Saturday, 20 April 2013

The last time I could stomach cheering for the Patriots

Irving Fryar, number one pick,
and one of my favourite Patriots.
Steve Grogan, the toughest
Patriot quarterback.
Was it always this way?
As I watched the New England Patriots go down in flames to San Francisco on a Sunday night back in December, I thought to myself: “Was there ever a time I could stomach cheering for the Patriots?”

The wild card team that could: The 1985 New England Patriots
Oddly there was, and strangely, I was talking about that period earlier the same evening. It was 1985 and the Patriots had come out of nowhere to qualify for the playoffs. They had fired their coach midway through the year and hired Raymond Berry, who had been best known for being a hall-of-fame receiver catching passes from Johnny Unitas. As important as Berry was, his defensive coordinator Rod Rust was probably more instrumental.

Fred Marion, my favourite
Patriot defensive back
Roland James, part of
that amazing secondary
The Patriots finished third in the AFC East, behind division champion Miami and the second-place New York Jets. That meant all their playoff games, if they kept winning, were on the road. They opened with the AFC Wild Card Game at the New Jersey Meadowlands against the Jets on Dec. 28. I was home for Christmas and recall watching that game, thinking no one was going to beat Miami in the AFC. After all, the Dolphins handed the unbeatable Chicago Bears their only loss of the season in a Monday Night thriller. It was conventional wisdom the Bears and Dolphins were destined to meet in the Super Bowl.

The Patriots had other ideas, and were led by their defence. That Patriot defence, especially the secondary, was possessed. They forced four turnovers and sacked the quarterback five times en route to a 26-14 victory in the AFC wildcard game. That set up a date with the AFC West champion and number-one seeded Los Angeles Raiders in the  LA Memorial Coliseum on January 5, 1986. The defence forced six turnovers, converting them into 17 points, on their way to a 27-20 win. Awaiting them for the AFC Championship was arch-rival Miami in the Orange Bowl on January 12. The Dolphins, led by quarterback Dan Marino, looked beatable after barely escaping with a win against Cleveland the week before. Bernie Kosar was the Browns' rookie quarterback and one of my favourite players of all time. He almost engineered a huge upset, as the Dolphins had to score late to squeak out a 24-21 win.

Ronnie Lippett, he windmilled
Jim McMahon in the Super Bowl
Raymond Clayborn, voted one
of the Patriots' 50 gretest players.
However, the Patriots were ready for Marino and his vaunted passing attack. The Patriot secondary would riddle them, intercepting Marino, and forcing six turnovers in total. The game was never really close, as New England left the Orange Bowl with 31-14 win and a date with the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl. The Patriots had become the first team in NFL history to win three straight playoff games on the road, and only the second wildcard team to go to the Super Bowl.

The clock struck midnight for the Cinderella Patriots in the Super Bowl as the Bears blew out New England 46-10. Yet that month of football was magical to watch. I loved defence, especially the secondary, and there was no group of defensive backs more captivating than the Patriots. Fred Marion, Ronnie Lippett, Roland James, and Raymond Clayborn. Household names, right? I still remember them. They were the four starters in the Patriot secondary, and the four legs that propped up that underdog.

What had me thinking about that 1985 Patriot team earlier in the day was probably my favourite Patriot of all time (I cannot even believe I am even typing these words given the current Patriots): Irving Fryar. First round pick, number one overall from the Nebraska Cornhuskers. He was electrifying in college, and became a great pro. Actually, to be honest, I liked their two quarterbacks – Steve Grogan and Tony Eason – and offensive lineman John Hannah, runningback Craig James, Fryar’s companion wide receiver the ageless Stanley Morgan, there were lots of cool players. Interestingly, that team was all about the run and ultraconservative on offence. Most Eason passes were long handoffs. They rarely stretched the field vertically, even with Fryar and Morgan. Not like now.

There were all kinds of interesting stories. Julius Adams, who wore number 85, announced he was retiring at the end of the 1985 season. It was a storybook finish to go to the Super Bowl. There were all kinds of high draft picks that finally matured, like Andre Tippett and Garin Varis.

The times are a changin'
How times have changed. Raymond Berry was a gentleman as a coach. The current coach won't even come out to talk to the media when his team loses in the playoffs. It makes him look like a poor loser and a poor sport. The Patriots were also sanctioned by the NFL for taping the practices of the Philadelphia Eagles in the lead up to their Super Bowl encounter. Their record is impeccable, and their current quarterback Tom Brady is a class act. Yet, the attitude of some make them all hard to cheer for.

Unlike the current edition of the Patriots, there was no hype, no arrogance, no swagger to the 1985 team. Instead you had a bunch of guys who worked hard, scratching for every yard, and just happy to be where they were.

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