The New England Patriots are the most successful team of the NFL’s salary cap era. They have won four Super Bowls this century, are a near-lock to make the playoffs each year and are as popular and profitable a franchise as few others on this planet. But look only 25 years back and a different New England Patriots team presents itself; one, that was the worst team in professional football.
In 1990, the team won only a single game – the worst season in franchise history, marked by bad play, low fan turnout and a sexual harassment scandal. The team replaced head coach Rod Rust with Dick MacPherson and went 6-10 and 1991. After the season, owner Victor Kiam sold the team to James Busch Orthwein. The Patriots returned as the league’s least successful team in 1992: they went 2-14 and fired MacPherson.
In short, the Patriots were bad. They were in disarray. They sucked.
“We weren’t at the bottom. We were the bottom,” said the coach taking over MacPherson’s 2-14 squad, 20 years later. Bill Parcells was right, the Patriots from top to bottom were worse than any other team in the league. Their owner wanted to relocate the franchise to St. Louis, their stadium was outdated even for early 1990s standards and the team lacked leadership at every level.
And yet, here he was. Two years after standing on the top of the pro football world and lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy into the Tampa sky, Parcells was sitting in a hotel ballroom in Boston, Massachusetts – the NFL’s nowhere land – being introduced as the 12th head coach of the New England Patriots. Not only did Parcells bring experience and pedigree to New England he brought something else, something not felt in the Northeast since the 1985 AFC Championship season: hope.
Parcells made sure of that on the day he was introduced to the media, telling a story of when he interviewed for the job (beating out contestants like Mike Ditka or Buddy Ryan). “We had discussions on how Jim [Busch Orthwein] said I envisioned bringing a competitive team to New England,” the two-time Super Bowl winning coach stated during his January 21 press conference. “I told him I wasn't interested in being a competitive team. I wanted a championship team. That's the only goal a guy like me can have. I'm not interested in making a team competitive from week to week.”
The then-51-year old, who signed a five-year contract with the Patriots, wanted to make sure of that and did not only become the team’s head coach but its de-facto general manager as well. “I think I have the most experience at this table in picking talent,” Parcells said when he was first introduced alongside the team’s owner. He showed confidence in himself and in his vision for the team.
With Parcells as its leader New England’s pro football franchise had a new look, not only because it changed its logo and primary color scheme. It now had a head coach who talked the talk but had enough success in the past to get the benefit of the doubt that he could back it up as well. It would take some time – Parcells’ Patriots lost 11 of their first 12 games – but the team was able to end its coach’s inaugural season on a high note and won the final four games.
The seed for future success was planted (and placed even more firmly into the ground after the season, when Busch Orthwein sold the team to Robert Kraft).
Parcells notably brought swagger and bravado to New England. He also brought talent. Talent, that transformed the club and its culture and it started to show in late 1993. The team was built around newly infused talent like number one overall pick and franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe and a returning core of veterans like tackle Bruce Armstrong or linebacker Andre Tippett. But it was also built around talented young coaches, who would go on to become major contributors to the team’s dynasty. Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel and Dante Scarencchia were all part of Parcells’ first New England staff.
And while he would fall short of his ultimate goal – winning a championship – and left on rather unpleasant terms, Parcells put New England back on the football map. He made the moribund Patriots franchise relevant again from the day he took the stage on January 21st, 1993.
23 years and four titles later, the effects can still be felt.