The 1979 New England Patriots entered the season off a three-year stretch that had been successful and controversial all in one. The Patriots had enjoyed three straight winning seasons, made the playoffs twice and won an AFC East title in 1978. In the days before Belichick and Brady came to Foxboro, this qualified as a glory era in Foxboro.
But the 1978 season ended in acrimony. Head coach Chuck Fairbanks took the job at the University of Colorado and was suspended by Patriots’ owner Billy Sullivan prior to the regular season finale (which was meaningless for playoff position).
Then Fairbanks was reinstated for the playoffs. Then the team laid a complete egg at home in losing 31-14 to the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans). It cast a shadow over the 1979 season, which began with Ron Erhardt, previously the offensive coordinator, taking over for Fairbanks.
Erhardt’s offense had been a good one, and would be so again in 1979, ranking second in the NFL in points scored. Steve Grogan’s completion rate was only 49%, but in an era where the league average was 54%, that was at least tolerable. And Grogan made up for it with big plays—his 7.8 yards-per-attempt was excellent as were his 3,286 passing yards and 28 touchdowns. And those 20 interceptions that in today’s game would get him run out of town? Actually slightly below the league average.
Grogan’s vertical passing game had Stanley Morgan and Harold Jackson as its two prime targets. Jackson was a veteran and caught 45 passes for 1,013 yards. Morgan, age 24, had nearly identical numbers—44 catches and 1,002 yards—but his additional ability as a punt returner gave him a Pro Bowl invite.
Russ Francis had been a Pro Bowl tight end previously, and while he wasn’t in 1979, Francis still gave the team 39 catches. The running game was balanced, with Sam Cunningham, Horace Ivory and Don Calhoun sharing the carries. But whereas previous years had seen balance among productive runners, 1979 saw balance among mediocrity. The Patriots still had the great John Hannah up front, age 28 and the best guard in football. The rest of the offensive line took a step back.
The lack of a running game was more problematic, given a mediocre defense. Mike Haynes, the great corner, was the only Pro Bowl player and his opposite number Raymond Clayborn, did have five interceptions. Otherwise, the Patriot defense lacked playmakers and they were 15th in the league in points allowed. If this team was going to get back in the playoffs, Grogan would have to wing them there.
The season opener was an emotional one on every level. It was on the Monday Night stage and the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers were in Foxboro. Even more important, Darryl Stingley, the wide receiver who had been paralyzed in a preseason game the previous August, was there in his wheelchair to a thunderous ovation.
New England played a good football game too, against a team that would repeat as Super Bowl champions. The Patriots led 13-6 in the fourth quarter. The problem was that Grogan finished just 11/33 for 123 yards. The Steelers eventually tied it on a touchdown pass by Terry Bradshaw and won in overtime.
A late afternoon kick at home against the mediocre New York Jets was next. New England was an eight-point favorite and they nearly matched that seven times over. The first quarter saw Grogan hit Harold Jackson on a 49-yard touchdown pass and then go 37 yards to Morgan. In the second quarter it was 50 yards to Morgan and 41 to Jackson. By the time the day was over, Grogan had thrown for 315 yards in spite of throwing just 18 times. The Patriots won 56-3.
Two more grinding victories followed. The defense came through in shutting down a poor Cincinnati Bengals team, holding them to 83 passing yards in a 20-14 win. The San Diego Chargers came next to Foxboro. This Charger team would end up 12-4 and the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs. The Patriots jumped them for a 20-0 lead. New England then held off a rally from Dan Fouts and a high-powered passing offense, as the Pats got 151 rush yards and won 27-21.
Another Monday Night date was next, this one in Green Bay. The Packers were not a good team and struggled to a 5-11 finish. The Patriots played their worst game of the season to date. Grogan threw three interceptions, got yanked for backup Tom Owen, who threw two more. New England lost 27-14.
The Patriots’ home game with Detroit was almost a disaster. The Lions were a woeful operation, one that would finish the season 2-14. Grogan was awful, going 3/9 for 45 yards and again being removed for Owen. New England trailed 17-14 after three quarters before Owen rallied them to ten fourth quarter points and a 24-17 escape.
Grogan finally got going in Chicago, as the tour of the NFC Central continued (the four current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay). The quarterback was 21/35 for 244 yards. The Patriots also won the battle at the line of scrimmage, holding Walter Payton to 42 rush yards and generating 142 of their own. The result was an easy 27-7 win.
