, John L. Williams), or linebackers (Bosworth, Tony Woods) or tackles (Andy Heck, Cortez Kennedy). Quarterbacks are nowhere on their charts.

Knox sighs and says: "When I first expressed my opinion (about the relative value of quarterbacks), it was a different ballgame. Offensive linemen could not extend their arms to pass-block. Wide receivers could be checked at the line of scrimmage, even blocked below the waist, bumped and run with. You could use reasonable force to discourage quarterbacks, there was no in-the-grasp rule.

"Every rule that's been put into effect the last few years was designed to help the quarterback, make his role more decisive, more effective. It has become more of a quarterback's medium, this game.

"Now, there are two kinds of quarterbacks. There is what I call the 'because of' quarterback and the 'with' quarterback. You win 'because of' Joe Montana or John Elway. You win 'with' Phil Simms or Doug Williams."

Chuck Knox has never had either kind--a "because of" or even a "with" quarterback--in his history. "To get a 'because of' quarterback, you have to go 2-12," he explains. "And if you do that, you're out of a job. Somebody else gets the benefit of the 'because of' quarterback. If, of course, you can find one."

Knox's teams are landlocked because they don't have a pilot. They're like a gleaming new DC-10 that can only taxi from runway to runway, an aircraft carrier restricted to delivering tanks. If he had ever had even a "with" quarterback, he'd go from Ground Chuck to Air Knox, and the Super Bowl today might be known as Knox-ville, instead of the sovereign state of Montana.

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