Fifty Years of Patriots Football: The 1980’s
The foundation for the Patriots in the 1980’s was laid by former coach, Chuck Fairbanks. He drafted franchise future hall of famers such as Steve Grogan, Stanley Morgan, John Hannah, and Steve Nelson. They formed the core of a veteran team complimented by some young stars such as Tony Eason, Andre Tippett, Tony Collins, and Craig James.
With this chemistry success was soon to follow and my love affair with the team began.
The decade opened with a 10-6 record in 1980 and a second place finish in the AFC East. The team set a franchise record for points scored with 441 points, but failed to qualify for the playoffs.
The success of 1979 and 1980 was soon forgotten as the Patriots could only muster two wins in 1981. The franchise had become a laughing stock of the league and always found new ways to lose.
The team would end the season with a 9 game losing streak. This streak included a 23-21 loss to the equally as pitiful, 1-14 Baltimore Colts on the last day of the season. Some folks have dubbed this as, “The Worst Game in NFL History.”
Coach Ron Erhardt would be dismissed after the 1981 season and replaced by former SMU coach, Ron Meyer.
The 1982 campaign was a strike shortened year. The Patriots posted a 5-4 record which included a 3-0 win vs. Miami on Dec 12th.
Why is this game so special?
A snow was falling in Foxboro which caused unstable footing especially for kicking field goals. Steve Grogan told Coach Meyer to get the snow plow to clear an area for John Smith to attempt a field goal.
Mark Henderson, on work release from Walpole State Prison, plowed a path for the field goal attempt. John Smith connected and the Patriots won 3-0.
Henderson’s name was being chanted and he forever has a place in Patriots lore.
The win not only infuriated Miami coach, Don Shula put it helped catapult the Pats into the playoffs for first time since 1978.
Miami would get its revenge a month later beating the Patriots 28-13 in the first round of the playoffs.
During the 1983 season, the Patriots home was renamed Sullivan Stadium after the team’s ownership.
The team chose quarterback, Tony Eason from the University of Illinois from one of the deepest drafts in NFL History. Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly and Ken O’Brien were other members of the famous QB class of ’83.
Eason spent most of his rookie season behind starter Steve Grogan. He got into four games due to injury, posting 557 yards with one touchdown and 5 interceptions. This game experience would prove very beneficial in Eason’s development.
The team was a .500 ball club that year posting an 8-8 record. One of the few highlights that year was the play of running back, Tony Collins. Collins posted 1,049 yards with 10 touchdowns.
His best game of the year was on Sept 18th vs. the New York Jets. Collins scampered for 212 yards in a 23-13 win at Sullivan Stadium. This would be a pre cursor for things to come.
The 1984 campaign was a bitter sweet year for the Patriots.
Tony Eason would come into his own at quarterback. He would step in again for an injured Steve Grogan. He led the team to an improbable come from behind victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
Trailing 23-0 in the second quarter, Tony Eason would lead the Patriots to 38 unanswered points. His stat line would read 12 for 22 for 126 yards. Not gaudy numbers by any stretch, but he had no turnovers and accounted for 3 touchdowns (2 passing and 1 rushing).
Eason finished the season with stellar numbers for a sophomore. He threw 23 touchdowns with only 8 interceptions. His interception percentage was tops in the league.
Another young star, linebacker Andre Tippett emerged as one of the marquee pass rushers in the NFL.
Drafted in 1982 from the University of Iowa, Tippett became feared throughout the league especially during the ’84 season. Andre recorded 18.5 sacks to lead the NFL (3rd most by any linebacker in history) and was also selected to the Pro Bowl.
By the mid point of the season, the Patriots would have a respectable 5-3 record. However, their good efforts and fortunes were about to be derailed.
Management fired Ron Meyer. It was apparent power struggle between the two parties. Meyer fired defensive coordinator, Rod Rust to the displeasure of the Sullivan family.
The Sullivans replaced Meyer with Raymond Berry. The former wide receiver great with the Baltimore Colts, served on the Patriots’ staff from 1978-81. The Sullivans contacted him and offered him the position.
Berry said transitioning into the head coach’s role was like “Putting on an old shoe.”
