When The Patriots Were "The Patsies"

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Even the most casual of sports fans are aware of the recent run of dominance by the New England Patriots over the past two decades.  Hardcore football fans know the numbers all too well.  Eight Super Bowl appearances since 2001, with the ninth to occur on Sunday February 3rd in Super Bowl LIII.  Thirteen trips to the AFC Championship Game in that same span, including eight straight. 


The numbers are staggering and unprecedented in the NFL and modern sports in general.  But when one considers the past history of the Patriots, the success achieved by this team becomes almost unbelievable.

The Patriots were once the laughing stock of the league and an embarrassment to Boston sports fans.  This is the reason there are so many Dolphins, Cowboys, Steelers and 49ers fans in the area.  These teams were perennial Super Bowl contenders while the Patriots were perennial losers.  While many fans have no memory of the lean times, those of us who lived through it are still in disbelief that the Patriots we see today is the same franchise that nearly moved to St. Louis in the 90s.

The Patriots came into existence in 1959 as the Boston Patriots, one of the founding franchises of the American Football League.  The franchise was granted to local businessman Billy Sullivan for a $25,000 entry fee.  Sullivan had attempted to obtain a Boston franchise in the more established National Football League, but after being denied by the NFL turned to the upstart AFL.  Sullivan appointed his sons Patrick and Chuck as General Manager and Vice President but, unlike the Kraft family, they lacked the capital and business acumen to make the Patriots a viable franchise.

The Patriots had no permanent home for the first eleven years of their existence.  They played at BU’s Nickerson Field from their inception in 1960 through 1962, before calling Fenway Park home until 1968.  They then made single season stops at BC’s Alumni Stadium and Harvard Stadium before Sullivan constructed his own stadium outside of Boston in Foxborough.  The stadium cost only $7.1 million, incredibly low even in 1970’s dollars, and was little more than a glorified bleacher on the side of Route 1.  The then Schaefer Stadium (named after a local beer company in one of the first instances of corporation naming rights for sports facilities) was not only one of, if not the worst facility in the NFL (which merged with the AFL in 1970), it was substandard compared to many college and high school stadiums.

Prior to the stadium opening, concerns were expressed by local officials that the stadium’s sewer system would be inadequate to handle a sudden rush of flow if many toilets were flushed at the same time, such as during a halftime rush to the rest rooms.  In a massive event, Sullivan brought in volunteers to perform a coordinated flush of all toilets and urinals in the stadium to prove the system could handle the strain.

In conjunction with the move to Foxborough, the NFL mandated the Patriots remove Boston as their host City.  Sullivan originally wanted to rebrand the team as the Bay State Patriots, and fancied that the team would be known as the B.S. Patriots, with the B.S. also standing for Billy Sullivan’s Patriots.  This idea was abandoned when someone realized that B.S. could also stand for other less wholesome initials, and Sullivan decided to take on the name New England instead.

The Patriots enjoyed little success on the field in their first 25 years of existence.  The team reached the AFL Championship Game in 1964, but were drubbed 51-10 by the San Diego Chargers (doesn’t that sound right?).  They would not return to the playoffs for 13 more years.

Like the Red Sox prior to 2000, post-season appearances came few and far between for the Patriots.  And when they did make it to the playoffs, strange things always seemed to happen.  The team was competitive in the mid-70s under Head Coach Chuck Fairbanks.  After going 11-3 in 1976, the Patriots returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1964 and were considered a viable Super Bowl contender.  However, when playing Oakland in the Divisional Round, a controversial roughing the passer call on Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton extended a late Oakland comeback drive to beat the Patriots 24-21.  This call was avenged 25 years later in the “Tuck Rule” game, but at the time it was the first of many playoff disappointments to come for Patriots fans.

Two years later the Patriots were again playoff contenders and hosted their first playoff game in Patriots history.  New England fans were absolutely euphoric over the prospect of hosting a NFL Playoff Game in Foxborough.  But in one of the weird quirks which seemed to always happen to Boston teams, Fairbanks was suspended by the team for the final game of the season when it was discovered that he had negotiated a contract to coach the University of Colorado.  He was allowed to return to coach in the playoffs, but the distraction proved to be too much for the team, and they were soundly thumped by the Earle Campbell lead Houston Oilers 31-14.

The Sullivan’s nearly lost the team in the early 80’s when Chuck Sullivan used the stadium (which had changed its name to Sullivan Stadium) as collateral to finance the Jackson Five Victory Tour.  Michael Jackson was at the height of his popularity at the time, but the tour was so horribly mismanaged that the Sullivans were forced to put the team and stadium up for sale to cover their losses.  The team was sold to Victor Kiam of Remington Shaver fame, and the stadium was sold to a local paper company owner by the name of Robert Kraft.  This was the turning point of the franchise, though no one realized it at the time.

The Patriots did make its first Super Bowl appearance in 1986 after a magical playoff run in which it became the Wild Card team to reach the Super Bowl by winning three playoff games on the road, the last of which coming in the Orange Bowl in Miami against the perennial AFC East Champion Dolphins amidst dries of “Squish the Fish”.  While the current Patriots have had difficulties winning in South Florida, a win in Miami for the pre-Kraft Patriots was about as rare as a Tony Romo quiet moment.

