Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Dynasty in Transition

Before I go into talking about sports and the Patriots, I should probably mention something infinitely more important; the situation in Haiti. With all the destruction and misery going on in Port-Au-Prince, there has never been a better time to pool resources and help. Visit www.mass.gov/haiti, http://www.redcross.org/, or text HAITI to 90999 and make a $10 donation.





There was a much less important form of destruction going on three weeks ago at Gillette Stadium. Baltimore pummeled the Patriots unlike anything we've seen in 15 years. It was the first playoff loss at the new digs in Foxboro. It was also the first time we've seen Brady completely meltdown in a meaningful game. I saw a lot of firsts from Brady this year. I saw him throw into double coverage often, mismanage the clock, burn unnecessary timeouts, fail to make 2nd half adjustments, and throw to 1 of 2 receivers on basically every dropback. I've never seen this from Brady, and although he won Comeback Player of the Year, he was clearly not the same player we're use to seeing; injured or not. Despite what most "experts" say, the defense has been subpar since 2004, their last championship. It was just more obvious this year. The offense was a more alarming problem. The Patriots are rebuilding; hard to believe with a team that's won 10 games each of the last 7 seasons. It could be the end of an era, which made me reflect back on all the years I've watched this franchise starting 30 years ago in 1979.





The first Patriots game I ever watched was a game against the Jets 30 years ago in which the Patriots won 56-3. It was the most lopsided victory in team history until this year when they beat the Titans 59-0. It wasn't a sign of things to come unfortunately. Many of the people in my neighborhood growing up were Giants fans as you could hear their games on AM radio. The Patriots were more like the "Jan Brady", not Tom Brady of the Boston sports scene prior to 1993. They had a couple of good teams in 76 and 1980. Nothing championship caliber though, and The Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins made the Pats an afterthought. In fact, most of us had a backup favorite team. Mine was the Browns, my brother's was the 49ers. John Hannah, Stanley Morgan, Sam Cunningham, Steve Grogan, Tony Collins are some of the players we revered growing up, but one of the few real memories we have of the Patriots from our childhood was Mark Henderson, a released convict, plowing a space for John Smith to kick a field goal on a snow covered field in 1982 for a 3-0 win against Miami. There was also the riot at a Monday Night game in 1981 after a loss against Dallas. We've heard many stories about Foxboro Stadium and how crazy it was in the 70's and 80's. I remember hearing many different accounts of this game, but what I do remember is that the Patriots did not have another Monday Night game until 1995, even though they made the Super Bowl four years after that 1981 season. They ended 1981 2-14.



That leads into 1985 and the Patriots lone Super Bowl run in the first 35 years of the franchise. The Pats were lead by both Steve Grogan, Tony Eason, and a strong running attack. This was the first team to reach the Super Bowl winning three road games in New York, Los Angeles(Raiders), and the most memorable Miami. The Patriots had lost 18 consecutive games in Miami which made their 31-14 victory all that more memorable. Mosi Tatupu spiking the ball in the end zone after a touchdown sticks in my mind the most. WBZ did a tribute to the team at that time with the Lionel Richie song Say You Say Me(A little reference for you 80's junkies out there). The Patriots reward was the Super Bowl Shuffle Chicago Bears. "Berry the Bears" was the rallying cry, named after coach Ray Berry. The Pats lost of one of the most lopsided games ever 46-10 to Walter Payton, Jim McMahon, Mike Ditka, and Buddy Ryans 46 Defense. A complete mismatch of a game, but a great season nonetheless. To this day, that team is one of only three in to reach the Super Bowl winning three road playoff games.



I didn't attend my first Patriots game in Foxborough until my Junior year of high school, 1988. I found out why that was the case too. My Dad and I went and all the stories about the craziness of Foxboro rang true. Tailgaters handcuffed to paddy wagons, public urination everywhere; and we came home with one of the of the many dents on the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme(the Chelseamobile for those of you who know me) that I wound up taking to college. My High School and college years were not kind to the boys with Pat Patriot on their helmets. After a brutal playoff loss to Denver in 1986 where a Mosi Tatupu fumble was brought back for a touchdown, the Pats came crashing back to earth in the late 80's where popular coach Ray Berry was fired in 1989. They bottomed out in 1990 under coach Rod Rust in 1990 with 1-15 record, no wins at home, and scandal that dogged for years after Zeke Mowatt and other Pats teammates harrassed reporter Lisa Olsen of the Herald in the locker room. This team is considered by many to be one of the five worst in the history of the NFL.



The Patriots completely melted down completely in my college years winning a total of 14 games in 4 years. They did beat the AFC Champion Bills in a game I went to 1991, but that was it for the highlights of that era, until Bill Parcells entered the picture in 1993. Drew Bledsoe was the # 1 pick, and the logo was changed to the "Flying Patriots Elvis" that we know today.



