Fifty Years of Patriots Football: 1990-1994
To say the 1990’s were a turbulent time for the New England Patriots would be a vast understatement. The franchise was on a downward slope and just a shell of the competitive team that went to the playoffs in the mid 1980’s. The opening of the decade would be one of the team’s darkest times.
The Patriots started the 1990 season with a 1-1 record. They beat the Colts in Indianapolis 16-14 to mark their first win of the season. A victory should be positive energy to a team and hopefully build momentum for the next game.
Not for these Patriots.
Boston Globe reporter, Lisa Olsen, was in the Patriots locker room the following day. Tight end Zeke Mowatt and two other players exposed themselves and they sexually harassed the female reporter. The story became a black eye for the franchise and a total embarrassment.
The team would use three quarterbacks in 1990. Former Raider Marc Wilson, rookie Tommy Hodson, and old standby Steve Grogan combined for only 14 touchdown passes. The defense was terrible as well, yielding 446 points which was second worst in the NFL.
The Patriots finished 1-15 and was the laughing stock of the league.
Long time Patriot and fan favorite, Steve Grogan called it a career after the 1990 season. Grogan played for the Patriots from 1975 to 1990. He posted 26,886 passing yards and 182 touchdowns which were franchise records. He also rushed for 2,164 yards and 35 touchdowns. He personified what a Patriots player should be.
Coach, Rod Rust was fired after only one year at the helm. Former Syracuse head coach, Dick MacPherson was hired as the next coach of the New England Patriots.
MacPherson instilled some competitive fire into his team with his rah rah attitude. The team posted a 6-10 record which was a vast improvement from the previous season. The offense was led by quarterback, Hugh Millen and rookie running back, Leonard Russell.
Russell had a successful rookie campaign posting 959 yards and 4 rushing touchdowns. He walked away with Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
However, the glimmer of hope from 1991 was soon extinguished. The Patriots opened up the season with nine straight losses before posting back to back wins versus the Colts and Jets. The team struggled and finished with a 2-14 record in 1992.
Dick MacPherson was fired after just two seasons.
Owner, Victor Kiam, who was on the verge of bankruptcy, sold the franchise to James Busch Orthwein. He was a successful St. Louis area businessman who had aspirations to move the franchise to Missouri.
The Patriots cried for some sense of stability.
Bill Parcells delivered.
Orthwein hired the two time Super Bowl champion coach, Bill Parcells to be the team’s next coach.
This was a needed shot in the arm for the future of pro football in New England. Being 20 years old and a huge Patriots fan, I remember the whole region was a buzz about the Parcells hiring. He had the pedigree and everyone had confidence in him to turn around the bumbling franchise.
One of Parcells first franchise changing decisions was the drafting of quarterback, Drew Bledsoe from Washington State number one overall. Bledsoe and Notre Dame’s Rick Mirer were the top two prospects in the 1993 rookie class. There was a heated debate on which QB, Parcells and the Patriots should choose.
He picked Bledsoe and the rest is history.
The team also made changes in the branding and marketing of the franchise. “Pat Patriot” made an exit and was replaced by “The Flying Elvis” logo. The red, white, and blue were replaced by another shade of blue and metallic silver.
The new look took time getting used to but was soon accepted by the fan base. People bought the gear by the droves and you started to see #11 Drew Bledsoe jerseys popping up everywhere.
The team was reborn and Bill Parcells was going to take them to the Promised Land!
The Patriots opened up the season in Buffalo versus the Bills. The Bills were a very good team and in the middle of their AFC dynasty run.
This was the first game for the duo of Drew Bledsoe and Bill Parcells.
New England lost 38-14 but there were some encouraging signs. They hung with the Bills cutting the lead to 17-14, but the Bills just had too much talent for the young Patriots.
Bledsoe went 14 for 30 for 148 yards, 2 td’s and 1 int. He connected with his new security blanket, tight end Ben Coates for a 54 yard TD. This would mark the first of many connections between the tandem.
