Spirit of ’96, Part 3: Patriots cook up some Jambalaya
26 Jan 1997: General view of the trenches at Super Bowl XXXI between the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Packers won the game, 35-21. (Getty Images)
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 three of a three-part series. Click to read part one and part two.
Hosting the first home playoff game in team history, the 1996 Patriots were a hot commodity. Particularly compared to the rest of the New England pro sports landscape.
The Red Sox had just lost franchise icon Roger Clemens to free agency.
The Bruins bottomed out, finishing last in the NHL and missing the playoffs for the first time in 30 years.
The Celtics finished with 15 wins and hoped to land Tim Duncan with the top pick in the ‘97 draft.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t happen.
On the eve of the Pats’ divisional matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, franchise antagonists the Denver Broncos were knocked out of the AFC playoff bracket by the upstart Jaguars.
“I knew we were going to the Super Bowl,” says Ted Johnson. “Nobody was saying it, but we all felt like, “LET’S GO.”
5 Jan 1997: Runing back Marrio Grier of the New England Patriots gets tackled during a playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Foxboro Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Patriots won the game, 28-3. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello/Allsport
On Sunday, Jan. 5, 1997, Foxboro Stadium was 46 degrees with 95 percent humidity. While fans watching at home were greeted by the galloping notes of the NFL on NBC theme, those in the stands squinted to make out the combatants through pea soup conditions.
“I couldn’t see a thing but Curtis Martin running at one point,” Joe Murray recalls.
Luckily, Terry Glenn had a better view than Joe. On the third play of the game, Drew Bledsoe looped the ball 53 yards in the air, with Glenn hauling it in at the 2-yard line.
The Pats were in business and wouldn’t look back. The defense chewed up Steelers QBs Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart and stalled out running back Jerome Bettis. Martin broke off a 79-yard run for one of three touchdowns in a 166-yard day, and Keith Byars got loose on a screen behind some great blocking for a 34-yard deposit at the bank.
“With all due respect – the Steelers were a good team,” Johnson notes. “But we knew they had some flaws. Our collective confidence was so high going into that game knowing the Broncos were eliminated.”
12 Jan 1997: Defensive back Willie McGinest of the New England Patriots finds himself between two Jacksonville Jaguars, quarterback Mark Brunell #8 and defensive lineman Tony Boselli # 71 during the AFC Championship game played at Foxboro Stadium. (Getty Images)
The following week, Foxboro was again jammed as the Pats hosted the AFC Championship Game. The offense had a bit of a power failure – not unlike the blown transformer that delayed the game 12 minutes while Adam Vinatieri lined up for a second-quarter field goal.
With the Pats clinging to a 7-point lead in the fourth, Willie Clay snatched a Mark Brunell pass in the end zone. Chris Slade later forced a fumble that Otis Smith picked up and ran 47 yards to the house for a 14-point advantage that would be the final margin. A Tedy Bruschi pick with under two minutes remaining sealed the deal.
The Patriots were going to the Super Bowl. While a modern observer might be desensitized to that line, back then, it was monumental.
“It was a pretty cool feeling,” says Sports Hub colleague and Gillette Stadium game day announcer Mike Riley, “to see the celebration our parents talked about in the days of Bobby Orr and the Celtics in the 80s.”
It was “Jambalaya,” a rallying cry cooked up by sports radio pioneer Eddie Andelman.
“I think I had a “Jambalaya” t-shirt,” Murray recalls. “I definitely had a “Squeeze the Cheese” t-shirt.”
“Nobody wore Patriots s*** in Boston back then,” remembers Lawyer Milloy. “We changed that.”
“I remember going to MVP Sports on Needham Street in Newton,” says Riley. “The line was out the door to get AFC Champion shirts and hats. We knew they’d be coming in quickly because the shirt factory was less than a mile away off 128 in Needham. Those shirts and hats were coming in by the hour and off the rack just like that.”
The Pats would meet the Green Bay Packers in the big game. The host city: New Orleans.
21 Jan 1997: Quarterback Drew Bledsoe of the New England Patriots gets interviewed during Media Day for Super Bowl XXXI against the Green Bay Packers at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Packers won the game, 35-21. (Getty Images)
“Every Super Bowl should be there,” says Scott Zolak. “You don’t need to drive anywhere; just get out and walk around.”
“We were happy to be there. Seeing the fans everywhere. You’re eating too many oysters. You find out what a Hurricane is. Spend too much of your money at Pat O’Brien’s. You stay up too late, wake up the next morning, puke your brains out, and go practice.”
Coming off the dynasty years of the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, the AFC had been defeated in the Super Bowl 12 consecutive times. Many thought the Packers would be the next NFC dynasty, and few pundits gave the Patriots a chance, particularly against league MVP Brett Favre.