It wasn’t always pretty, but New England was 5-2 and ready to host Miami, their prime competition for the AFC East title. The game didn’t start well, with the Dolphins getting out to a 13-0 lead in the second quarter. Then the Patriots took over. They picked off three passes, two by linebacker Mike Hawkins. Grogan stayed mistake-free, an efficient 16/24 for 187 yards and no interceptions. New England pulled away 28-13.
Just as they got control of the division race, the Patriots gave it back, with a bad loss at the Baltimore Colts, who were then a part of the AFC East along with the division’s four current teams. The Colts would finish the year 5-11 and committed four turnovers on this day. Grogan threw for 317 yards and had run for an eight-yard touchdown that had the Patriots ahead 26-24. The defense gave it up, allowing a touchdown drive and a 31-26.
Two challenging road games were ahead with Buffalo and Denver. The Bills were just an average team, but were on the rise with a new head coach in Chuck Knox, who had made the Los Angeles Rams a playoff perennial in the 1970s and would get Buffalo there by 1980. The Pats played a terrific game in Rich Stadium, shutting down the Bills’ running game, forcing five turnovers and Grogan was able to stretch the field with Morgan. The two hooked up five times for 158 yards, part of a big day in the passing game and a 26-6 win.
The road visit to Denver, who was contending with San Diego for the AFC West title and a key game in positioning for the two wild-card spots, was the exact opposite. New England rushed for just 58 yards. They threw for just 85 yards. They were in a 24-0 hole in the first quarter. And they lost 45-10.
With five games to play, New England and Miami were tied for first at 7-4. The Jets and Bills were in the rearview mirror at 5-6. When the Patriots smashed the Colts 50-21 in a revenge game, while the Dolphins lost in overtime at Cleveland, the road looked smooth. Then the car marked “Buffalo” came up the rearview mirror and was much closer than it appeared.
The Patriots were (-10) favorites at home in the rematch with the Bills. Grogan struggled to 9/25 for 160 yards and threw four interceptions. His counterpart, Joe Ferguson, was 17/33 for 235 yards and only two interceptions. The game went to overtime and the Patriots lost their second OT game of the year, again by a score of 16-13.
Miami pulled back into a tie just in time for a Thursday Night game against New England in the old Orange Bowl. Thursday games were not the norm in the NFL at this time, so this worked out well for the NFL that it would be for first place.
New England came in a (+6) underdog, but spent the first half looking ready to confound the oddsmakers. Grogan connected with Jackson for a 16-yard touchdown pass and then hit Morgan from 38 yards. The Patriots led 17-13 at the half. But in the second half, their inability to consistently win the battle at the line of scrimmage was finally the season’s undoing.
The Pats were outrushed 170-91, with Miami’s Larry Csonka pounding away. The Patriots made mental mistakes, giving up a safety on a bad snap. The Dolphins scored 26 unanswered points until the Patriots got a meaningless touchdown at the end of a 39-24 loss.
New England was not only down a game in the standings, but catching Miami on tiebreakers over the final two weeks was going to be all but impossible. The Patriots weren’t technically behind in the tiebreakers with two weeks left, but the next Dolphin win would clinch both the tie for first and the tiebreakers all in one fell swoop.
The wild-card option was almost as bleak. New England, at 8-6, had two teams at 10-4 ahead of them. They couldn’t catch Denver, due to the head-to-head loss. There was hope of catching Houston—the Oilers did have to close the season with the Steelers and the playoff-bound Philadelphia Eagles. But no matter what way you sliced it, New England needed a lot of help.
Miami beat Detroit in the early time slot the following Sunday, so New England knew the division race was over when they took the field in old Shea Stadium to face the Jets. The Oilers didn’t play the Steelers until Monday Night though, so there was reason to keep fighting.
Only New England didn’t. They were beaten in the trenches on both sides of the ball one more time. The Jets won the game 27-26. The season was over (and as it turned out, the Oilers beat the Steelers the next night anyway).
There was still one final one home game to play and it was an entertaining one against the mediocre Vikings. Minnesota threw 61 passes in spite of having a 16-7 lead as late as the fourth quarter and having running back Rickey Young gain 80 yards on 16 carries. Interesting game management and New England was able to take advantage. Grogan went 12/26 for 204 yards, the bulk going to Morgan and they eventually rallied to win 27-23.
If nothing else, it was a winning season, the fourth straight for a franchise that had known very little success prior to 1976. But the near miss would characterize Erhardt’s brief time as head coach. In 1980, they went 10-6 and just missed the playoffs, before the bottom fell out in a 2-14 season in 1981.