When The Patriots Were NFL´s Laughingstock- A Look Back on the Pre-Brady Patriots
The 2020–2021 NFL season represents a new era for the New England Patriots, by far the winningest team of the 21st Century so far- and the most polarizing to boot. Unlike say, the 1990s Bulls or the 1960s Celtics, whose respective, impressive dynasties mostly provoked admiration across the nation, the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era of the Pats has mostly resulted in derision and outright contempt from fans outside the region. Following a disappointing by-their-standard-season (which still resulted in a winning record and a playoff berth), Brady and Belichick have decided to part ways. Brady is now playing with the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in a move reminiscent of Brady´s boyhood idol Joe Montana´s ill-fated foray with the Kansas City Chiefs in the twilight of his Hall-of-Fame career, while former Carolina Panthers MVP Cam Newton is the Patriots´ worthy follow-up QB.
This early in the season, it remains to be seen how the Brady-less Patriots will fare (the Pats and the Bucs, after 3 games, both stand at 2–1), but it is clear that this is a new, uncertain beginning for a Patriots team that has won as many NFL Championships in 20 years as the Pittsburgh Steelers have won in the 50 years-and-counting Super Bowl era. As a New England native who has seen that anti-Patriots biases even exist south of the border (I currently live in Mexico), it is time to shed a light on the nearly four decades of mediocrity (and much worse) that preceded one of the mightiest sports juggernauts.
The Pre-Drew Bledsoe Era- Stunning Incompetence- and One Cinderella Year
Although Boston in general has become something of a hub for professional sports in the 21st Century, with all 4 teams triumphing at least once with a championship in their respective leagues, the 20th Century was a mixed bag, with the once-dominant Boston Celtics sharing city limits with a baseball team (The Red Sox) which didn´t win the World Series for some 86 years, in spite of the formidable talents of Ted Williams, Carl Yaztremski, Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Jim Rice, and others. Despite the unevenness of its teams, Boston was a sports-hungry city which remained loyal to its beloved Bruins, Celtics, and BoSox, through thick and thin.
For the first three decades of the existence of the Patriots, however, football was a mere afterthought, an also-ran. In the fledgling years of the NFL, Boston dabbled in professional football, with the Redskins lasting 5 seasons in the 1930s before moving to Washington D.C. The sport never stuck, and instead Boston ate up basketball and hockey in the freezing winters and baseball in the balmy summers.
Finally, after football games at Boston College attracted a wide audience, Boston once again was considered as a venue, and the scrappy upstart AFL (American Football League) launched the Boston Patriots. Playing everywhere from the Red Sox´s Fenway Park to university stadiums owned by Harvard or BU, the not-ready-for-primetime Pats struggled to make a name for themselves. In the early 1970s, the NFL and the AFL merged, and the Pats dropped the Boston moniker, as the team unexpectedly found its new home in Schafer Stadium in Foxborough, a sleepy hamlet some 40 miles away from Beantown.
After briefly considering the Bay State Patriots (before realizing that it would be abbreviated to the obscene BS Patriots), the Patriots officially changed their name to New England Patriots. Although this wide-canvass name implies a team belonging to six disparate states, in reality the team became a forgotten squad, barely shown on television and overlooked by local fans hung up on Bobby Orr or John Havlicek.
Throughout the 1970s, a decade in which the NFL overtook baseball as the national pastime and saw the rise of such dominant teams as the Cowboys, Dolphins, and Steelers, the Patriots were perennial losers, and not even of the lovable persuasion. By the dawn of the ´80s, NBC Sports Analysts were so aghast by the ineptitude showed by the New England failures that they deemed a game between them and the equally dreadful Colts as the ¨Stupor Bowl.¨
The pendulum swings mightily, however, when it comes to professional sports, and a mere 5 years later, the Patriots miraculously found themselves in their very first Super Bowl, against all odds. Although they were destined to lose against the 1985–86 Chicago Bears, a team as legendary as perhaps any in NFL history, it is astounding that the Patriots could have achieved such a Cinderella year in the first place. The 1984-´85 Patriots failed to reach the postseason, but they finished above .500 at least, with a respectable 9–7 record, thanks to the efforts of a promising new QB Tony Eason, who was drafted the same year as future HOF legends like Dan Marino, John Elway, and Jim Kelly.
After seven games of mediocrity in the following season, however, Eason suffered a injury; only to be replaced by the aging veteran Steve Grogan. Upending expectations, under a combination of the eager upstart and a grizzled past-his-prime warrior, the Patriots achieved a solid 11–5 record, enough for Wild Card honors.