The shoe was a little tight for the remainder of the 1984. The Patriots finished the season with a 9-7 record (posting a 4-4 record after Berry’s hiring) and missed the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
The following season could be considered the year of very comfortable shoes for Berry and the Patriots.
I was only 12 years old in 1985. My Dad, who doesn’t really like football, got tickets for the Patriots-Packers opening day game. Only problem was the seats were on opposite ends of the stadium. I guess it’s the thought that counts.
Too bad the seats weren’t together because I would have witnessed one of the best and memorable teams in Patriots’ history.
The quarterback carousel would continue to turn in the 1985 season. Starter and rising star, Tony Eason was sidelined with a shoulder injury in the sixth game of the season versus the Buffalo Bills.
Dependable veteran, Steve Grogan, was yet again waiting in the wings. After stepping in for Eason, Grogan rattled off 6 straight wins bringing the Patriots record to 8-3.
The Patriots were on a roll, but would soon experience a case of déjà vu.
Grogan not Eason would go down with a broken leg against the New York Jets. Eason erased a 13-3 deficit, but New York prevailed in OT, 16-13. The Patriots 6 game winning streak was ended and they stood at 8-4.
The Patriots chalked up wins against the Lions and Colts, but their loss to Dolphins the following week would be costly. At 10-5, their playoff hopes would now ride on the season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Pats raced out to a 27-16 in front of the Foxboro faithful on that chilly December afternoon. The Bengals would cut the lead to 27-23 on an Esiason-Collinsworth touchdown pass in the 4th quarter.
Would the Patriots hold on or would it be another disappointing heartbreak?
Robert Weathers sprinted for a 42 yard score that put the game away and the crowd went insane. Legend has it, that they tore the goal posts down and paraded them down Route 1 in Foxboro. Their crusade was cut short when the posts got tangled in power lines and gave these passionate fans a jolt, literally.
The Patriots reached the post season because of the superb play of Tony Eason, Andre Tippett(16.5 sacks/defensive player of the year), Steve Grogan(led the team to 6 straight wins), Craig James(1227 yards rushing), Fred Marion(Pro Bowl safety), and Raymond Clayborn(Pro Bowl corner). A balanced offense and a tenacious defense were a lethal combination for their opponents.
The Patriots knew they were good and knew they could win at home or on the road.
However, history was not in the Patriots favor. They would have to win three straight road games to reach the Super Bowl in New Orleans. No team had accomplished this feat in NFL history.
The first stop would be against the New York Jets in the AFC Wild Card Game at the Meadowlands. The Patriots offense and defense made all the big plays as the Jets’ offense sputtered. Final Score 26-14.
The hated and top seeded Los Angeles (aka Oakland) Raiders were now standing in their way to a date in the AFC Championship. The Patriots would exorcise all the demons from their loss to the Raiders in the 1976 playoffs and the injuring of Darryl Stingley at the hands of Jack Tatum. Memories that still didn’t sit well with the Patriots 10 years later.
The Pats came strong out of the box converting a Raiders turnover, one of six on the day, to 7 points with an Eason to Lin Dawson touchdown giving them a 7-0 lead. The Raiders then went on to score the next 17 points and led the AFC Divisional playoff early in the second quarter.
However, the offensive fireworks did not stop there between the two teams. The Patriots went on to score 10 points and the Raiders added 3 more to end the half, 20-17 in favor of Los Angeles in front of a sell out crowd at the Coliseum.
The Patriots would tie up the game 20-20 on a Tony Franklin 32 yard field goal. Sammy Seale fumbled the kick from the Patriots causing a mad scramble at the Raiders goal line. Special teamer Jim Bowman, a name etched in Patriots history, jumped on the loose piggy to give the Patriots a 27-20 lead.
The tide officially turned in the Patriots’ favor.
The Pats went on to win the game by capitalizing on Raiders miscues and the down hill running of Craig James who amassed 104 hard fought yards. The Patriots were heading to the first AFC Championship in team history in a place that they lost 18 straight times.
The dreaded Orange Bowl in Miami.
Craig James said “They knew they were going to the Super Bowl” and they played just that way.
