The New England Patriots became a consistently good team in the latter half of the 1970s. They made the playoffs in 1976 and 1978, and had winning seasons in 1977 and 1979, a period that covered two head coaches, Chuck Fairbanks and Ron Erhardt. The 1980 New England Patriots continued the pattern of winning, but they also came up short of the postseason.
Erhardt had a team that could put up points, ranking second in the NFL in scoring. It was an attack that spread the ball around. Rookie running back Vegas Ferguson split carries with fullback Don Calhoun. Tight end Russ Francis was a reliable pass-catcher, as was wide receiver Harold Jackson.
The prime target was Pro Bowl receiver Stanley Morgan, who finished just shy of 1,000 yards receiving and the best player on the entire team was 1st-team All-NFL guard John Hannah, perhaps the greatest offensive lineman to ever play in the NFL. This cast, both well-balanced and having stars, was the right blend and they were led by quarterback Steve Grogan and his boom or bust nature.
Defensively is where the Patriots lost ground, finishing 17th in points allowed. Ironically, they had more Pro Bowl talent on this side of the ball than on offense. The secondary was the strength, with corner Mike Haynes and free safety Tim Fox each Pro Bowlers, and talented 25-year-old Raymond Clayborn on the other corner.
The other Pro Bowlers were defensive end Julius Adams and inside linebacker Steve Nelson. But the same depth and consistency the offense had was missing, and Grogan’s interception tendency—he finished with an 18/22 TD-INT ratio, didn’t help the defense’s points allowed ranking.
New England opened the season with the Cleveland Browns, and Grogan was sharp. He threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jackson, a 67-yard strike to Morgan and a third TD pass to Don Hasselbeck, on the way to a 17/26 for 277 yards performance. The Patriots led 34-3 and closed out a 34-17 win. It was a victory that would loom large in the final week of the playoff chase.
The Atlanta Falcons were up next, and it was the second straight game against an opponent that would win double-digit games in the 1980 NFL season. At the time though, the Falcons were like the Patriots—a team that had slipped in 1979 after a playoff year in ’78. New England was a (-8) favorite, but were carved up by Falcon quarterback Steve Bartkowski in a 37-21 loss.
Pass coverage was a problem again the next week at the Seattle Seahawks. As this article is written, the most recent Patriots-Seahawks game was an epic Super Bowl battle. In 1980, the Seahawks were in the AFC, they played indoors and they were bad. Therefore, winning 37-31 was nice, and Grogan threw for 271 yards, but another bad performance in pass coverage was cause for concern.
The Patriots came back to Foxboro for a Monday Night game with the Denver Broncos, an average team who had also missed the playoffs in ’79 after good years in 1977-78. New England trailed 14-10 in the third quarter, but they were playing great defense, holding Denver to eight first downs for the game. Eventually, Grogan hit Morgan on a 45-yard touchdown pass to get the lead and they eventually won 23-14.
Grogan had to leave the following week in old Shea Stadium against the New York Jets, but Matt Cavanaugh stepped in and went 9/15 for 155 yards. Haynes returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown in the second quarter and New England won 21-11. The team came back home and dominated the defending AFC East champ Miami Dolphins. The Patriots won the rushing battle 180-61 and Clayborn’s two interceptions were part of a four-pick day for the defense as a whole. The result was a 34-0 shutout.
New England won their third straight AFC East game, beating the Baltimore Colts (the Colts joined the four current teams of the AFC East in the pre-2002 alignment) 37-21. The Pats trailed this one 21-17 in the third quarter before Horace Ivory returned a kick for a touchdown. Grogan played a sharp game, 15/24 for 264 yards and no mistakes, while Haynes and Clayborn each picked off Baltimore quarterback Bert Jones.
The Patriots were rolling at 6-1 and heading into Buffalo for a showdown game with the 5-2 Bills. New England got the game’s opening field goal and were still within 14-13 going into the fourth quarter. But they weren’t running the ball and Grogan threw four interceptions. The game got away, 31-13 and there was a tie for first in the AFC East.
A strong outing at home against the Jets followed. Grogan hit Francis for a 33-yard touchdown pass, Roland James returned a punt for a touchdown and the Patriots built a 24-0 lead, coasting home 34-21. The second of three Monday Night games was next, in Houston, against an Oiler team that reached each of the two previous AFC Championship Games.
Houston had the game’s best running back in Earl Campbell and this was another game that would loom large in the playoff picture. The Patriots weren’t ready though, and dug themselves a 24-6 hole. Grogan threw for 374 yards in a noble attempt to bring them back, but it came up short, 38-34. Another loss against a good team followed, this one at home against the Los Angeles Rams. The 17-14 defeat was caused by five turnovers, while the Rams took better care of the ball.
New England needed to get back on track and a visit from Baltimore was what they needed. With a 10-0 lead, the Patriots Rod Shoate took an interception 42 yards to the house. With a 20-7 lead, Rick Sanford scooped up a fumble at the Colt 20 and ran it in. And Allan Clark put the finishing touches on the defensive scoring trifecta recovering a fumble inside the Baltimore red zone and rolling into the end zone. The final was 47-21.
The Patriots were 8-4 and still in good position, even though they were a game back of the Bills. Then came a disastrous trip to San Francisco. Joe Montana was still developing and a year away from getting the NFL side of his legendary career going. All the Pats needed to do was not beat themselves—but Grogan threw six interceptions in a 21-17 loss.
Fortunately, Buffalo also lost, New England’s next game was Monday Night in Miami. The Dolphins would finish 8-8, but when Don Shula coached there, the Orange Bowl was the house of horrors—for most teams, but it seemed especially so for the Patriots. Cavanaugh started, played turnover-free and had New England ahead 13-6. But Miami tied it in the fourth quarter and won it in overtime.
There were two weeks left, and at 8-6, the Patriots were teetering, with Buffalo at 10-4. The good news was this—the Bills were coming to Foxboro and New England would control the tiebreaker, based on division record, so long as they could win this game and split the head-to-head series.
The Patriot defense responded with its best game of the year, even better than the October shutout of Miami. Against a better offense, the Pats won the game 24-2. New England still needed help, but they had a lot going for them. The Patriots had two possible avenues—the Bills might lose and open the door to win the AFC East. The Week 1 win over the Browns now stood out, as a Cleveland loss would drop them behind Houston in that division race, and leave the Browns at 10-6—where the Patriots could pull even and take a wild-card spot on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
And just as important, New England was playing the worst team in the NFL in the New Orleans Saints. The Pats did manage to make it a little interesting, falling behind 10-0 and 27-24 before scoring two fourth quarter touchdowns with Cavanaugh at quarterback.
Now it was time to hope. Buffalo was playing with an injured quarterback, as Joe Ferguson had hurt his ankle in the game at Foxboro. But the Bills did what the Patriots could not, and that was fight out a win at San Francisco, 18-13. Cleveland also got a stiff test from a potential spoiler, at Cincinnati, trailing 17-10 and being tied 24-24 late in the game. But the Browns also survived on a late field goal.
The paths to both the AFC East and a wild-card berth had been cut off. New England was 10-6 in a conference where no team won more than 11 games, but it wasn’t enough to make the playoffs.
Nor were things about to get better—a year later the franchise would collapse and finish with the league’s worst record. They snuck back into the playoffs in the strange strike-shortened year of 1982, but otherwise spent a few years in the wilderness before returning to prominence in a long-awaited run to the Super Bowl in 1985.