The Patriot fan base was getting accustomed to near misses. In 1977, 1979 and 1980 they just missed the postseason on the final week of the season. The 1983 New England Patriots continued that “legacy”, coming up just short.
Ron Meyer had taken over the team the previous year and had produced a playoff berth in 1982, although with a huge asterisk—in a strike-shortened year that saw only nine regular season games, the league had expanded the postseason to eight teams per conference and New England was the #7 seed.
One thing Meyer had done was get better defensive play in place. Even with coordinator Jim Mora leaving to take a head coaching job in the fledgling United States Football League (USFL), the Patriots continued to play good defense in 1983. They ranked third in the NFL in points allowed in spite of lacking elite talent.
Corner Raymond Clayborn was the only Pro Bowler on defense. The 3-4 scheme had other contributors, like 35-year-old defensive end Julius Adams, who finished with eight sacks. On the other end of the career arc was 24-year-old Andre Tippett and the up-and-coming outside linebacker recorded 8 ½ sacks. Free safety Rick Sanford picked off seven passes.
But the best defensive player for New England wasn’t on the field. Mike Haynes, the great corner who would eventually make it to Canton was in a contract holdout. He never played for the Patriots in 1983, was traded to the Los Angeles Raiders in November and was the final piece to a Super Bowl-winning puzzle for the silver-and-black. It’s fair to say that Haynes would have been the final piece to at least a playoff puzzle in Foxboro.
The offense continued what was now a three-year decline though, going from one of the league’s best to ranking 24th in points scored. Steve Grogan could still be an explosive quarterback, averaging an excellent 8.0 yards-per-attempt. His 55% completion rate was a bit below the league average, but close enough given his down-the-field prowess. And the 15/12 TD-INT ratio was good at a time when just breaking even was the norm.
But Grogan was also injury-prone, a byproduct of his aggressive approach and being 30-years-old. He missed four starts in 1983 and rookie Tony Eason got some opportunities. The receiving corps had Stanley Morgan, who had a decent year with 58 catches and 863 yards, but there was no consistency anywhere else.
Meyer did produce a running game, with Tony Collins rushing for 1,049 yards and making the Pro Bowl. He also caught 27 passes, and got help in the backfield from Mosi Tatupu, who chipped in 578 yards. Up front, left guard John Hannah was 32-years-old, but still the best in the business. Left tackle Brian Holloway, age 24, had a breakout season and made the Pro Bowl. The running game, defense and some big plays from Grogan at least gave the 1983 New England Patriots a cohesive identity.
There was nothing cohesive about the season opener at home against the mediocre Baltimore Colts though. It started off well enough. Grogan threw a pair of second-quarter touchdown passes, a 73-yard strike to Stephen Starring and a 50-yarder to Morgan. The extra point was missed on one of them and it was the reason the game eventually had to go to overtime at 23-23.
New England was just past midfield and poised to go for the win when they fumbled and Colts linebacker Johnnie Cooks scooped it up and ran 52 yards for the touchdown.
If the 29-23 loss to the Colts was disheartening, a 34-24 loss in Miami showed the gap between the Patriots and the AFC’s best. The Dolphins had reached the Super Bowl in 1982 and would be the conference’s #2 seed this year. They had the Pats in a 27-3 hole after three quarters before New England made the score respectable at 34-24.
The visit from the New York Jets in Week 3 had the potential to bury the season before it started. The Jets had reached the playoffs two straight years, including the AFC Championship Game in 1982. The Patriots were (+6) underdogs at home.
Meyer gave the football to Collins and the young running back delivered. He had touchdown runs of 39 yards and 7 yards in the first quarter. With his team leading 16-13, Collins ripped off another TD run to ice the win. He finished with 212 yards on the day.
New England won another game as an underdog against a 1982 playoff team. The Pittsburgh Steelers were on their way to a division title this year as well, and they were able to contain Collins and the running game. The Patriot defense stepped up. Five sacks and two interceptions from Sanford kept them in the game. Trailing 23-21 in the fourth quarter, Grogan hit Starring on a 76-yard touchdown pass to get the win.
