The 1978 New England Patriots entered the season with a dark cloud hanging over them. Wide receiver Darryl Stingley suffered a horrific injury in the preseason, a broken neck that left him paralyzed for life. After an inspiring season that saw them exceed expectations, the Patriots managed to end the year with a series of self-inflicted wounds.
After a strong 11-3 season in 1976, the Patriots had missed the playoffs in 1977, though they had still gone 9-5. There was a good core of young talent and it started up front. The left side of the offensive line, tackle Leon Gray and guard John Hannah, were both 27-years-old and 1st-team All-Pro in 1978. Hannah would go on to be acknowledged as perhaps the greatest offensive lineman to ever play in the NFL.
Hannah & Gray led the way for a balanced running game that used three different backs–Horace Ivory, Andy Johnson and Sam Cunningham to consistently pound opponents. The passing game was no less balanced, with receivers Harold Jackson and Stanley Morgan sharing the load with Pro Bowl tight end Russ Francis.
New England had a young quarterback, 25-year-old Steve Grogan and the biggest problem was inconsistency and mistakes–Grogan finished the year with a TD/INT ratio of 15/23. But he threw for over 2,800 yards which was still pretty good in this era. The offense finished fourth in the NFL in points scored.
Defensively, the Patriots weren’t quite as good. They only had one Pro Bowler, 25-year-old Mike Haynes. But on the opposite corner was second-year player Raymond Clayborn, starting a good career, and the defense was still decent, finishing 13th in the league in points allowed.
The season still started off slowly. New England was leading the Washington Redskins 14-9 at home, when a fourth-quarter fumble was returned for a touchdown and the Patriots lost. They bounced back at the St. Louis Cardinals, winning the rushing battle 269-57 and the game 16-zip. To further underscore the balance in the running game, a fourth wheel, Don Calhoun, was the hero with 143 yards.
New England hosted the Baltimore Colts, the defending AFC East champs (the division comprised the Colts along with the four current AFC East teams). It was the Patriots’ only Monday Night appearance of the season and the game was a good one. Johnson ran for 109 yards and Grogan threw for 229. But the quarterback also threw three interceptions and the Pats dropped a tough 34-27 decision when they allowed a fourth-quarter kickoff return for the decisive score.
Things began to change the following week. The Patriots returned to Oakland, the site of Stingley’s injury. New England fell behind 14-0, but with Johnson and Cunningham pounding away on the ground, the team piled up 207 rush yards and won 21-14. The comeback routine continued a week later at home against the San Diego Chargers.
After the defense allowed three first-half touchdown passes to Dan Fouts and trailing 20-7, Grogan took over, going 17/29 for 231 yards. Jackson was the prime receiver, catching four passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns. It was Grogan’s best game of the year to date and it resulted in a 28-23 win.
New England didn’t need to rely on the comeback at home against the Philadelphia Eagles. The punishing ground game returned, the Patriots were ahead 17-0 by the second quarter and a 58-yard touchdown pass to Morgan in the third quarter sealed the 24-7 win.
The Pats were riding a three-game winning streak, all against teams that would finish 1978 with winning records. They didn’t play well at Cincinnati the following week, but the Bengals were a bad team and New England still won 10-3.
A late-afternoon home kickoff with the Miami Dolphins was next, with both teams at 5-2 and atop the AFC East. It was the first of two big divisional games for the Patriots, as the 4-3 New York Jets were coming to Foxboro a week later.
The Pats-Dolphins game was worthy of being shown to a national audience. It was a back-and-forth battle. Ivory rushed for 113 yards and ran in from one yard out in the third quarter to give New England a 24-21 lead. Then, with the scored tied 24-23, Ivory scooted in from 23 yards. The defense held, sacking Miami quarterback Bob Griese in the end zone to seal the 33-24 win.
New England’s win over the Jets came much easier. Grogan rifled a pair of early touchdowns, one apiece to Jackson and Morgan. The quarterback went 15/19 for 281 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. The result was a 55-21 rout.
Grogan crashed back to earth hard the next week in Buffalo, going 5/17 for 65 yards. But Ivory picked up the slack, running for 128 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Coupled with a strong defensive outing, it was enough for a 14-10 win. The Patriots were now 8-2, a game up on the Dolphins and two games ahead of the Jets. The Colts had fallen off the map after their Monday Night win in Foxboro.
It looked to all like the win streak would continue when New England jumped out to a 23-0 lead on the Houston Oilers at home. The fact the Patriots had been to the red zone five times and settled for field goals on three of those, hardly seemed to matter in the second quarter. But it would be the difference. The Oilers, set to crash the postseason party, with rookie running back Earl Campbell, rallied for a 26-23 win.
Grogan continued to struggle in New York’s old Shea Stadium against the Jets, throwing for just 99 yards. But the running game got its mojo back, with a 225-69 edge, enough to help New England win 19-17 on a late field goal.
A road trip to Baltimore started well, with Haynes’ 36-yard interception return starting the scoring. But Grogan gave it back with a Pick-6 of his own. Fortunately, the quarterback turned it around. Though he was only 9-for-20, he made the completions count. They went for 247 yards, with Morgan being the prime target. New England pulled away and won 35-14.
The Patriots were 10-3, with a two-game lead on the Dolphins. The schedule didn’t work in New England’s favor though–they had to go to Dallas, where the Cowboys were the defending Super Bowl champ and would make it back this season. And the season finale was on Monday Night in Miami.
New England dropped a tough 17-10 decision in Dallas. The Pats led 10-3 at the half and Cunningham and Johnson ran well. But Grogan was no match for Cowboy counterpart Roger Staubach who threw a pair of second-half touchdowns.
Miami closed to within one game, but the Patriots’ hole card was that they still held the tiebreaker if they simply beat Buffalo at home. The Bills, on their way to a 5-11 season, made it interesting, taking a 17-7 lead in the third quarter. The Patriots rallied, getting a safety along the way and closing to 24-23. They won it with a late field goal.
For the first time in franchise history, the New England Patriots were the AFC East champs. They also secured the #2 seed in the AFC and a home playoff game (in this timeframe there were three divisions per conference and two wild-cards, so the #3 division winner—in this case Denver—usually didn’t get a home game, though they were seeded straight into the divisional playoffs).
Amidst the celebration though, hell was breaking loose.
Chuck Fairbanks was the head coach and made his mark in college at Oklahoma. With a lucrative offer to return to the Big Eight (dominated then by OU and Nebraska) and rebuild the moribund University of Colorado program. Fairbanks took the offer for next season and the response of Patriot management was to suspend the head coach.
The problem the Pats had on principle was understandable, but also unrealistic. To create this kind of havoc with the team on the verge of the playoffs over anything less than a criminal matter should have been considered unthinkable.
The Patriots might have benefited if the Sullivan Family who owned the team acted like one of the Families of the New York Cosa Nostra—“it’s not personal, it’s only business”, to pull a line from the Godfather Trilogy. The Sullivans, in true Irish fashion, made it personal and it cost the team badly.
They looked listless in a loss to Miami and even though Fairbanks was reinstated for the postseason, a dark cloud was now over the organization.
Houston came in on New Year’s Eve afternoon for the divisional round and the result was a train wreck for New England. Grogan threw a pair of interceptions, went 3-for-12 and got yanked for backup Tom Owen. The Patriots fell behind 24-0, and though Owen helped close it to 24-14, the Oilers tacked on a clinching touchdown.
The 31-14 finish was a disheartening end to a once-promising season that ran the gamut from tragic to uplifting to simply aggravating.