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The Long Strange History of the New England Patriots

January 28, 2019

It still knocks me for a 10-yard loss in the reality check arena when other fans whine and belly ache about a certain dominant team because they're so jealous and bitter about its current success.

 

How the heck did my team -- a former laughing stock I knew better as "The Patsies" while growing up --become professional football's version of the New York Yankees???

 

I've never apologized for being a longtime, diehard, dedicated fan of the New England Patriots, who have gone from a depressing dumpster fire of a disaster with more drama than a soap opera to durable, domineering dynasty -- arguably the most successful in the NFL's 98-year history.

 

  "I know everyone thinks we suck and, you know, can't win any games," Brady told a CBS Sports reporter after the Patriots made it look easy with a 41-28 victory divisional round playoff win over the Chargers.

 

Well Tom, 18 seasons ago, the 5-11 Patriots coached by new head coach Bill Belichick DID suck. Go back just seven seasons prior to that and the Pats were widely known -- at best -- as a talented squad that couldn't get its crap together and win big games, to lower-tier, schedule-filling cannon fodder at worst. I mean, this is fans-wearing-paper-shopping-bags-with-eye-holes-cut-out-over-their-heads in the stands kind of suck-itude. 

 

I have no idea exactly when it happened, but I think my favorite team's status as "The Evil Empire" of professional football began to evolve about a decade ago, and especially this time of year, it still seems surreal and even ridiculous for me to think of them that way.

  

I can't recall the first Patriots game I ever watched, and I don't even know if they won, but I started following them sometime early in the 'Ron Era', when either Ron Erhardt (1978-81) or Ron Meyer (1982-84) was head coach. THESE Patriots went from 11-5 and status as a favorite in the playoffs to a painfully embarrassing 2-14 campaign in seven seasons that saw:

    -- a 31-14 playoff upset rout -- which followed the firing of head coach Chuck Fairbanks BEFORE their first playoff game for secretly taking the head coaching job at Colorado University before the regular season had even ended (did I mention this franchise had drama?)  

 

    -- A total of four head coaches, two of whom were fired in midseason (one when the Pats were 5-3 at the time) in seven seasons.

 

    -- A work-release prison parolee employed at Sullivan Stadium (formerly Schaefer Stadium and the Pats' home before Gillette) jumping onto a John Deere tractor and plowing a makeshift path for Patriots placekicker John Smith (not the English explorer Pocahontas saved - Can't make these names up) to attempt a game-winning 33-yard field goal against Miami in a December snowstorm in 1982.

 

    -- The paralyzation of Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley in a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders when he was tackled on a vicious hit by Jack "The Assassin" Tatum in 1978. 

 

    -- A nine-game regular season (1982) affected by a player strike in which the Patriots actually qualified for the playoffs with a 5-4 record, and then lost to Miami.

 

    -- An 18-game (and 18-year) losing streak vs. Miami at the Orange Bowl, that was finally snapped in grand style when the wildcard Patriots became the first team to advance to the Super Bowl (1985) by winning three road playoff games.

 

    -- An in-season, IN-GAME fan vote conducted by the team during the first half of an October home game. The vote was on whether or not to keep the Patriots' "Pat Patriot" Minuteman logo on their helmets, logos and insignias. Fans voted to keep Pat in his five-point football stance on all team logos.

 

And that's just a sampling of the hilarity, hijinks, and half-assedness that was the norm for the B.B. (Before Belichick\Brady) Patriots.

 

Don't even get me started on the Sullivan family, whose patriarch Billy created and established the Patriots when the American Football League (AFL) was founded in 1960. 

 

Billy was colorful all by himself, but throw in dopey, big-mouth son Patrick -- the eventual Patriots general manager who got his job the old-fashioned way: by being a member of the lucky sperm club and Billy Sullivan's son) -- and these guys made prime time TV soap operas Dallas and Falcon Crest look realistic and conservative my comparison. 

 

Patrick Sullivan managed to get himself punched in the head by Raiders All-Pro Matt Millen after he taunted Raiders Hall of Fame player and Massachusetts native Howie Long on the field following the Patriots' comeback and 27-20 upset of the Raiders in a 1986 divisional playoff game. The trash-talking incident cost the bellicose Sullivan several stitches to heal.

 

Then there was oldest son Chuck Sullivan, a Wall Street financial wizard who was the brains of the family operation. But even he couldn't use his business acumen to forestall his family's rising debt and ongoing financial crisis, especially after an ill-fated decision to join professional loudmouth Don King to promote the famous (or infamous for some New Englanders) Jackson family (Michael, Jermaine, Tito, etc.) Victory Tour, which ironically led to a loss of at least $20 million for the Sullivans and eventually forced them to reluctantly sell the Patriots.

 

Still no empathy? Not convinced the Patriots were ever anything more than a tough-luck, moribund, coach-shuffling way station of mediocrity?

