The 1987 New England Patriots came into the season on what was, for the franchise in the era prior to Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, a high point. They had reached the Super Bowl for the first time in 1985 and followed that up with an AFC East title in 1986. Head coach Raymond Berry had the Pats relevant for one of the few times in their history. But 1987, a strange season torn about by a strike and populated by replacement players, saw New England miss out on the postseason.
Problems on offense were the key reason and those problems were driven by unsteadiness at quarterback. Steve Grogan was now 34-years-old. He started six of the twelve games that “regular” NFL players were in. Grogan’s 58 percent completion rate and 7.3 yards-per-attempt were pretty good, but he was mistake-prone. Grogan was intercepted on 5.6% of his passes, one of the worst rates in the league.
Tom Ramsey and Tony Eason split the other six starts. Like Grogan, they had their strengths and weaknesses, their good moments and their low ones. There was never any steadiness.
Nor was there a reliable running game. The legendary offensive lineman John Hannah retired after the Super Bowl run of ’85 and running back Craig James was hindered by the shoulder injuries that would eventually end his career. Reggie Dupard, Mosi Tatupu and Tony Collins took their turns at carrying the load, but none of then ran effectively.
At least Collins could catch the ball and his 44 receptions were the most on the team. At wide receiver, Stanley Morgan caught 40 passes for 672 yards and was the lone Pro Bowl player on offense. Irving Fryar had 31 catches for 467 yards. Given the problems elsewhere, the receiving numbers were pretty good and helped keep the Patriots offense ranked 15th in the league in points scored.
The defense was a brighter spot and keyed by Hall of Fame outside linebacker Andre Tippet. With 12 ½ sacks in the shortened season, Tippet made 1st-team All-Pro. The defensive front could also rush the passer. Garin Veris, Brent Williams and Toby Williams combined for 16 ½ sacks. With opposing quarterbacks often under the gun, free safety Fred Marion intercepted four passes. And the defense ranked ninth in the NFL in points allowed.
New England hosted Miami to open the season and found themselves in a 21-7 hole in the second quarter. But the running game problems that would ultimately plague them were nowhere to be found on this day. Collins rushed for 95 yards. Ronnie Lippett intercepted Dan Marino and took it to the house. And the Pats rallied to win 28-21.
A Monday Night date with another AFC East rival, the New York Jets was next. The Pats were only down 6-3 at the half, but the trip to the Meadowlands turned ugly after that. Jets’ quarterback Ken O’Brien carved up the secondary. The New England running game produced just 48 yards. The final score ended up 43-24.
After two weeks, the labor impasse between the players and owners boiled over. The strike would last for four weeks, but unlike 1982, the owners did not simply wait for players to return. Replacements were brought in. After a week delay, played resumed on October 4 and for the next three weeks, America watched mostly unknown players, mixed with a few noteworthy names on Sunday afternoon.
A new cast of players didn’t help the running game and New England was outrushed 217-31 at home against Cleveland in a 20-10 loss. Michael LeBlanc, a product of Stephen F. Austin, restored the running game the following week at home against Buffalo. In his fifteen minutes of NFL fame, LeBlanc ran for 146 yards and keyed a 14-7 win.
The third game with replacements was started by local legend Doug Flutie, who had won the Heisman Trophy for Boston College in 1984. Flutie’s early NFL career was off to a poor start and he’d gone to the Canadian Football League and then returned when called by the Patriots. Flutie started in Houston and got some help from a returning regular. Raymond Clayborn returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown and the Pats won 21-7.
With the strike resolved, regulars returned en masse for the games of October 25. New England had come through the strange three-week replacement run in pretty good shape. Not only did they have two wins, but the Browns and Oilers—two eventual playoff teams—were in the rearview mirror. With a record of 3-2 and no one else in the AFC East dominant, the Patriots were positioned to win another division title.
New England visited Indianapolis. The Colts were an AFC East rival prior to the realignment of 2002. The Patriots made two nice drives early in the game, but settling for a field goals both times was an ominous foreshadowing. Indy ripped off the game’s next 23 points and beat the Pats 30-16.