It was time to “Squish the Fish.” We all know dolphins are mammals, but nothing really rhymes with dolphins. Plus it made a great slogan and t-shirt!
As they did against the Jets and Raiders, the defense and special teams remained opportunistic. The Dolphins would turn the ball over 6 times which resulted in 24 New England points.
Early in the 2nd quarter, the Dolphins went ahead 7-3 but that would be the last time they would have the lead. The Pats would go on and score the next 21 points led by the three headed monster of Tony Collins (61 yards), Craig James (105 yards), and Robert Weathers (87 yards).
Fan Favorite, Mosi Tatupu, answered Miami’s score and put the game away, 31-14 with a one yard run. I can still see Mosi tumbling in the end zone in his mud covered uniform. I bet Mosi’s Mooses were going wild back in New England.
They did it. They beat the Dolphins! They were going to the Super Bowl!
The Orange Bowl jinx was dead.
Head Coach, Raymond Berry was raised on his players’ shoulders.
New Orleans here we come and it’s time to “Bury the Bears!”
I still remember watching the game downstairs in my family’s playroom. When Walter Payton fumbled and the Patriots recovered the ball, we all thought the years of Boston failures were over! Another Boston sports team was going to join the Celtics in championship heaven!
Unfortunately, the Chicago Bears had something to say about that. Super Bowl XX was a house of horrors for the New England. After the short lived 3-0 lead, they would be outscored 46-7 for the remainder of the contest.
A defense led by Mike Singletary and Richard Dent devoured Patriots quarterbacks sacking them a record 7 times. The Patriots rushing attack amassed 21 feet (7 yards) and the offense could only compile 123 total yards. The Super Dream became a Super Nightmare.
As bad as their Super journey ended, the 1985 season is considered one of the most successful and exciting in team history. The Patriots became relevant in New England again and the future was very bright.
In 1986, the Patriots finished 11-5 again. This year they would enter the playoffs as AFC East Champions.
The Patriots clinched the division on the last day of the regular season versus the Miami Dolphins. Steve Grogan came in relief for an injured Tony Eason, leading the team to a 34-27 victory and setting up a playoff tilt with the John Elway led Denver Broncos.
New England took the lead 17-13 on an Eason to Morgan strike in the 3rd quarter. However, John Elway as he did numerous times in his career engineered a comeback and beat the Pats 22-17.
Another great year for New England had been cut short of their goal.
Starting in 1987, the Patriots would go on to miss the post season for 7 straight years. The team would finish with a strike shortened 8-7 record.
One of the few bright spots was the return of Boston College star, Doug Flutie. He was released by Chicago and signed by his hometown team. Flutie only saw spot duty in 1987, but would make a big splash in 1988.
Tony Eason’s injuries continued to mount in 1988 and it set the stage for Doug Flutie to take center stage. Flutie had one of his biggest games versus the still powerhouse, 7-1 Chicago Bears.
Flutie didn’t post incredible numbers that game but made every pass count. Of his six completions, 4 went for touchdowns. The Patriots would go to avenge their Super Bowl XX loss and finally “Bury the Bears” 30-7.
In an interview years later, Bears Coach, Mike Ditka would say that “He (Flutie) just killed us!”
Flutie would also have a formidable running attack in 1988. John Stephens, the Patriots first pick from NW Louisiana State, had a Pro Bowl year posting 1168 yards and 4 touchdowns. He would indeed be selected to his first Pro Bowl and also grabbed Rookie of the Year honors.
After the memorable victory over Chicago, the Patriots would finish 5-2 down the stretch. The slow start, however, cost them a chance at the post season. The franchise would miss the playoffs for a second straight year.
The close of the decade in 1989 would also be the close of an era for Raymond Berry. After
a 5-11 record, Berry was fired by the Patriots. He would leave team as the second winningest coach in franchise history.
His players loved him. They respected him. He led them to a Super Bowl.
The first and now one of only 2 teams (2004 Pittsburgh Steelers) to win 3 playoff games on the road and reach the Super Bowl.
The decade of the 1990’s would be considered bitter sweet for the Patriots and their fans.
I also made one of the best purchases of my life. Season tickets.