The New England Patriots were gradually starting to become a franchise with expectations in the latter part of the 1970s. In 1976, the Pats got their first playoff berth of the Super Bowl era. In 1978 they won the AFC East. Even the three years where they missed the playoffs (1977, 1979, 1980) were marked by winning seasons.
Thus, while they were a far cry from a dynasty, they had played consistently well enough to merit excitement at the start of each season. That’s what makes the complete collapse of the 1981 New England Patriots even more disheartening.
The Pats had talent, starting with left tackle John Hannah, a 1st-team All-Pro and in the conversation as the greatest offensive lineman of all time. They had balance at the skill positons, with fullback Sam Cunningham and a good rookie in Tony Collins in the backfield. Stanley Morgan was a 1,000-yard receiver with big play capability. Steve Grogan was at quarterback, and while he was mistake-prone, he also had a demonstrated capacity to be prolific.
Defensively, there weren’t any Pro Bowlers in 1981, but inside linebacker Steve Nelson had achieved that designation previously and the corners were very talented, with Raymond Clayborn and Mike Haynes both having lockdown ability.
In spite of all this, the Patriots were mediocre on offense (15th in the NFL in points scored) and subpar on defense (22nd in points allowed). But even those disappointing ranks should have at least given the team a respectable record. Instead, the 1981 New England Patriots mastered the art of losing close games and the losses just piled up, all the way to the number one pick in the ensuing spring’s NFL draft.
New England opened the season at home with the Baltimore Colts and in spite of playing a bad team, the Pats allowed 249 yards on the ground and dropped a 29-28 decision. The next game was in Philadelphia, where the Eagles were coming off a Super Bowl appearance and would get off to a 6-0 start in 1981. The rush defense again faltered, allowing 220 yards, in a 13-3 loss.
Grogan threw three interceptions at Philly and had been relieved by Matt Cavanaugh, the quarterback of Pitt’s 1976 national championship team, but mostly unaccomplished in the NFL. Cavanaugh got the call for a Monday Night home date with the Dallas Cowboys and threw four interceptions of his own. Facing a 1st-team All-NFL running back in Tony Dorsett, it’s no surprise that the defense continued to get muscled up front, again allowing over 200 yards in a 35-21 loss.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were falling into mediocrity, two years removed from the last Super Bowl title of the Steel Curtain era, but they jumped out to a 14-zip lead on New England. The Patriots still trailed 21-7 when Cavanaugh rallied the offense to tie the game, forcing overtime on a 12-yard touchdown pass to Morgan. But the Steelers won in OT, 27-21.
New England’s season had already slipped away—no team had ever made the playoffs after an 0-4 start and that streak would hold until the San Diego Chargers pulled it off in 1992. The Pats at least got their first win in Week 5. They beat a decent Kansas City Chiefs team, 33-17 at home.
The rush defense was no better, but this time the Patriots answered with a potent ground game of their own, as Collins led an attack that piled up 240 yards. Another running back, Andy Johnson, got in the act with the passing game, finding Morgan for a touchdown on a halfback pass.
New England traveled to old Shea Stadium to face the New York Jets, who were trying to recover from a slow start themselves, having begun the year 1-3-1. Grogan stepped in for Cavanaugh and was brilliant, going 19/32 for 330 yards. But there was no running game and the Jets pulled it out 28-24. These two division rivals, within a half-game of each other coming in, would go in opposite direction. The Jets won ten games and made the playoffs.
The Johnson-to-Morgan passing combination worked to create another touchdown pass the next week at home against the Houston Oilers. More important, Collins outrushed the great Houston back Earl Campbell and the Pats won going away, 38-10. The following week in Washington, they were in position to get some momentum, when they jumped out to an early lead against a lowly Redskins team.
But two deep drives resulted in field goals and kept Washington in the game. When New England gave up a punt return for a touchdown, the Patriots ended up on the wrong side of a 24-22 final. Just as the Jets game gave an opponent new life, this one did the same for the Redskins—they stormed on to finish 8-8 after losing the first five and one year later won the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the Patriots kept free-falling.
New England had the lead at defending Super Bowl champion Oakland the following week, up 17-13 in the fourth quarter, with Grogan delivering a strong 17/30 for 233 yards performance. But the inability to run the ball caught up with the Pats in the fourth quarter and the Raiders won 27-17.
More heartbreak came at home against archrival Miami. Grogan got the game off to a strong start, hitting Morgan on a 76-yard touchdown pass and the Patriots led 17-6 against a team that would ultimately win the AFC East and get the 2-seed in the playoffs. But Grogan also threw four interceptions, the rush defense again allowed 200-plus yards and the game went to overtime tied 27-27. The Dolphins won it with a field goal.
A strong defensive effort against the Jets went to waste in a 17-6 loss. Another AFC East rival squarely in the mix of the playoff race was the Buffalo Bills, the defending divisional champs who would be a wild-card this year. New England was competitive on the road, with the improbable Andy Johnson-to-Stanley Morgan passing combo producing its third touchdown of the year on a 56-yard play. The Pats led 17-13 before the Bills drove for the winning touchdown.
Cavanaugh was back behind center, and he would end up starting seven games this season. In a home date with the mediocre St. Louis Cardinals, he went 17/24 for 245 yards, but threw two interceptions. Cardinal counterpart Neil Lomax was 20/28 for 280 yards and no picks and St. Louis won 27-20.
The calendar went to December and though New England was a miserable 2-11, there was still a chance to play spoiler, with a road game in Miami and home date with Buffalo. They were tied 14-14 with the Dolphins, but the typically poor rush defense again caught up with the Pats in the fourth quarter of a 24-14 loss. Their problems came early against Buffalo, giving up a couple early touchdowns in a 19-10 defeat.
It was showdown time in Baltimore to end the season. The Patriots were 2-13, while the Colts hadn’t won since the season-opener in Foxboro. The loser of this game got the top pick in the draft. Third-string quarterback got a start for New England, but threw three interceptions. Cavanaugh came in and went 11/16 for 145 yards, but it wasn’t enough. One more close loss ended the season, 23-21.
The 1981 season was misery for New England, with the bookend losses to Baltimore—a much more horrific team, who set defensive records for incompetence—being the lowlight point. But how things shook out in the NFL draft is probably even worse.
Marcus Allen was the Heisman Trophy winner and available. The Patriots, along with several other teams, passed on Allen. New England drafted defensive tackle Kenneth Sims out of Texas, who proved to be a monumental bust. Allen, of course, would be a Super Bowl MVP by 1983, a league MVP by 1985 and make the Hall of Fame.
In fairness to New England, Sims was a consensus #1 choice, and they aren’t the only team who would have made the mistake. And ten teams passed on the chance to draft Allen. But given how disappointing the 1981 season was in Foxboro regardless, the draft legacy was just one more dose of salt in the wound.