Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, the football fans of New England knew nothing of names like Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. A mid-to-late 1980s run that included a trip to the Super Bowl in 1985 and an AFC East title in 1986 constituted a veritable golden age for Patriots fans. But by early 1993, the bloom was off the rose again. No playoff seasons since ’86, no winning seasons since 1988 and a 2-14 disaster in 1992. The 1993 New England Patriots needed to start over. They did it by hiring Bill Parcells as head coach, drafting Drew Bledsoe at quarterback and ushering in a new era of football in Foxboro.
Bledsoe did have was a nice supporting cast developing around him. Leonard Russell rushed for over 1,000 yards. Ben Coates started to emerge at tight end and his 53 catches led the team. Vincent Brisby and Michael Timpson were young receivers and respectable at stretching the field. And even though the offense as a whole did not produce any Pro Bowl players in 1993, left tackle Bruce Armstrong had been a Pro Bowler two times previously and would achieve the honor four more times beyond this season.
Even so, Bledsoe was still just 21-years-old and he went through the expected rocky path of his rookie season. His 49.9 percent completion rate and 5.8 yards-per-attempt were near the bottom of the league. His 15-15 TD/INT ratio and 3.5 interception rate weren’t horrific by the standards of the time, but were still a little below league norms. New England’s offense finished 22nd in a 28-team league for points scored.
Parcells had carved out his reputation for defense when he led the New York Giants to Super Bowl titles in 1986 and 1990, with Belichick as his defensive coordinator. Belichick was no longer available, having taken the head job in Cleveland. But Parcells still turned this ’93 Patriots defense into a good one.
The only notable player was outside linebacker Andre Tippett—a great player and future Hall of Famer to be sure, but now 34-years-old and playing his final season. Even so, Parcells pieced together a unit that ranked 11th in the NFL for points allowed.
New England opened the season in Buffalo. The Bills had won three straight AFC titles and would win a fourth straight this season. The Patriots were within 17-14 in the third quarter, but three turnovers and giving up 114 rush yards to the great Buffalo back Thurman Thomas turned that into a 38-14 loss.
Another great running back on an eventual playoff team—Barry Sanders from the Detroit Lions came to Foxboro for New England’s home opener. The Pats stayed in the game thanks to a couple interceptions from defensive back Darryl Wren and three sacks by defensive end Chris Slade. They pushed the Lions to overtime. But Sanders ran for 148 yards and New England lost 19-16.
Seattle’s Week 3 visit represented a “sort-of” rivalry game. The Patriots and Seahawks had the first two picks in the previous spring’s draft. New England chose Bledsoe ahead of Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer, who went to Seattle. It was an expected decision, but the Bledsoe-Mirer comparisons were rife among NFL fans.
The real New England problem was that they couldn’t stop the run. This time it was Chris Warren carving up the Patriot defense, to the tune of 174 yards and handing them a 17-14 defeat.
New England went on the Meadowlands for Sunday Night Football against the Jets. The good news is that the Pats’ defense finally stopped getting carved up by a single running back. The bad news is the Jets simply did it with running back by committee. New England was outrushed 167-31 and suffered an embarrassing 45-7 loss. They headed into a bye week looking for answers and their first win of the new era.
When they went to Phoenix, fell behind the Cardinals and then saw Bledsoe knocked from the game with a strained knee ligament, no answers appeared to be forthcoming. But backup quarterback Scott Secules stepped in. He went 12/20 for 214 yards. Russell rushed for 116 yards. Trailing 21-16, the Pats’ executed an 82-yard hook-and-lateral pass to put them in position to win. Secules flipped a two-yard touchdown pass to Coates and the first win of the Parcells era was theirs.
Bledsoe was out again for a home date with the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans). Maybe it was just as well. This was an excellent Oiler team, headed for the 2-seed in the AFC and on a run of seven straight playoff appearances. Secules threw three interceptions and was sacked five times in the 28-14 loss.
A road date to Seattle was next. Prior to the realignment of 2002, the Seahawks were an AFC West team. And prior to that realignment, the scheduling format called for the last-place teams in the AFC West and AFC East to play each other twice the following year. There would be no Bledsoe-Mirer discussion for this one with Secules still in the lineup.
New England played well enough to win, controlling the ground game and driving consistently. But they didn’t win. Three drives bogged down in the red zone and ended up as field goals. The Patriots lost 10-9 with Secules struggling to a 15/30 for 129 yards and two interception performance.
Another difference of the pre-2002 alignment was that the Indianapolis Colts were an AFC East rival. They were also on hard times. Secules went into Indy and made some big plays—23/37 for 279 yards. Coates caught six of those passes for 108 yards. But once again, no red zone execution and two interceptions by Secules kept the Patriots out of the end zone. They lost 9-6.
Buffalo made their return trip to Foxboro and the defense continued its strong recent play. Bledsoe played half of the game and the New England took a 10-0 lead into the fourth quarter. Buffalo rallied and won 13-10 in overtime. But as the Patriots went into their second bye week (the double-bye being a phenomena that mercifully lasted only this one season), they were showing some real signs of becoming competitive.
In that regard, the next three weeks were a mix of hope and aggravation. A visit to Miami with the Dolphins in the hunt for the playoffs, saw Bledsoe go 23/42 for 275 yards and spread the ball around…but lose 17-13. A home date with the Jets saw Russell rush for 147 yards…but Bledsoe only convert 3 of 10 third-down chances and take a 6-0 loss. And a visit to another playoff hopeful in Pittsburgh saw an early 14-0 lead disappear with five interceptions from Bledsoe. The Pats lost that one 17-14.
New England was 1-11. Eight of those losses had come by four points or loss, including the last five. Parcells is the man who coined the phrase “You are what your record says you are.” But if there were ever a team that didn’t seem to apply to, it was these 1993 New England Patriots. And over the final month of the season they would show exactly who they really were and what they were becoming.
A home game with lowly Cincinnati took place in the wind and the rain. Russell rushed for 97 yards. The Patriots led 7-0 in the fourth quarter and the only points they gave up came on an intentional safety. An odd 7-2 win ended the losing streak.
They went on to Cleveland where the Browns were 6-7 and Belichick was pushing for a breakthrough playoff appearance. Bledsoe was erratic, going 19/47, but he made those completions count for 210 yards. A 120-80 edge in rush yardage kept New England in it and Russell’s four-yard touchdown run produced a 20-17 upset.
On the day after Christmas, the Patriots gave a belated gift to their fans—a real blowout win. Russell went for 138 yards. Corey Croom, the backup running back who rushed for 93 yards, had his career day. New England crushed Indianapolis 38-0.
Miami was coming to town for the final game of the season. Everything was on the line for the Dolphins. Win, and they were in the playoffs. Lose, and they were likely going home. It was a perfect opportunity for a team in New England’s position.
Bledsoe’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Coates in the second quarter put the Pats up 10-0. At 10-10 in the third quarter, Bledsoe went 11 yards to Brisby for a touchdown. Trailing 24-20 in the fourth quarter, Bledsoe threw another 11-yard scoring pass to Coates. When the Dolphins tied it back up and sent the game to overtime at 27-27, Bledsoe did it one more time—a 36-yard strike to Timpson that won it and sent Miami home.
It was a sweet ending to a strong finish and had New England filled with optimism again for football. The Patriots would prove worthy of that optimism. By 1994, they were back in the playoffs. And by 1996, they returned to the Super Bowl. It wasn’t the stuff that Brady and Belichick would eventually give this fan base. But it was still a solid era of New England Patriots football that started in 1993.