The team would go on to lose their first four games. The Patriots then travelled to Phoenix to take on another hardship franchise, the Cardinals.
I remember sitting in my room watching this game with my buddy. The Patriots went up by seven then trailed by seven, 14-7. However, the rest of the game was all Patriots.
The Patriots ended up outscoring the Cards the rest of the way 16-7. One of the pivotal plays, if my memory is correct, was a hook and lateral between Leonard Russell and Kevin Turner. The play went for 77 yards and set up the winning touchdown pass to Ben Coates.
My friend and I were going crazy like it was the Super Bowl. Little did we know that this was one of the building block wins of a future dynasty.
The growing pains for the young team would continue as they lost their next 7 games. A wise man once said, it’s how you finish.
And finish they did.
New England would finish the 1993 season in superb fashion. They would go on to beat the Bengals, Browns, Colts, and Dolphins to finish their season 5-11. They won in every fashion. Defensive stalemates. Offensive eruptions.
They liked the taste of winning.
James Orthwein then sold the franchise to Bob Kraft who was a very successful Boston businessman and long time Patriots fan. Kraft had owned the land around the stadium and then the stadium itself. This set the table for the purchase of the team for a cool $200 million.
After Kraft’s purchase, the team now had the owner, the coach, and the franchise quarterback. Season ticket sales exploded and I was lucky enough to get in on the party. Fifteen years later, this could be one of the best investments I ever made.
The 1994 was a season of high hopes. The team finished strong in ’93 and everyone expected them to pick up where they left off.
However, this is still the Patriots and consistency was always their Achilles heel.
New England started 3-6 and their season was almost in the tank. The high powered Vikings (7-2) were coming into town and looking to give the Patriots the knockout punch.
That’s exactly what they did for the first half. Minnesota raced out to a 20-3. I was at the game and had all the doubt in the world along with the other 50,000 that they were toast.
I am so happy I decided to stay.
Bledsoe led the team to a dramatic comeback and beat the Vikings 26-20 in overtime on his record 45th completion on a record 70 attempts. This game turned their season around and gave all Patriots fan a glimpse on how good Bledsoe was.
The team would go on and win their next five games. They headed to Chicago for a must win game. They win and the Pats were in the playoffs for the first time since 1986.
The game was a defensive struggle with the score being 6-3 going into the fourth. All of Patriots Nation, me included, was sitting on their hands. Could the Patriots do it? Would they finish 1994 on a high note?
Yes they did.
Bledsoe connected with Leroy Thompson on a 3 yard touchdown to cement the 13-3 win over the Bears. The Patriots were going to the playoffs. After starting off 3-6, New England were riding a seven game winning streak heading into Cleveland for the AFC Wildcard game.
The student and teacher would meet in the AFC playoff tilt.
Bill Belichick for the Browns.
Bill Parcells for the Patriots.
Who would come out on top?
The game was a hard fought fight ending 10-10 at the half. I was on a plane headed to Orlando during this game. The last glimpse I saw before departure was Leroy Thompson giving my beloved Pats, a 7-3 lead.
As the plane landed in Mickey World, the pilot said the Patriots lost 20-13. I was bummed out, but what a ride the season was.
Bledsoe had a great sophomore year where he threw for over 4500 yards and 25 touchdowns. He was voted to his first Pro Bowl. The franchise quarterback was coming into his own as a leader.
Bill Parcells took a young team and kept them focused when they were staring down a 3-6 hole. He gave his young quarterback the opportunity to mature into a leader. He breathed life back into a franchise that could have packed up the Mayflower trucks for St. Louis.
Bob Kraft was sitting on Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. The Perfect Storm was swirling and forming for this franchise. Little did he know that he bought a team that was going to become a dynasty.
And pro football was relevant again in New England.
Tune in for my next installment of Fifty Years of Patriots Football, where I discuss the end of the Parcells era and pre-USC Pete Carroll years.
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