 

This is a franchise that twice went through four head coaches in five seasons, had the overall No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft twice in nine years due to the unenviable distinction of owning the WORST record in the NFL (2-14 in 1981 and 1-15 in 1990), and had a habit of overreaching for talent in the draft while also giving away developing or established talent at the same time.

 

The difference between the Sullivan/Kiam/Orthwein era Patriots of my youth and the current Kraft era? NIGHT and DAY! 

 

The old Patriots would give up on aging or overly-expensive stars like Jim Plunkett, who they traded to the 49ers for draft picks (although those picks did yield future starters and standouts Pete Brock and Raymond Clayborn). Plunkett went on to lead the Raiders to NFL titles in 1980 and 1983, and was 1983 Super Bowl MVP. Another gift to the hated Raiders was All-Pro cornerback Mike Haynes, who was allowed to play out his contract option year, wasn't resigned, and shipped to the L.A. Raiders for a first and a second round draft pick. The Pats got career special teamer Jim Bowman, and extra draft capital to get the No.1 pick in 1984 and select Irving Fryar, who had a solid career in 133 games with New England.

 

Speaking of impending free agents who were deemed to old to pay, remember Curtis Martin? It was bad enough New England let him walk away after three scintillating seasons, but Martin went to hated division rival New York, where he ground out NINE more solid seasons with the Jets en route to a Hall of Fame career.

 

But maybe the biggest self-fleecing in Patriots draft history came in 1985, when an electrifying receiver and return man out of little Mississippi Valley State was on the board and available when it came time for the Pats to make the 16th pick in the first round. San Francisco coach Bill Walsh called and offered his 28th pick plus picks in the second and third round for the 16th. The Pats took it because they already had Fryar, and the 49ers struck gold with Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. 

 

The Patriots wound up with unathletic offensive lineman Trevor Matich, who lasted just three seasons, and an even bigger no-name in Ben Thomas, who was drafted in the second round and lasted just two seasons.

 

So it's the previous anecdotes and moments from New England's own hall of shame that I use to contrast the current Hall of Fame-level dominance a former perennial punching bag or also-ran has achieved, and emphasize why it is that some of us will NEVER take this current level of success for granted. Nor will we ever become cocky and arrogant about it. 

 

It's too bad the current generation of Patriots' fans worst brushes with mediocrity or failure is the 2008 season, when Matt Cassel took over for Brady after Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in week one and led the Patriots to an 11-5 record, but still missed the playoffs. Believe me, this kind of sustained success is as rare as a signed Christmas card from Nancy Pelosi to Donald Trump. 

 

So the next time you feel like strutting or shooting your mouth off about your Patriots, try to have some humility since nothing lasts forever. And the next time you feel like whining about "Belicheat" or "Tom Shady" or the "cheating Patriots", just remember that jealousy isn't just one of the seven deadly sins, it's a quick way to make yourself "that guy" in the locker room, at the sports bar, or online that makes everyone else's eyes roll into the backs of their heads. No matter how successful the franchise, they had to start from the bottom somewhere along the line. Heck, even the Cleveland Browns can't stay winless or at the bottom of the pack forever.

 

As far as the idea of Belichick being Darth Vader leading New England's "Evil Empire", you make enemies when you outwork, out-prepare, out-think and out-scheme your contemporaries.

 

Payback is indeed a bitch. Just ask veteran fans of the Patriots and Raiders alike. Remember those Plunkett and Haynes deals? Well, New England made what some consider one of the 10 best trades in NFL history when they shipped a fourth round draft pick to Oakland for a Hall of Fame receiver named Randy Moss, who set records en route to a 17-0 regular season and almost helped lead the Patriots to a 19-0 Super Bowl season, in 2007.

 

Oh, and you can add Dolphins fans to that ever-expanding payback list.The Patriots shipped a second and seventh round draft pick to Miami for a diminutive receiver named Wes Welker. Welker went on to catch 672 passes for 37 TDs and 7,459 yards in six seasons, five of them All-Pro seasons. Miami turned those picks into two no-names and non-contributors: Samson Satele and Abraham Wright. And as far as streaks go, it's not 18, but the Dolphins haven't won at Foxborough, Mass., in 10 years.

 

But I still shake my head about this extreme reversal of fortune. A tough-luck franchise with just one playoff appearance (loss in 1963) in its first 16 seasons and a whopping 26 seasons before recording its FIRST postseason victory (1985 wild card game) has become a juggernaut with five Super Bowl titles, eight straight conference championship appearances, 10 straight division titles, and nine conference crowns in 18 seasons.  

 

Okay, I understand the jealousy, but come on, there's really only one "Evil Empire," and most everyone -- especially New Englanders -- knows it's the New York Yankees. 😉

  

Oh, and one more thing... On to Atlanta. 

 

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