Fifty Years of Patriots Football: The 1970’s
When we left the Patriots, they were in search of yet another home. The AFL was now defunct and they were now members of the National Football League. Times were a changing.
The Boston Patriots first year in the NFL was pretty forgettable. They returned to Harvard University to play the 1970 season. NFL MVP QB Joe Kapp was acquired from the Minnesota Vikings and expectations were high. However, Kapp couldn’t do it by himself and the Patriots floundered to a dismal 2-12 record.
The following year, 1971, was a monumental year in Patriots history. The team acquired land from the Bay State Raceway in Foxboro, MA to build Schaefer Stadium. Their name was changed from the Boston Patriots to the New England Patriots in March of that year. The team wanted to establish itself as the regional team for all five New England States.
The team’s stadium was completed in 325 days for a cost of about $7.1 million. Schaefer Brewing Company was one of the first corporations to pay for branding rights for a sports venue. The asking price was $150,000.
The new complex was not without its problems. Prior to the Patriots pre-season opener against the NY Giants, the stadium had a major “flush-off”. All of the stadiums toilets had to be flushed to ensure that the plumbing could handle the 60,000 patrons. It passed….barely.
Number one draft pick Jim Plunkett, would be the quarterback for the newly named, New England Patriots during the 1971 campaign. Before Plunkett entered the draft, UCLA coach Tommy Prothro had called him the “Best pro quarterback prospect he had ever seen.” The former Heisman trophy winner brought optimism and excitement to the relocated franchise.
Plunkett threw 19 TD’s and led the team to 6 wins in his first year. Plunkett led the Pats to an opening day win over the Oakland Raiders to christen Schaefer Stadium. He also orchestrated huge wins versus powerhouses Baltimore and Miami that adversely affected the playoff picture. Plunkett captured the AFC Rookie of the Year award for his performance.
Hope sprung eternal in Foxboro.
The sophomore slump struck Plunkett in 1972. The team finished an abysmal 3-11 and 2nd year coach John Mazur and GM Upton Bell were fired. The Patriots mediocre ways continued.
The Patriots found themselves looking for a new head coach entering 1973. They found their man. Former Oklahoma Head Coach, Chuck Fairbanks, was named the team’s new skipper. He had a stellar career in college leading the Sooners to three Big Eight Conference titles from 1967-1972
Fairbanks had great eye for talent. In the 1973 draft, he chose OL John Hannah, RB Sam Cunningham, DL Ray Hamilton, and WR Darryl Stingley. All these players would pay dividends over the years and Fairbanks wasn’t done building his team through the draft. The team only won 5 games that year, but the Pats positioned themselves to compliment their young nucleus of players.
In 1974, The Patriots welcomed new draftee, linebacker Steve Nelson and saw RB Mack Herron break the record for all purpose yards (2,444 yards) formerly held by Gayle Sayers. The team started on fire going 5-0 but sputtered down the stretch finishing 7-7 during the strike shortened season. It marked the first non losing season since 1966.
Chuck Fairbanks learned a lot in the 1974 season. He began to see chinks in Jim Plunkett’s armor. On the defensive side, he incorporated the new 3-4 defense which he used on almost every down. Fairbanks was an innovative tactician and incredible judge of talent.
In 1975, Fairbanks hit the draft jackpot yet again. He chose lanky quarterback, Steve Grogan from Kansas State in the fifth round. Grogan rode the pine for half of the season, but got significant playing time after starter, Jim Plunkett was benched. The team finished at the bottom of the league, but Grogan had a respectable rookie season posting 1,976 yards with 11 TDs and 18 picks.
The groundwork had been laid for Grogan to take over the starting position and Plunkett was traded to San Francisco for 3 first round picks (2 in 1976 and 1 in 1977). Fairbanks had more picks at his disposal to build a championship caliber team.
The country’s centennial year proved to be one of the best in franchise history. The draft in 1976 bore even more fruit. Cornerback Mike Haynes and TE Russ Francis made immediate impacts on this star studded team that was the New England Patriots.
The Patriots finished the season 11-3(most wins in franchise history at the time) and qualified for the post season for the first time in 13 years. Led by the Steve Grogan’s arms and legs (NFL record 12 rushing touchdowns), the Patriots defeated football powerhouses Pittsburgh on the road and Oakland 48-17 at home.
Their playoff opponent would be those same Oakland Raiders that they throttled earlier in the season. However, the game would take place in hostile Oakland. The Patriots fought and brawled their way to a 21-10 lead over the feisty Raiders. However, luck and the referees were not on their side.
A phantom roughing the passing call against Ray Hamilton on Kenny Stabler would set up the winning score for the Raiders and complete the comeback. Most Patriots players and fans at the time would refer to this game as one of the most painful moments in team history. They all felt this team was poised for greatness and was a better team than the eventual Super Bowl Champion, Oakland Raiders.
Chuck Fairbanks seemed to strike gold in the draft and 1977 was no different. Cornerback Raymond Clayborn and Wide out Stanley Morgan from the University of Tennessee were the newest bricks in the foundation that would last well into the 1980’s. Chuck Fairbanks seemed to be the Bill Belichick of the 1970’s. He was an incredible motivator, tactician, innovator and guru for talent.
The team finished with a respectable 9-5 record but missed the playoffs. It seemed the Patriots could not string together back to back successful years. Would 1978 prove to be a valley or peak for the franchise?
The Patriots reached the franchise’s highest peak with their second 11 win season, but had a small valley to overcome first. Wide receiver, Darryl Stingley was paralyzed due to a cheap shot by hated Raiders defensive back, Jack Tatum. The team rallied after this tragedy but Stingley would never walk again.
Many players felt the ’78 was better than the ’76 team. The ground attack sure was. Four players, including quarterback Steve Grogan, racked up at least 500 yards rushing. Grogan said “We had one of the best running games, there ever was in the NFL.” The team rushed for a NFL record 3,165 yards which still stands today.
The team clinched their first AFC title with one game left in the regular season. However, the season ended on a sour note with a 31-14 playoff loss to the Houston Oilers. The team may have been distracted by Chuck Fairbanks announcing that he would step down as head coach.
Fairbanks was suspended by the team at the end of the regular season due to his negotiations with the University of Colorado for their head coach opening. This situation seemed to be very similar to Parcells announcing his resignation prior to Super Bowl XXXI versus Green Bay. History does repeat itself.
Linebacker Steve Nelson said of Fairbanks, “He was as a good of a football coach as I ever had.” Chuck Fairbanks will always be remembered as the first great coach in Patriots history. He can also be considered the architect of a team that would have even more glory in the mid-1980′s.
The anticlimactic year of 1979, ushered in Ron Erhardt of North Dakota State fame as head coach. Quarterback, Steve Grogan had a bitter sweet season. His body began to take a beaten and he was no longer the elusive, running quarterback which he was earlier in his career. His newly adopted pocket passer style proved successful. He posted a perfect passer rating against the NY Jets by completing 13 passes for 315 yards and 5 touchdowns. However, the Pats finished with a 9-7 record and missed the playoffs.
The 1970’s was a decade of inconsistency sprinkled with instances of success. The players from the Fairbanks era would grow older in age but also with experience. These veterans would be integral to the success of the team in the 1980’s.
And I became a die hard fan….
Joe Gill is a featured contributor to Boston Sports Then and Now. You can read his regular column: “Cup Of Joe” every Tuesday and Friday. If you have a story idea or just want to talk sports, you can e-mail Joe directly at firstname.lastname@example.org