After beating the Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game, all of New England was again immersed in Patriot fever.  The Patriots playing in the Super Bowl was absolutely surreal.  Unfortunately, their opponents were the 15-1 Chicago Bears, who turned out to be one of the greatest teams of all time with arguably the greatest defense of all time.  The Patriots showed some promise on their first possession before All-Pro tight end Lin Dawson blew out his knee, and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal.  The Bears then proceeded to run off 46 unanswered points enroute to what was at the time the most lopsided loss in Super Bowl history.  What was a franchise high water mark quickly turned into another black eye for the Patriots.

Off-field controversy struck again in 1990 when a female Boston Herald sports writer accused several Patriot players of sexual harassment when they graphically and lewdly taunted her in the locker room.  The players claimed she was looking at them as they came out of the shower, and the situation quickly devolved.  Team owner Victor Kiam escalated the issue when he called Olson a “classic bitch” and made inappropriate jokes about her at a speaking engagement.  The NFL initiated an investigation of the incident which lead organization and player fines, and the firing of General Manager Patrick Sullivan.

Kiam’s tenure with the Patriots proved to be short-lived.  In 1992, Kiam sold the team to Budweiser beer executive James Orthwein.  The move was orchestrated by the NFL in an effort to stabilize the floundering franchise ownership situation.  Speculation swirled that Orthwein intended to move the then struggling franchise to his hometown of St. Louis, who had lost the Cardinals to Arizona several years earlier.  But instead of moving the team, Orthwein hired former New York Giant Head Coach and two-time Super Bowl Champion Bill Parcells to be the Patriots’ Head Coach.  This move, which in revisionist history is credited to Bob Kraft, instantly gave the Patriots the credibility they had never been able to achieve in their previous 30 years of existence.

Prior to the hiring of Parcells, the Patriots struggled to sell out home games.  Many games were blacked out from local TV due the NFL Blackout rules of the time, which prohibited the broadcast of games that were not sold out by the Thursday prior to the game.  After Parcells hiring, ticket sales sky-rocketed and people actually began to put their names on waiting lists for season tickets.  Since that day, the Patriots have not played a home game to anything less than a full house.

In 1994, Orthwein decided to sell the team and Bob Kraft leveraged his ownership of the stadium (which was again renamed to simply Foxborough Stadium) to purchase controlling interest in the team.  Thus began the modern era of Patriots football.

Not everything changed immediately under the Kraft-Parcells regime.  Eventually their egos clashed, and, reminiscent of Chuck Fairbanks in the 70s, Parcells was speculated to be negotiating with the New York Jets to take over as their head coach as the Patriots were preparing to play in their second Super Bowl after the 1996.  The distraction again proved to be too much for the team, and they fell to the Packers in Super Bowl XXXI 35-21, Brett Favre’s only Super Bowl win.  Parcells quickly fled to the Jets to take over as Head Coach and General Manager.  His dispute with Kraft stemmed from Kraft’s direction to draft wide receiver Terry Glenn when Parcells wanted to draft a defensive end.  Upon his departure, Parcells commented on the situation by saying “If they want you to cook the dinner; at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.” 

The Patriots did not initially let Parcells out of his contract.  The Jets instead hired Patriots defensive coordinator and a long-time Parcells assistant by the name of Bill Belichick to be their head coach, with Parcells serving in an advisory capacity.  After legal action was threatened, a deal was made which allowed Parcels to be the head coach of the Jets for a compensation package of four draft picks, including a first and second rounder. 

Kraft then chose to go with Pete Carroll, who had failed previously as the Head Coach of the Jets.  Carroll was left a championship caliber team, but after two playoff seasons the team slipped to mediocrity and, after an 8-8 record in 1999, Carroll was fired. 

In a bizarre turn of events, Parcells decided to step down as the Jets Head Coach and appointed Belichick as his successor.  It was well known that Kraft wanted to bring Belichick back to New England to take over as head coach, and Parcells’ move was seen as nothing more than a vengeful move to keep Belichick away from the Patriots.  The move backfired when Belichick, after one day as “the HC of the NYJ” announced he did not want the job.  One week later, after another near legal battle with the Jets, Belichick became the Patriots Head Coach and de facto General Manager.  The rest, as they say, is history.

After threatening to move the team to Hartford, Kraft was able to work out a deal with the State to build a new facility and keep the Patriots in Foxborough.  The old dump of a stadium was demolished after the “Tuck Rule/Snow Bowl” Game in 2001, and finally replaced it with an NFL quality facility.  Even this positive step was shrouded in some form of controversy and mismanagement, as the original naming rights were granted to a high-tech company CMGI.  Before the stadium ever opened, and despite logos and signage calling the new facility CMGI Field, the high-tech bubble burst and CMGI went out of business.  The naming rights were put out to bid again, and the stadium was subsequently rebranded as Gillette Stadium.

While the Patriots have not been immune to controversy since Belichick took over the team (Spygate and Deflategate), they have maintained a stability from the front office to the field that has made them the model franchise of the NFL and placed the Kraft family alongside legendary owners such as the Rooneys and Maras.  There will eventually come a day when the run will be over, when Brady and Belichick will retire.  And just like the Dolphins, Cowboys, Steelers and 49ers of years past, the Patriots will fall back to the pack and encounter down times.  Hopefully we never return to the early days of the B.S. Patriots.


Follow me on Twitter @BTravers_SYN

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Boston Sports Syndicate: When The Patriots Were "The Patsies"
When The Patriots Were "The Patsies"
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