Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Patsies

Houston Antwine. Jimmy Colclough. Babe Parilli.

Tonight, the best football team on the planet begins defense of their Super Bowl title. The New England Patriots look to make it 4 championships in 5 years. They are arguably the best football team to ever compete in the NFL. It hasn't always been that way.

Tom Addison. Jim Hunt. Bob Dee.

They started out as the Boston Patriots of the American Football League. In 1959, Billy Sullivan won the rights to the Boston franchise. There were 8 teams during the inaugural AFL season of 1960. The Patriots may have been the least likely to succeed of the group. Boston had been home to 2 NFL franchises in earlier years, but both failed - the Boston Redskins moved to Washington in 1937, and the Boston Yanks folded in the 1940's. Billy certainly didn't have the funds that, say, Lamar Hunt did in Dallas, and most of the other owners or ownership groups had more stable situations. However, he fought tooth and nail for his team, finding creative ways to keep them afloat and with an actual field to play on. Billy remained President of the team until 1992. He died in 1998, at the age of 82, having never seen his team win either an AFL Championship or a Super Bowl.

Tom Yewcic. Larry Garron. Gino Cappelletti.

They went 5 and 9 that first year, under head coach Lou Saban. They were last in the league in points scored. They were 5th of 8 in points given up. They played home games at Nickerson Field, formerly the home of baseball's Boston (now Atlanta) Braves. In subsequent years, they would play at Fenway Park, a field which was decidedly NOT built for football. After Fenway, they used Boston College's Alumni Stadium, then Harvard Stadium. They were the team without a home to call their own.

Jon Morris. Joe Bellino. Jim Nance.

In 1963, they had their only real brush with AFL greatness. After going 7-6-1 during the regular season, they made it all the way to the AFL Championship game. They were blown out of the water by the San Diego Chargers, 51 - 10. It would be 13 years before they made another playoff appearance. To recap: First 16 years of the franchise, ONE playoff appearance.

Nick Buoniconti. Joe Kapp. Jim Plunkett.

They weren't all clowns and bums, of course. The Pats had a fair amount of really good players, and they did have some winning seasons. Big Jim Nance, the running back, won the AFL Most Valuable Player award in 1967. Gino Cappelletti led the league in scoring more than once. Sometimes, though, the problem was that they couldn't keep the good players, or that they didn't keep them long enough, or that they acquired them a bit too late. Nick Buoniconti was very good here, but he was great after he went to Miami. Joe Kapp had his time in the sun in Minnesota, leading them to the Super Bowl. He also quarterbacked teams in the CFL's Grey Cup and in college football's Rose Bowl. He joined the Patsies and the fans eagerly awaited good times. Didn't happen - the magic, whatever it had been, was gone. Jim Plunkett was the Heisman Trophy winner out of Stanford. The Pats drafted him #1 and he started out well, winning 6 of 7 games early on in 1971. That's what they won all year - 6 games. They finished at 6 - 8. Of course, Plunkett went on to win the Super Bowl as a member of the Oakland Raiders.

Ron Sellers. Randy Vataha. Carl Garrett.

In 1970, the NFL and AFL merged. The Patriots went 2 - 12. In the four seasons between 1967 and 1970, they won a total of 13 games. They weren't called The Patsies for nothing. They finally had a home of their own, though. Billy Sullivan built a stadium in Foxboro. Keeping with their meager means at the time, it was little more than a cement bowl with seats. It did have one major advantage. There wasn't really a bad seat in the house. The sight lines were good everywhere. However, the seats were benches and when the cold winter winds whipped through, it was a cruel place to see a game. The parking was horrendous and fans knew that getting out of the parking lot and onto a major road would take hours after a game. Variously called Schaefer Stadium, Sullivan Stadium and Foxboro Stadium, it would be home to the Patriots for the next thirty-two seasons.

Sam "Bam" Cunningham. Reggie Rucker. Mack Herron.

In the 5 year period from 1971 to 1975, the Patsies won 24 games. Jim Plunkett's battered and beaten body left town. Then, in 1976, the Patsies were no longer the laughingstocks of the league.

Steve Grogan. Stanley Morgan. John Hannah.

In 1976, they went from 3 - 11 to 11 - 3, earning a wild card playoff berth. They lost to Oakland, 24 -21, largely due to a very controversial call. This call would be reversed, so to speak, in 2001 via the "tuck" rule call that went against Oakland. Poetic justice is a lovely thing. If you were a Patriots fan during the first call, you knew that the one in 2001 was just long overdue payback. Anyway, despite the 1976 playoff appearance, it would be another 9 years before the Patsies actually won a playoff game.

Mike Haynes. Steve Nelson. Leon Gray

They had a playoff team in 1978, but lost in the first round after head coach Chuck Fairbanks announced he was leaving the team to coach college ball, was suspended by Billy Sullivan, and Ron Erhardt was installed as coach for the playoff game. The Patsies found bizarre ways to lose, that's for sure. They bottomed out and went 2 - 12 in 1981. In the strike-shortened season of 1982, they made the playoffs with a record of 5 -4. They lost in the first round again.

Russ Francis. Tim Fox. Darryl Stingley.

Meanwhile, personal tragedy haunted the team. Darryl Stingley, a fine receiver and an all-around very nice man, was paralyzed from the neck down in a 1978 pre-season game against Oakland. He has handled his misfortune with amazing grace, by the way, and is an inspiration to many. Jim Nance, the great running back from the early years of the franchise, suffered many debilitating health problems. He died in 1992 at the age of 50.

Craig James. John Smith. Irving Fryar

The team made it to the Super Bowl in 1986. Unfortunately, so did the Chicago Bears. The Patriots great and fun season ended in a 46 - 10 drubbing. It was quite ugly. It would be another 8 years before the Patsies made a playoff appearance again.

Doug Flutie. Andre Tippett. Ronnie Lippett.

There was another strike season, but this time the NFL played on with replacement players. Doug Flutie, the Heisman winner from Boston College, was signed by the Patriots. He played for a couple of seasons, led them in passing in one, had them headed to the playoffs and was inexplicably benched by Raymond Berry. Berry left town a year later and the Patsies won 19 games between 1989 and 1993.

Drew Bledsoe. Terry Glenn. Curtis Martin.

Bob Kraft bought the team. They changed uniforms. Back to the Super Bowl in 1996, under Bill Parcells. They lost to the Green Bay Packers. They had some good teams without quite enough personnel to be the best. Parcells left amid a bit of controversy. They got a new stadium.

They became the team of...

Tom Brady. Adam Vinatieri. Troy Brown. And, of course, Bill Belichek.

You know the rest of the story, of course, so no need to go over it here. They are seen by the rest of the league as THE blueprint for success. They have risen to the pinnacle. They are the ones to beat. And it starts again tonight. It only took them 40 years or so to get it right.

Damn, it's great being a Patriots fan.

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