8 Sep 1996: Quarterback Drew Bledsoe of the New England Patriots moves the ball during a game against the Buffalo Bills at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. The Bills won the game, 17-10. Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart/Allsport
Today’s New England Patriots are football royalty. But a quarter-century ago, the franchise nearly moved halfway across the country. From those uncertain days emerged a mid-’90s team that won the fans back and changed the narrative on Patriots football.
Part two of a three-part series. Click here to read part one.
New England fans had high hopes coming off a resurgent 1994 campaign, with Foxboro Stadium selling out before the season for the first time in team history.
“I learned in ‘94, if you were going to have seats, you needed to get the ones that clip into the back,” Joe Murray muses. “Remember those? We’d get there an hour early because if you didn’t, somebody would be sitting in your seat. It was just no holds barred with asses and seats. So we’d get the seat backs, clip them in and sit. And people would just start rolling in, trying to find spots.”
But the team’s fortunes flipped to 6-10. The defense was 28th in the league in yards allowed, while Drew Bledsoe and the offense sputtered inside the red zone.
“We weren’t there yet,” remembers Scott Zolak. “You’re building through the draft; those guys are rookies. You’re sending all those Giants guys [from the Bill Parcells era] packing. We just needed the right group of guys.”
In the eyes of coach Parcells, that meant more defense for ’96.
7 Dec 1997: Linebacker Ted Johnson of the New England Patriots stands in position during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Alltell Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida. The Patriots won the game 26-20. Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons/Allsport
“Willie Clay came that year,” says Ted Johnson. “He was a really good leader. He stabilized our secondary. Otis Smith was on that team. So you had two veterans with really strong leadership qualities, mixed with some young studs and a good linebacking core. That was the makings of a good defense.”
“When you think about the Patriots,” Murray reflects, “they’ve always had great linebackers going back to Andre Tippett, ‘The Undertaker’ Vincent Brown … think about the lineage of linebackers. But that linebacking core in particular: Ted Johnson was in his second year and starting in the middle. Todd Collins had been one of the top recruits in the country – he played one side and Chris Slade was on the other.”
Johnson remembers: “During the offseason – Dante Scarnecchia was a defensive assistant at the time. The news was that they let Vincent Brown go. I remember Scar coming to me with the, ‘they’re giving you the keys to the car, kid. Don’t screw it up,’ kind of thing. I was excited about the challenge of that.”
And while both defense and offense would shine in ‘96, the question of what was more important would be the catalyst for an epic disagreement.
Minnesota Vikings running back Terry Allen is tackled by linebackers Chris Slade and Willie McGinest of the New England Patriots during a game on Nov. 13, 1994 at Foxboro Stadium. (Getty Images)
“You talk about bull-headed,” posits Johnson. “You’ve got Robert Kraft. You’ve got Bill Parcells. His favorite line was, ‘I ain’t changing for you. So you better change for me if we’re going to work together.’ He probably took that same approach with Robert Kraft.”
“The egos are so big in the NFL. Especially with the head coaches. Belichick’s the same way. He doesn’t just want to win…he cares about winning his way.”
Kraft was uncomfortable with Parcells – now in his fourth season with the team – having total authority without a long-term commitment. As Kraft told the Kraftwork podcast:
“He had a five-year contact with us, and he’d say every year, ‘I decide at the end of the year whether I’m coming back or not.’”
“I made sure…that personnel people had a strong input because I wanted people who would be with the organization long-term accountable for what happened.”
“The Patriots needed Bill Parcells,” Murray says. “But at the same time, he could walk away whenever he wanted.”
18 Aug 1996: Quarterback Drew Bledsoe of the New England Patriots looks down field for an open receiver as he sets his feet to throw the ball during the Patriots 37-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at Foxboro Stadium in Foxoboro, Massachusetts. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
After an 0-2 start, the Pats blasted the Cardinals in the home opener.
“I remember Curtis Martin went off and had three touchdowns,” says Murray. “Two receiving. They rolled ‘em, 31-0. That was like their coming-out party.
The win kicked off a three-game streak and a preview of things to come for the best offense in the AFC. The season was Bledsoe’s Mona Lisa, as the fourth-year starter slung it for 4,086 yards – a huge total for ‘96 and third in the NFL – with 27 touchdowns.
Following up on his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign, Martin would tote the rock for nearly 1,200 yards, with his 17 combined scores the most in the AFC. Stalwart lineman Bruce Armstrong made his fifth of six career Pro Bowls, while the sure-handed Ben Coates headed to Hawaii for a third time.
“Coates was Drew’s binky,” Zolak recalls. “Every QB needs a guy like that. He was great at getting open with guys hanging off of him. He caught everything thrown his way. He could break tackles. He was Gronk before Gronkowski.”
“Teams couldn’t play Cover 2 against us because Terry Glenn and Shawn Jefferson would burn them on the outside. Curtis Martin could run it to set up the pass. Sam Gash was a real good fullback. We had a great line with big Will Roberts, Bob Kratch and those guys.”
1 Sep 1996: Tight end Ben Coates #87 of the New England Patriots leaves his feet as he lunges across the goal line for a touch down while linebacker Zach Thomas #54 of the Miami Dolphins looks on form behind during the Patriots 24-10 loss to the Dolphins. (Getty Images)
Glenn – the preseason lightning rod – missed Week 1 but hit the ground running, eventually compiling one of the great debut seasons in league history. By year’s end, his 90 receptions stood as a new rookie record.