Grogan came out firing again the next week at home against the San Francisco 49ers, hitting tight end Derrick Ramsey with a 30-yard touchdown pass to start the scoring. But the extra point was missed and it was all downhill from there. By the time the Patriots scored again, they were trailing Joe Montana’s team 30-6.
Nor did the downward spiral stop when the 49ers left town. A visit to Baltimore produced another loss to the Colts (an AFC East team at the time, along with the division’s four current members). Four turnovers negated a good game from Morgan, who caught nine balls for 136 yards in a 12-7 loss. Losing twice to an inferior team would be what the 1983 New England Patriots ultimately could not overcome.
Just as it was time to write off this 2-4 team, the Patriots came surging back with two consecutive weeks of astonishing fourth-quarter dominance. They trailed San Diego 21-13 at home before scoring 24 consecutive points to win. They led at Buffalo 7-0 before having another 24-zip run through the fourth quarter.
The string of 24-point runs turned viciously on New England the following week in Atlanta, as a mediocre Falcons team scored that many to start the game. The Pats got a couple TDs in the fourth quarter to make it look respectable, but it was never a game.
Two big AFC East home games awaited. Buffalo, who joined New England along with several other teams on the wild-card fringe would be in Foxboro. Then it would be the AFC East-frontrunning Dolphins and their dynamic rookie quarterback Dan Marino.
The Patriots-Bills was coreless after a quarter. Grogan then found his little wide receiver Clarence Weathers for a 40-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter and a 58-yard scoring play in the fourth quarter. New England intercepted Buffalo quarterback Joe Ferguson four times, twice by Sanford and the game ended 21-7.
Marino hadn’t been installed as the Dolphin starter until the sixth game of the season, so he was a weapon Miami didn’t have back in their Week 2 demolition of New England. The Patriots responded with the same formula they would use two years later to beat Marino in an AFC Championship Game—pound the football. Collins and Tatupu shared the load, the Pats won the ground battle 224-81 and got an impressive 17-6 win that gave them a winning record and again in good position for a playoff run.
But…you guessed it, it was time for another turn for the worse. The offense was absolutely atrocious for two weeks, scoring just three points in two weeks. The first was a 30-0 loss to Cleveland that would loom even bigger by season’s end. The second was a 26-3 loss at the Jets, who were disappointing and on their way to a 7-9 season.
Grogan threw three interceptions against Cleveland at home and was removed for Eason, who threw two more picks. Eason got the start in Shea Stadium against the Jets and cut the mistakes down, but his 13/27 for 159 yards passing line was nothing special and the running game didn’t get going.
The season was again on the line, at 6-7 with three weeks to go. Another mediocre opponent, this time the New Orleans Saints, was in Foxboro. Collins rushed for an early touchdown and then both defenses took over. Tatupu ran for 128 yards, but Eason finished 3/10 for 30 yards. The Pats defense overcame it all, preserving the 7-0 win.
Tatupu continued to produce at the playoff-bound Los Angeles Rams, rushing for touchdowns in the second, third and fourth quarters while the Rams lost six fumbles. New England’s clutch 21-7 win again gave the fans hope.
The wild-card picture was muddled, with five teams vying for two spots. Denver was 9-6, while New England was one of four teams at 8-7. One of those teams was Buffalo, whom the Patriots held the tiebreaker on. Another was the Seahawks—whom the Patriots would play in the season finale. And the final team was the Browns—whom the Patriots had lost to.
For New England the scenario was simple—they needed Cleveland to lose to Pittsburgh in the early Sunday afternoon time slot and then beat Seattle out west.
By the time the Patriots-Seahawks game began, it was over. The Browns had easily beaten the Steelers 30-17, a game not as close as the score makes it look. The Seahawks still needed to win to make it, so there was a big motivation difference. New England didn’t run the ball well, while Seattle, with their outstanding rookie running back Curt Warner, did. A 24-6 loss ended another near-miss season for the Patriots.
New England got off to a terrible start in 1984 and player rebellion against Meyer cost the head coach his job. Raymond Berry took over midstream and the team came together, finishing 9-7, although again not quite good enough for the playoffs. But in 1985, all the waiting came to fruition—Berry got the team into the postseason and they reached the franchise’s first Super Bowl.