Nobody pegged them as a Super Bowl contender, yet they mightily charged through three playoff games, handing surprising defeats to favored teams like the Giants, Raiders, and Dolphins, all while facing the challenge of on-the-road play. Although almost any team who won the AFC that year was bound to lose to the unstoppable Bears, led by ¨Sweet Stuff¨ Payton, the 1985 Patriots were the first to come close to winner status, and in that way they are a precursor to the underdogs who won the 2002 Super Bowl against the ¨Greatest Show on Turf¨ Rams.
Unfortunately, the ´80s and early 90s saw a reversion to sub. 500 records, and by the early 90s, the Patriots were at risk of being moved to Connecticut. In the early to mid ´90s, the struggling franchise made some key decisions which helped it make two Super Bowl trips in 5 years, and slow progress towards a previously unthinkable dynasty to rival any seen in NFL history.
Bledsoe Takes Over- a New Era in Foxborough
In 1993, the Patriots were waiting for a superman- something to save them from years of losing records and abysmal attendance following the fluke 1985-´86 season. An atrocious 1992-´93 season, on the bright side, led to the #1 pick in the NFL draft, as the Patriots pinned their hopes on a standout Washington State QB named Drew Bledsoe, and the successful former Giants coach Bill Parcells. With some time and patience, the duo of Bledsoe and Parcells seemed to bear some fruit, as in the 1994–95 season the Pats improved to 10–6, although they lost the Wild Card game to the Cleveland Browns.
Just two years later, the Pats found themselves in the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history, and although they were once again the underdogs against Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers, at least it was a competitive game and not overly lopsided when compared to the Bears´ colossal blowout. Bledsoe and his Patriots would ultimately lose, 21–35, but they proved that they could compete with the big guns, and attendance at the aging Foxboro Stadium was improving, as was the squad´s status in New England sports lore.
Bledsoe was slowly becoming a NE sports icon to rival contemporaries like Nomar Garciaparra or Paul Pierce, even as his post-Super Bowl play was far from consistent. The 1997 Super Bowl appearance was immediately followed by another playoff run, even as they fell in the second round to the Steelers, marking an impressive 4 playoff appearances during Bledsoe´s run. As the millennium wound down, however, Bledsoe sustained playoff-sidelining injuries, as the team decided to boot Parcells.
The 2000–2001 Season- A Losing Record but Some Potential
Technically, the new era of the Patriots started in 2000, as former Cleveland Browns coach Belichick started his run. However, the season, which started with much promise, ended with a lackluster 5–11 record, a dubious record that nonetheless aligned with all the other Boston-area teams at the time as they faced the city´s last era of total sports mediocrity. Belichick´s record in Cleveland was nothing to boast of, and his first season in New England implied he didn´t mesh well with his new environment. Nobody would have expected that the following year, thanks to a back-up QB from Michigan who nobody wanted and unorthodox coaching, the Patriot would be the NFL´s new champs.
However, the building blocks for the miracle 2001–2002 season were already in place in the 2000 season, even if they were not so transparent at first glance. Despite a losing record and signs that Bledsoe was not the wunderkind New England had hoped him to be, the pieces were in place for a powerhouse team. Players like wide receiver Terry Glenn, cornerback Ty Law, linebacker Tedy Bruschi and kicker Adam Vinatieri were undeniably talented, and it is clear that the team was lightyears away from its pre-Bledsoe nadir.
Meanwhile, the inadequate Foxboro (formerly Schafer Stadium) was in desperate need of replacement, and owner Kraft desperately searched for a new stadium. Its swanky successor, Gillette Stadium, would eventually be unleashed in 2002, just following the Pats´ first-ever Super Bowl victory and eventually ushering in a whole new era. All these momentous changes were taking place before the 2001–2002 season, but they were all behind the scenes.
The following, fateful season, 2001, started right after the unthinkable 9/11 tragedy. For NE fans, nearly as tragic was the fact that Bledsoe suffered a season-ending (and nearly fatal) injury in Week 2, leaving unknown backup Tom Brady to take over. The rest, to quote an eternal cliche, is history. The team finished with a strong 11–5, beat Oakland (thanks to the ¨tuck rule¨), Pittsburgh (thanks to the combined talents of Bledsoe and Brady), and eventually triumphed over the much-ballyhooed former St. Louis Rams, led by Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk. Nearly two decades on, the Patriots have become the most dominant (and hated) team since the New York Yankees of the previous century. It is too early to predict what will come next, but is clear that few franchises have experienced such a dramatic transformation as a team that was once Boston´s red-headed stepchild that eventually found itself the dynasty of the young century.