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COMMENTARY : Rams’ First Move: Show Knox the Door : Last Stop in Anaheim Proves One Too Many

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sandbags were piled up outside the Rams’ publicity offices Monday morning. A week ago, the bags were functional, providing ground support against the rainstorm that had pounded Rams Park, but by this late hour, their symbolism could have dammed a flood.

Around 11:30, a dispatch was sent forth from inside the bunker. A news release. Four terse paragraphs, announcing that “the Los Angeles Rams and Chuck Knox agreed today that Knox no longer will coach the team,” which was accurate only to a point. The Rams told Knox, “You no longer will coach the team” and Knox told them, “OK.”

There was also a two-sentence statement from owner Georgia Frontiere--whose name was misspelled Gerogia on the release--which accounted for the only communication Frontiere had had with her once-beloved, hand-picked coach since the end of the season.

“I tried calling Georgia before Christmas,” Knox said Monday. “I called Georgia before Christmas and left a message, wishing her a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

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Frontiere sent her postseason greetings by way of a severance check. No handshake. No “Sorry, it was my mistake to go to the well once too often.”

As usual, she sent John Shaw to do the dirty work--you terminate a coach, you terminate a lease, same procedure--and before lunchtime, Knox’s 22-year career as an NFL head coach was history.

Had he ended it after 19, Knox’s legacy would have been secure. Mr. Fix-It. Mr. Goodwrench. He didn’t do Super Bowls, but home improvement was guaranteed wherever he landed, be it Los Angeles in 1973, or Buffalo in 1978 or Seattle in 1983.

But Knox’s fourth stop, Anaheim in 1992, was one too many. Nearing his 60th birthday at the time, Knox should have known better, if the Rams didn’t.

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These NFL salvage jobs are young men’s work. Dave Wannstedt is doing it in Chicago. Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh. Chuck Knox, at age 41, in 1973. The task requires massive amounts of energy, patience and tolerance--and whose fuel gauges are as full at 60 as they were at 35 or 40?

The team Knox inherited in 1992 was 3-13, loser of its last 10 games.

The team Knox leaves behind three years later is 4-12, loser of its last seven.

He did upgrade the Rams’ talent level, significantly in some areas, but that ultimately led to his downfall. How could Knox add Sean Gilbert, Jerome Bettis, Shane Conlan, Troy Drayton, Jimmie Jones, Fred Stokes, Chris Miller, Joe Kelly and Marquez Pope to the roster and backpedal? He was 6-10 the first season, 5-11 the next and 4-12 the next.

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The question had to be asked, and for months now, the most popular response was: The game has passed him by.

Knox hated this line of conversation and often bit back at it, frequently pointing to the successes of fellow sexagenarians Marv Levy and Don Shula. But if Knox wasn’t outdated, he was certainly old school, clinging to a system of values last in vogue around the time Tom Mack was leading the sweep for Lawrence McCutcheon.

Loyalty, for example. Knox demanded it from his assistant coaches, and for those who bought into the program, he returned it in kind. This is why John Robinson’s old offensive and defensive coordinators, Ernie Zampese and Jeff Fisher, have moved on to better assignments in Dallas and Houston; they weren’t true believers.

Meanwhile, faithful foot soldiers Chick Harris and George Dyer have moved up through the ranks. The result was insulation at the expense of innovation. Harris’ offense last season was more predictable--and considerably less proficient--than up-the-gut Chicago’s. Dyer’s defense, anchored by a Stokes-Gilbert-Jones-Robert Young front four, managed only 26 sacks and yielded a per-game average of 27 points from Oct. 23 on.

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Knox cut his coaching teeth in the ‘70s, when professional football players went about their business as professionals and quarterbacks were stand-up, stay-firm-in-the-pocket guys who didn’t point fingers when receivers dropped passes or centers perspired too profusely on the football they were snapping.

The ‘90s were a culture shock to Knox. His quarterbacks with the Rams during Round II were the self-sacking Jim Everett, the not-ready-for-prime-time T.J. Rubley, the forever-nicked Chris Miller and the foot-tapping, I-should-be-starting Chris Chandler. Knox never made it to a Super Bowl, but the truth is, he never had a quarterback capable of driving him there.

Everett came closest; he was a big reason Knox accepted the job three years ago. Now, he’s a big reason why Knox is leaving, his ’93 meltdown helping shove the rebuilding program off track for good.

In an age in which venom and vulgarity is rewarded with NFL head coaching assignments (see Buddy Ryan, Jerry Glanville), Knox weighed his words as if they were Mack trucks. He was painfully stoic, the worst on-the-record quote in the league, but that was the image he chose to present to his players. He wanted them to see him as Head Coach--a man of few words and large credentials, to be aroused into action simply by his presence.

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This worked well when the players were named Merlin Olsen and Jack Youngblood. But that breed of self-starter has gone the way of the single-bar facemask.

Today’s players respond to cajoling, counseling, an occasional chalkboard-kicking. Knox didn’t believe in the fire and brimstone. Only twice last season did Knox address the team the night before a game. His players were pros, right? They could be trusted to act as such on Sunday.

Fifteen victories in 48 games proved otherwise. The sad irony of 1994 was that Chuck Knox, the consummate players’ coach, could not get his players to play for him. His final team had more talent than the Bears, comparable talent to the Chargers, and it went 4-12 while Chicago and San Diego went deep into the playoffs.

“Quite honestly, I never thought this was going to happen,” Knox said Monday.

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It never had before, and Knox placed his faith in that track record. He had done it here once, a made-for-Hollywood success story if there ever was one, but he forgot one of the industry’s most basic tenets:

The sequel seldom plays as well as the original.


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