Grogan played well against a mediocre Los Angeles Raiders’ team and went 14/27 for 282 yards. New England was comfortably in control with a 23-6 lead. Another defensive meltdown ensued and the Raiders scored 17 straight points to tie the game. Grogan alleviated disaster in front of the home fans though, leading a drive for a field goal and 26-23 win.
Sunday Night Football had been introduced in the NFL in 1978 and been a novelty through 1986. Starting in 1987, the league would have one prime-time game each Sunday during the second half of the season. It was a big expansion of what is today the top-rated TV show of any kind on the air. The Pats were on the first SNF game in ’78 and they were on the first Sunday Night telecast of the seminal 1987 season.
The opponent was the New York Giants, coached by Bill Parcells, led by Lawrence Taylor and with a defensive coordinator named Bill Belichick. They were the defending Super Bowl champs, but 1987 was proving to be a disastrous mess. That’s what makes this game so disappointing from a New England perspective. Grogan was erratic and threw three interceptions, the running game was non-existent and the Patriots took another Meadowlands loss, this one 17-10.
Dallas was another pedestrian opponent and the Patriots missed another opportunity, this one at home. They were outrushed 181-88, gave up a Pick-6 and lost in overtime, 23-17.
New England’s record was 4-5 and their season was teetering when Indianapolis came to Foxboro. The Colts were resurgent, coached by former Patriot boss Ron Meyer and fortified by a trade for Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson. Indy was one of several teams in the hunt for the AFC East crown and this game was must-win for the Pats.
Andre Tippett was ready to play. The great linebacker got three sacks. Defensive back Jim Bowman picked off two passes, part of a five-turnover day for the defense. A 24-0 whitewashing kept New England alive.
A third straight home game, this one against a subpar Philadelphia Eagles team produced a great individual effort, but serious team disappointment. Ramsey got the start and threw for over 400 yards, rallying the Pats from 31-10 down to a 31-31 tie and overtime. But the offensive line couldn’t protect Ramsey and he was sacked six times. New England lost in overtime 34-31.
The Patriot performance against the NFC East was a big part of their ultimate failure. They had gone 0-3 against the Giants, Cowboys and Eagles, none of whom would make the playoffs. New England had gotten a big break when their Week 3 game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins was lost to the strike. The Pats failed to take advantage of that break.
The other eventual Super Bowl team, the Denver Broncos, was on the schedule and New England had to visit the Rocky Mountains on the first weekend of December. Ramsey led the Pats to a 17-3 lead, but then things came apart. The quarterback threw four interceptions and John Elway rallied the Broncos to a 31-20 win.
At 5-7, New England was hanging on by the hair of its chinny-chin-chin. They had to win their last three games and hope.
Grogan got the start for a home date with the Jets and the veteran delivered. He was 21/32 for 238 yards and no mistakes. The Jets were making mistakes left and right, committing fourteen penalties. The Pats stayed alive with a 42-20 blowout win. The defense did its job in Buffalo a week later, forcing Jim Kelly and an emerging young team into a rough game and a 13-7 win.
New England was 7-7 and while the playoffs were a longshot, there was a path to get a wild-card spot. The following had to happen…
*The Steelers needed to lose to the Browns on Saturday
*The Seahawks (an AFC team prior to the ’02 realignment) needed to lose on Sunday
*The Oilers needed to lose on Sunday
*The Chargers needed to lose to the Broncos on Sunday
And if all that happened? Then New England’s Monday Night visit to Miami would give the Patriots a chance to play their way in.
It nearly happened. Pittsburgh lost as expected. San Diego lost. Seattle lost. And Houston got a much tougher game then expected from the struggling Cincinnati Bengals. But the Oilers survived 21-17, pushed their record to 9-6 and ensured that New England couldn’t catch them.
To the Patriots’ credit, they didn’t mail it in on that final prime-time game of the year. Grogan went 11/18 for 180 yards and no mistakes. The defense caused problems for Marino for the second time that season and the Pats closed it out with a 24-10 win.
With a winning record of 8-7, this season was only a modest step back for the Patriots. But it was a step-back nonetheless. 1988 would be more of the same—narrowly missing the playoffs with a winning record. And that would signal the end of this brief high point for what was then a struggling franchise.