“Brett Favre was coming off his addiction issues,” Murray recalls. “That was a big deal. National news. The Brett Favre bandwagon was real. It was his year, man. You went up against arguably the best quarterback in football, surrounded by veterans and a great coaching staff.”
And while Super Bowl XXXI may be remembered as the crowning moment for an all-timer in Favre, in New England, it’s seen as the boiling point for Bill Parcells’ time with the Patriots.
The day the team departed for the Big Easy came reports that the Big Tuna was out.
Bill Parcells, Head Coach for the New England Patriots during the American Football Conference East game against the Buffalo Bills on Dec. 18, 1994 at Rich Stadium, Orchard Park, Buffalo, New York, United States. The Patriots won the game 41-17. (Photo by Simon Bruty/Allsport/Getty Images)
“Will McDonough was the one who broke the story,” Murray recalls. “He had it all. Nobody reports like him anymore. ”
“Where was Parcells’ head? They lost by 14. You take out Desmond Howard having a career day; Reggie White having a career day. You had a chance to win. Where was his head that day?”
“It had to impact us to some degree,” Johnson reflects. “Did we talk about it? No. But we all felt it. It was dominating the news cycle.”
“Football is won on the margins. Who’s a little bit more focused? Who’s a little bit distracted? The outcome can be tilted one way or another on those margins.”
“My feeling is if you were to ask Bill if he had any regrets about that, he would say he regrets how it all went down.”
“I would say, retrospectively, I probably wasn’t as understanding as I could’ve been. And I’m sorry about that,” Parcells told A Football Life.
26 Jan 1997: Quarterback Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers celebrates during Super Bowl XXXI against the New England Patriots at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Packers won the game, 35-21. Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr/Allsport
The game itself wasn’t a vintage Favre performance, as the reigning MVP completed just 14-of-27 passes for the game. Running back Dorsey Levens logged an uneventful 61 yards on the ground. But the big plays were poison for the Pats.
Much like Bledsoe-to-Glenn in the fog, the Packers landed a body blow on the opening drive.
As Johnson describes it: “What we were doing was next level stuff. We were in a blitz. If the QB saw us in a blitz and he audibled, we had the ability to check out of the blitz. Teams today don’t even do that. Belichick does, but a lot of teams don’t. What you worry about is that not everybody gets the call…”
Favre hit Andre Rison for 54 yards and the score.
But the resilient Patriots fought back. After Bledsoe found Byars and Coates for touchdowns on consecutive second quarter drives, the Pats had a 14-10 lead. When Favre struck again with an 81-yard connection to Antonio Freeman (at the time, the longest TD reception in Super Bowl history) and ran for another one himself, the Pats cut the lead to six on a Curtis Martin 18-yard TD plunge.
“Losing the Super Bowl gave us that reality: wait a minute, we just lost,” says Milloy. “We just kind of wound up here, and we lost our opportunity…you always think it’ll be easy to get back, but it doesn’t work like that.”
The season was over. Parcells was gone soon after, with his parting shot of “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries,” an all-time Boston sports sound bite.
26 Jan 1997: Wide receiver Desmond Howard of the Green Bay Packers (center) moves the ball during Super Bowl XXXI against the New England Patriots at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Packers won the game, 35-21. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images
Some teams would have fallen into disarray. But the Patriots remained a threat in the AFC, playing for the conference championship against the Steelers the following season. And a number of key players from the ‘96 team would go on to star in the Super Bowl the following decade.
“When you think back on it, the young core of that ‘96 team was the core of the championship teams in years to come,” says Pats fan Brian Brickley.
Parcells and Kraft eventually spackled over their rift.
“At a Super Bowl, Bill was standing there as I approached, and he just said to me, ‘If I had to do it all over again. I would have done things differently.’ And I said, ‘So would I,'” Kraft told USA Today in 2013.
“I have great respect for him. He did a great deal for our franchise. And I will forever be grateful for that.”
Like a lot of New England sports seasons between 1986 and 2001, the ending wasn’t great, but the ride was pretty wild. The success that accompanied it was less an expectation and more of a pleasant surprise, and a generation of fans felt a particular way about the Patriots for the first time.
There was no blueprint, no “we’ve been here before.” Just a likeable group with a cantankerous legend of a coach, blazing new trails on a weekly basis.
“We had a foundation,” Johnson says. “You have a draft like you did in ‘95 with Ty Law and Curtis Martin. You draft a guy like Lawyer Milloy. We had the makings of something pretty cool.”
“We all bought in. We all wanted it. We loved playing together. It was just a really good group.”
“If you look back to the ’96 team – to me – that’s when the dynasty started,” says Brickley.
Perhaps Milloy sums up the spirit of ’96 best:
“Even though it was a loss, we gave the city hope in a place they weren’t expecting it.”