“He ran better routes than anybody I’ve ever been around,” Zolak remembers. “It was a great pick. Bill eventually came around to it. Some players just need something to motivate them. We all do.”
As Ted Johnson notes, “People don’t realize Parcells was the perfect coach for Terry Glenn. Parcells could get to you. He knew what buttons to press; he knew how to relate to each guy. He knew how to get the most out of each player.”
Following a Week 7 setback in Washington, the Pats reeled off four more victories and began to build a reputation for resilience.
Trailing by a field goal in the fourth quarter of a wild Sunday night game against Buffalo in Week 9, the Pats found the end zone twice in the final stanza, with Martin touching pay dirt and Pro Bowler Willie McGinest scoring the first TD of his career on a 46-yard interception return.
The following week, the Pats trailed 17-14 in the second half against Miami, when Bledsoe connected with Coates on consecutive TD grabs – the second an 84-yard rumble – touching off a 42-point explosion and a blowout victory.
In Week 11, New England sat up like the Undertaker (the pro wrestler, not the former Pats linebacker) after falling behind 21-0 to the Jets, with Bledsoe hitting Coates and Keith Byars on fourth quarter touchdown throws to complete the comeback.
17 Nov 1996: Running back Terrell Davis #30 of the Denver Broncos carries the football during the Broncos 34-8 win over the New England Patriots at Foxboro Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Getty Images)
“They lost Sam Gash that year; he got hurt,” Murray remembers. “They went out and made a trade for Keith Byars. I didn’t realize how good he was. He should be a Hall of Famer. They used Keith Byars at tight end. He was unbelievable.”
Zolak recalls Byars’ versatility: “You had Keith Byars, great hands, quick feet – one of the best pass-catchers of his day – playing tight end. We’d run the two-tight end set with Coates and Byars – that was tough to stop.”
As the wins piled up, the players looked to maintain perspective.
“If you have a coach like Parcells or Belichick … they keep it day to day,” Milloy reflects. “What are you working on today? How are you getting better today? Here’s where you messed up yesterday, and here’s how you get better. When you’re focusing on that, winning ballgames just kind of happens naturally.”
And while winning builds character, for the ‘96 Patriots, that character was actually cemented by their toughest losses.
The Denver Broncos had been a thorn in the side of New England for years, at one point beating the Pats in 11 consecutive matchups. They’d thrashed the home team 37-3 in Foxboro the previous season, and in Week 12, they’d do it again.
“We got drilled by Denver,” Johnson laments. “It was so embarrassing. We were (the big story in) Sports Illustrated that week – in a bad way. We got humbled in that game.”
Murray recalls the antics of Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe, who taunted fans by pretending to call the White House from a sideline phone. “They were killing them at this point – he went to the sideline and picked up a phone during the game. He had that quote: ‘Mr. President, we’re killing the Patriots.’ I hated Shannon Sharpe because of that.”
But after the 34-8 drubbing, the Pats defense buckled down. They’d hold opponents to an average of 10 points per game over the next seven contests.
1 Sep 1996: Quarterback Drew Bledsoe #11 of the New England Patriots hangs onto the football as he is hit and surrounded by defensive players from the Miami Dolphins lead by lineman Daniel Stubbs #96 and Steve Emtman #94. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Riding another three-game heater, the Pats visited the defending champion Dallas Cowboys for Week 16. They sacked quarterback Troy Aikman three times in the first half, and Law added two picks. Neither team found the end zone, with Dallas prevailing 12-6 in a field goal battle.
“To tell the story of the ‘96 team,” says Johnson, “that was a very important game. It was the quintessential moral victory. They didn’t score a touchdown.”
Milloy recalls a moment of clarity when matched up against Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith.
“Back-to-back plays, he came up the middle. The first time was a solid hit, but I felt like I could do better. I was like, ‘I know that’s Emmitt Smith; I know I’ve got all his cards, but if he comes through the hole again, I’ve got to smack him.’ The next play basically looked identical – the tackles looked identical – but that time, I got up and he didn’t. They came out and got him.”
“I’m not saying I was the reason why,” Milloy laughs, “but that was the result. That’s when I knew I was built for that.”
“It was one of my best games as a pro,” says Johnson. “I remember Ty Law locked down Michael Irvin. Don’t forget Adam Vinatieri chasing down Herschel Walker! We kept Dallas out of the end zone and our defense felt like we had something pretty special after that game. Even with a loss. In a weird way, for our defense, that was a pivotal point. We knew we went toe-to-toe with the Dallas Cowboys.”
“They brought out the best of us in our preparation the week before,” Milloy recalls. “We were a bunch of young guys. We just said ‘F*** it. We know that’s the Cowboys. Let’s go out there and ball.’
The Pats still needed a win in the season’s final week to secure the division, and to do so, they’d need another comeback. Rallying from a 19-point fourth quarter deficit, they faced fourth down from the Giants 13 with 1:23 left. Bledsoe threw to an open Coates at the 2-yard line. The burly tight end made the catch, pivoted and carried half of the Giants defense with him into the end zone.
New England prevailed, 23-22.
The AFC East champion Patriots could put some popcorn in the microwave and pull up a seat on the couch for Wild Card Weekend. What’s more, they were about to get an ever bigger break.