James Orthwein hired Parcells and this was the start of the Pats return to legitimacy as an NFL franchise. They lost 11 of their first 12 games in 1993, but ended on a 4 game winning streak. From here, Orthwein tried to move the team to St. Louis. Fortunately, Kraft bought the franchise for nearly a quarter of a billion dollars and the Patriots as we know them were born. They won their final seven games in 1994 including a road victory over 4-time AFC Champion Bills to secure a playoff spot. My fellow ticket holders made the front page of the Herald at that game celebrating in Buffalo. After the Pats lost the playoff game to Bill Belichick's Browns, they had a subpar 1995 season and drafted Terry Glen in the 1996 Draft. This was the beginning of the end of the Parcells era as he was blocked by Kraft from drafting a defensive player. 1996 was a watershed year for the team. They won 11 games including an incredible win over the Giants in Week 16 to clinch the #2 seed(Remember Troy Brown catching a Bledsoe pass on his back?) The Patriots won their first ever home playoff game in 1996 over the Steelers in a romp 28-3. They were then given the good fortune of Jacksonville, a second year expansion franchise, beating the # 1 seeded Broncos in Denver, a notorious house of horrors for the Patriots to this day. The Jags had only made the playoffs because Morton Anderson, one of the greatest kickers of all time, missed an easy field goal at the end of regulation sending the Jags to the postseason.



So here we were, the first ever AFC Championship Game in Foxboro for a trip to the Super Bowl. Honestly the coldest game I've ever been to. We got there at 10AM for a 4 o'clock kickoff, and the temperature was 20 degrees with 30 mile an hour winds. It was so cold, that the power went out in the 2nd quarter due to excessive usage in the area on the power grid. This was when I knew the Patriots had to leave Foxboro for a better venue, in a better location. Boston is the only place I know where Championship round games were either delayed or cancelled due to arena/stadium electrical failures. The other was Game 3 of the 1988 Stanley Cup Finals. Anyway, we won the game after Otis Smith picked up a James Stewart fumble and returned it for a tocuhdown the other way. I remember saying that I should enjoy this now, as it will probably never happen again. Parcells was rumored to be leaving the Patriots, but who cares right now? On to New Orleans and Brett Favre's Packers.



Here's where Parcells nearly took down the franchise he had built, in the blink of an eye. He decided to interview with the Jets during Super Bowl when he should have been preparing his team. Even Bill Belichick, his Defensive Coordinator at the time, said it was the wrong thing to do. Will McDonugh reported the story, and it became the big news of the week, rather than the franchise's 2nd trip to the big game, and possibly their first championship. This is par for the course with the Big Tuna. In the end, he always likes to make everything about him, not unlike the John Caliparis and Rick Pitinos of the world. Normally a staple of a Parcells coached team was strong special teams. As we all know Desmond Howard scored a back-breaking touchdown on a kick return, and set up a second with another long return. To this day, Howard is the only special teams player to win the MVP of the Super Bowl. Nice going Parcells. He didn't even have the courtesy to fly back with the team after they lost 35-21. That was when he signed with the Jets and made his famous "Shopping for the Groceries" comment.



In comes Pete Carroll, or Pete the Poodle as we liked to call him. Carroll took 2 teams to the playoffs, but was clearly not NFL material. By the way, good luck turning around the Seahawks Pete. You'll need it.



Then came Coach Belichick. After Belichick made an agreement to come to Foxboro with Kraft, Parcells tried to block it of course as Belichick intially agreed to become the new coach of the Jets, when Parcells stepped down. It was solved after giving the Jets a draft pick, and the feud was officually over between Kraft and the Big Tuna. I doubted Belichick as much as anybody. He had not left under good terms in Cleveland, and at an Indians game, I had been given a number hate messages to send his way, like Iwas his persoanl secretary or something. Regardless, his first season in Foxboro was not a good one as the Pats went 5-11. Enter the Jets Mo Lewis hitting Drew Bledsoe, and the Patriots fortunes would change forever. Funny how the Jets always seem to play a roll in the Pats history.



Three championships, a new stadium, and 8+ years later, we are looking at a team with an unclear identity. This was the first year I din't buy season tickets. A lot of people followed my lead. In a game vs. Carolina, I saw more empty seats for a regular season game than I've seen since before Parcells got here. Then the unthinkable, we couldn't unload one playoff ticket for free!!! It'll be interesting to see how the Patriots react not only in the draft, but at the box office. Gillette Stadium is not exactly fan friendly in terms of location, ticket costs, traffic, or customer service. Foxboro is the only stadium in the country that is not within a mile of a major highway, and is still a logistically bad place to put a stadium. Don't get me wrong, I'm appreciative of the winning tradition that's been built, particular with a franchise that was such a laughing stock for so long. But it's time the Krafts started making the Patriots more accessible to everybody. Belichick and Brady won't be here forever.

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