In the days before Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, even before Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe, the expectations for the New England Patriots were a lot more modest. Raymond Berry had taken the franchise to what was then its heights in the late 1980s. They reached the Super Bowl in 1985, won an AFC East title in 1986 and only narrowly missed the playoffs in 1987 and 1988. But the decline accelerated the following year and the 1989 New England Patriots proved to be Berry’s last hurrah.
When you combine a lack of great talent with chaos at quarterback, a subsequent lack of wins is a foregone conclusion and that’s what Berry was dealing with. He ran out four different players behind center—from aging 36-year-old Steve Grogan, to Marc Wilson to the declining Tony Eason to Doug Flutie. They all made too many mistakes and too few big plays.
The running game had been the pride and joy of the 1985 AFC champs, but the great John Hannah was in retirement and the offensive line lacked muscle. John Stephens was now the leading rusher and he finished the season with only 833 yards. At receiver, New England drafted Hart Lee Dykes from Oklahoma State with their first-round pick. At 6’4”, 215 lbs, Dykes was a big receiver for the time and was physically gifted. But his pro career never took off.
The end result was an offense that ranked 21st in what was then a 28-team league in points scored. And the defense was marginally worse, ranking 23rd. While outside linebacker Johnny Rembert was the team’s one Pro Bowl player, corner Raymond Clayborn was in decline at age 34. And 30-year-old defensive tackle Kenneth Sims continued his career as one of the biggest busts to ever go with the first overall draft pick (back in 1982 when the Patriots opted for Sims and joined nine other teams that passed on Heisman Trophy-winner Marcus Allen).
BARELY HANGING ON
Problems with the running game weren’t in evidence in Week 1 against the New York Jets. The Patriots went into the Meadowlands and outrushed the Jets 154-49, with a late four-yard TD run by Reggie Dupard providing the winning margin in the 27-24 victory. But they were inept a week later at home against Miami—even with Dan Marino throwing three interceptions, the Pats dug themselves a 24-0 hole by halftime and lost by two touchdowns.
Another poor home performance followed against Seattle, with Dave Krieg carving up the secondary with three second-quarter touchdown passes and New England fell 24-3. The Pats went on to Buffalo, the defending AFC East champ and couldn’t stop Thurman Thomas in a 31-10 loss.
Three straight losses, all decisive, turned up the heat for a visit by the Houston Oilers in Week 5. The Oilers were in the midst of a run of seven straight playoff years with Warren Moon at quarterback. With the season ready to get away early, the Patriot defense stepped up, forced four turnovers, kept Moon at bay and keyed a 23-13 win.
It set up a good opportunity with a road game at lowly Atlanta next and New England took a 15-6 lead into the fourth quarter. But they coughed up ten points, lost the football game and then went to San Francisco and lost to a great 49ers team 37-20.
New England at least played reasonably well against a San Francisco team that had won the Super Bowl in 1988 and would do so again this year. They were within 24-20 after three quarters and not many other teams played the ‘89 Niners much better. But at 2-5, there was no room for moral victories.
The Patriots went on to Indianapolis, where the Colts were in the middle of the playoff race. Grogan played his best game of the year and threw for 355 yards. Tight end Eric Sievers, who finished the year as the team’s most productive receiver, caught seven balls for 113 yards. It took overtime, but New England left Indy with a 23-20 win and still had a pulse as the season hit its halfway point.
FAINT PLAYOFF HOPES FLAME OUT
Once again, the schedule seemed to work in favor of the Patriots—the Jets were having a terrible season and came to Foxboro next. Much like the Atlanta game, it was the perfect opportunity to build on a good win and get some momentum. And much like the Atlanta game, that opportunity was blown.
New England was a (-7.5) favorite, but was helpless against Jets quarterback Ken O’Brien, who threw for 386 yards and hit ten different receivers. The Pats lost 27-26. A week later they came out sleepwalking at home against mediocre New Orleans, lost three fumbles and fell behind 28-0. A stirring comeback closed the margin to 28-24, but it ended there. And with a record of 3-7, so did the Patriots realistic playoff chances.
To their credit, New England showed some pride. Buffalo came to Foxboro, in command of the AFC East race and took a 24-13 lead into the fourth quarter. But with Stephens rushing for 126 yards and the defense collecting six turnovers on the day, the Pats rallied for a 33-24 win. The game started a Buffalo slump that nearly cost them the division title.
New England went west to play the Los Angeles Raiders, another team in a packed wild-card picture. It was close, but three interceptions by Grogan were the difference in a 24-21 loss.
A week later the Pats and Stephens played spoiler again. Indianapolis—an AFC East team prior to the realignment of 2002 made the return trip to Foxboro. Stephens ran for 124 yards and outrushed Colt great Eric Dickerson. New England’s 22-16 win put a big crimp in Indy’s playoff push—a push that ultimately came up one win short.
THREE MORE LOSSES
The final three games of the season were against teams that desperately needed wins for the playoffs, but New England was done winning for the year. A Sunday Night in South Beach didn’t go well, with Marino ripping the Pats secondary for over 300 yards in a 31-10 final. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who ultimately grabbed the final wild-card spot and reached the divisional round of the playoffs, pounded New England on the ground and won 28-10.
Berry’s final game was at home against the Los Angeles Rams, who were in a win-and-you’re-in situation. It was as bitter cold day in Foxboro, (-4) degrees with the windchill, but the Patriots didn’t mail it in. They took a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter, but were ultimately unable to contain running back Greg Bell, who rushed for over 200 yards and scored the winning touchdown in the 24-20 final.
The Raymond Berry Era was over in New England. Anyone who found fault with the coach for the 5-11 finish in 1989 had a rude awakening coming. The Patriots had three brutal years ahead of them, one with Rod Rust at the helm and two more with Dick MacPherson. Another bad season in 1993 was at least mitigated by the fact Parcells was now on the sidelines and Bledsoe’s career was beginning. It wasn’t until 1994 that winning football returned to Foxboro.