James “Shack” Harris: Pioneer quarterback for the LA Rams

(Photo by Nate Fine/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nate Fine/Getty Images) /

While I was researching an article ranking the LA Rams’ top five quarterbacks in the history of the franchise,  I came across one particularly intriguing quarterback by the name of James Harris.  While he was someone I considered for the Top-5 list, ultimately, he did not make the list.

Still, I was so intrigued by this quarterback’s story, I decided then and there that my next article has to be about this LA Rams quarterback.  That quarterback is James “Shack” Harris, who played for the LA Rams for four seasons, from 1973 until 1976. He was a pioneer in the NFL and helped break down barriers and stereotypes for the African-American quarterback.

Harris was initially drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1969, where he would play for three years, getting only three starts during his time.  The Bills were less than settled at the quarterback position, and Harris would find himself appearing in 18 games despite only starting three. Harris was the prototype dual-threat quarterback, long before a running quarterback was okay. With the Bills, Harris would compete for playing time with QBs Jack Kemp, Dan Darragh, and Dennis Shaw.

Harris arrived in Buffalo the same year as running back O.J. Simpson.

While in Buffalo, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes, throwing five touchdowns, and 11 interceptions.  It was not his time in Buffalo; however, where he would make history, that would come later.  Harris was cut by the Buffalo Bills after Lou Saban was hired as their next head coach at the end of the 1971 season.  Harris was out of football for the 1972 season after his release from Buffalo.  That was until the LA Rams called him in 1973.

Related Story. LA Rams: 5 greatest quarterbacks in franchise history. light

The ‘Ground Chuck’ era

That year, he signed on to play for ‘Ground’ Chuck Knox.

The fireworks did not begin for him until his Pro Bowl season the following year.  During that ’74 season, James Harris came in mid-way through the season and led the LA Rams to a 7 – 2 mark in his nine starts and helped carry the team into the playoffs, where he would make his first bit of history.  Harris would lead the LA Rams to their first playoff win in 23 years, becoming the first African American to start and win a playoff game in the NFL.

But the “firsts” actually did not start there.  During that 1974 season, Harris was named to the Pro Bowl and became the first African-American to not only start the game but was named the game’s MVP. Who did he compete against to earn a starting role as the Rams quarterback? None other than veteran QB John Hadl and a rookie who would go on to his own NFL career by the name of Ron Jaworski, the Polish Rifle.

Harris remained the starting quarterback the following season, in 1975, and became the first African-American to start a season opener in the NFL, when he led the LA Rams onto the field against Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys. While the Rams lost that game, Harris would lead the LA Rams to an impressive 11 -2 record in 1975.  The Rams earned a playoff berth but would suffer an opening playoff loss and this would be James Harris’ last playoff game as a player.

Hot. LA Rams: The 5-step plan for a perfect offseason. light

Pat Haden’s team

The Rams would go on to play well in 1976, playing to a 10-3-1 record and winning the NFC West once more. The team would avenge their previous year’s playoff loss by defeating the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round by the score of 14-12. The Rams would lose the NFC Championship game to the Minnesota Vikings by the score of 24-13. But the team had added rookie quarterback Pat Haden out of nearby USC, and it was Haden who would lead the Rams in the 1976 playoffs.

Ron Jaworski would be traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, and James Harris would later be traded to the San Diego Chargers, where he would play for three more seasons.  All told, James Harris played in the NFL for 10 seasons, and while with the LA Rams, he compiled a record of 21 – 6 as the starting quarterback, a winning percentage of 77. 8, a record that still stands in LA Rams history today.

James Harris would go on to have a successful career off the field in the front office of the Baltimore Ravens, where he helped to build the Super Bowl roster of the Ravens in 2001.  Harris also became the Vice President of Player Personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars and would later retire in 2015 from the Detroit Lions as their Senior Personnel Advisor.

Trending. Revisiting the LA Rams trade package for QB Matthew Stafford. light