Today, The Boston Globe's Steve Silva has posted a look back at the Patriots, asking "which team was your favorite?"
Silva begins with the 1974 team starring Jim Plunkett and works his way to the 2010 incarnation, picking 11 standout teams. One thing that struck me in looking back was how many good players got away from us in the old days: Plunkett, Mike Haynes, Irving Fryar -- just to name a few. I'm by no means an expert on Patriot teams that pre-date me, but I always enjoy looking back.
The Patriots had a 14 year history by the time Silva's first notable team came along in '74, but there's a reason for the lingering sense -- even today -- that we are lately risen from the dustbin. The regional memory of football Patriots in New England goes back to 1960. And most of those teams stunk. The Boston Patriots of 1964 finished 10-3-1 but out of the playoffs. The '63 Pats won the division at 7-6-1 (better than the '10 Seahawks!), beat Buffalo in the Divisional round but lost to Sid Gillman's Chargers in the Championship game. Those teams featured longstanding Patriot greats like Babe Parilli and Gino Cappelletti, but other than those two years the old Pats were the very picture of mediocrity.
We didn't have the New England Patriots until 1971, though.
I was born in 1973. My granddad put a little red football in my crib; I literally cut my teeth on football. But I didn't really become conscious of the game until I was about eight years old or so. Follow me over the jump: let's reminisce together about my favorite Patriot teams.
I invite you to share your memories in the comments.I'll use Silva's list for this; you can see it here. For me this comes down to three teams: 1985, 2004, 2010.
In 1985 the Patriots provided the heretofore quintessential New England Sports Experience for me as a 12-year-old: The 1-2 combination of raised expectations coupled with public humiliation laid me low twice in the space of less than a year. First, the Patriots rose to challenge after challenge on a desperate march through the playoffs, only to run headlong into the incomparable juggernaut that was the 1985 Chicago Bears. Only the "U" has ever had a similar swagger. Then, the 1986 Red Sox. The 1985 team contributed half of the battering that would yield a permanent malaise, indelibly burned into my psychology on the threshold of adolescence.
Nevertheless, I loved that ’ 85 team, the swan song for my screennamesake, guard John Hannah. Their run was so unexpected and the team was irresistibly tough, mentally. I started being aware of football probably around the age of 8 or so, and my team was the Patriots thanks to another gift from my grandfather, a knit hat with the Pat Patriot logo. We lived below the line in Connecticut, though, and all my classmates were Giants fans. The Pats were 2-14, 9-4, 8-8, 9-7 in the years before that magical playoff run.
The year started so inauspiciously at 3-2. We looked to be on another run to mediocrity. But when Eason went out in week 6, Grogan, whom we all loved, came off the bench to lead his team to victory and the Pats ripped off 6 straight! The Jets (who else?) laid us all low when they broke Grogan’s leg. We were filled with despair. But Eason surprised everyone and despite dropping a game to Miami (a furious comeback that fell just short), he led us to the promised land.
Every week through the playoffs the Patsies were on the road and every Monday I sat at the lunch table with my one friend and we said, "I can’t believe they won again!" (Even he was a Dolphins fan. Our shared need to lay low drew us together. We also said, "whoever gets to the Super Bowl is going to lose to the Bears." I harbored a secret hope, even so.) For the first time, I could wear my Pats hat to school and not get ridiculed. (At least, not for the hat.)
Then came the Super Bowl, Sweetness getting robbed by Ditka, Perry flopping all over the place, inimitable McMahon and the dancing Bears walked their rap. Had to put the hat away again. But what an improbable run that was.
By 2004, I was living and dying with the team — and it was a lot of living! 2001 was magical, but I never trusted that team, not at the time. You can’t love heartbreakers, not really, not fully. But by ‘04, faith had been rewarded. That team was a defensive gem, built on 2003’s impregnable redoubt. I firmly believe that the 2003 Patriots defense was the best defense of the modern game — better than Baltimore’s best.
In 2004, though, everyone was geared up to face the Pats like never before. And we had a truly veteran, battle-tested unit that understood the magnitude of the task in front of them: to repeat as Super Bowl champions. We knew they wouldn’t make it through the season unscathed and that was never the point. The point was to get ready for the playoffs, to be in top trim at the end of December — especially mentally.
That year, "The Streak" ended in Pittsburgh. That was bitter, but in a way I think we expected it. I remember at the time thinking (and saying) "Fine. It doesn’t count and we needed to get that out of the way." Boy did it wind up the Yinzers, though. They had every right to crow, I guess. The ‘Burgh ripped through the rest of their schedule en route to a #1 seed made possible by their victory over the Patriots in week 8. I remember we entered the playoffs with some doubts, as that loss at the Dolphins saw Brady throwing a pick-6 off his ass, IIRC. That didn’t seem to me like the kind of mental fortitude that augured well, especially opening against Manning and the Colts.
It snowed. We offered a silent prayer of thanks to the football gods, then went out and trashed the Colts 20-3. Rodney picked Peyton to snuff the first drive of the day and we were off to the races. Vrabes picked up a sack, the Colts gave it up 3 times. The mighty Indy offense, which had dismantled the Broncos 49-24 the week before was held to 276 yards of total offense, 46 on the ground. Probably my second-favorite playoff game (after the AFC Championship game against Indy where Ty Law picked PeyPey thrice).
We embarrassed the Stillers, in Pittsburgh, the following week. We weathered TO to beat the Iggles. Corey Dillon was on his last legs. These were the O-G Pats: Graham, Branch, Brady, Vrabel, Johnson, Bruschi. Troy Brown. Kevin Faulk. Light. Willie, Joe Andruzzi. That was a great, great team.
That brings me to 2010, which except for Light and Brady is an entirely different team than the one who shocked the NFL in 2001. It’s notably different even from that 2004 squad. Of all of the teams I’ve known, I’ve enjoyed watching this one the most. As we’ve said before, this has been a "bonus season." While Shaughnessy et al. can be pricks, you’ve got to admit that no one saw this coming. Even the most koolaid-sopped, dyed-in-the-wool Belichick dittohead, if you got him at home in his socks with a sixer of ’gansett in him would have to admit: After losing Warren, Bodden and McGowan before we even got out of camp, after losing Faulk in week 2, things looked pretty grim. I was thinking 9-7 would be a good, reasonable outcome.
I think I like these guys because in temperament and approach they remind me of the 2004 team. "Grinders" is a word that’s been used around the locker room and by the media, and it seems to fit. When even your exceptional athletes — your Wilforks, your Bradys — are grinders, and everyone follows suit, 14-2 happens. It’s been a blast. And things look great for a Championship.
Even if we win that, though, the 2004 team is #1 in my heart. I don’t know these guys yet. I haven’t lived with them and come to love them — yet. Not in the same way. But the ingredients are there — particularly with guys like Vince and Vollmer and Branch (the Prodigal Son), Welker, even Mayo.
Ask me again next year. And please make it just as hard to answer the question.
PS: For more looking back, check out jcru's excellent fanpost, if you haven't done so already, about the rowdy Raider game that led to the Patriots missing out on Monday Night Football for years.