It isn’t often a season can be both successful and tumultuous all at once. The 1984 New England Patriots managed it. They went through internal turmoil and midstream changes at head coach and quarterback. But they also won more games than they lost, flirted with playoff contention in a tough AFC and set the stage for the franchise’s first Super Bowl run a year later.
Ron Meyer had taken over the coaching reins following a 2-14 disaster in 1981. Meyer promptly went 5-4 in the strike-shortened year of 1982 and got into an expanded playoff bracket. He finished 8-8 in 1983, but contended for the postseason to the final week of the season. There was reasonable hope for the ’84 Patriots to keep building on that.
Steve Grogan was the veteran quarterback, but he was hearing the footsteps of second-year man Tony Eason. A part of the famed QB draft class of 1983, Eason was a precision passer and being groomed for the job. He got there sooner than anyone expected.
Eason ended up starting thirteen games. His 60 percent completion rate and 7.5 yards-per-attempt were each in the top half of the league. And he didn’t make mistakes. Eason’s TD-INT ratio was 23/8 and being intercepted on just 1.9% of his passes made him the safest quarterback in the NFL.
The passing game relied heavily on the tight ends, Derrick Ramsey and Lin Dawson. They were two of the team’s top three pass catchers on the season. Stephen Starring, a young 23-year-old receiver provided some juice on the outside. And reliable Stanley Morgan caught 38 balls for 709 yards.
New England could also run the ball. Tony Collins, Mosi Tatupu and Craig James all took their turns as the lead back and each one averaged better than four yards a pop. They ran behind an offensive line anchored by legendary left guard John Hannah, still a Pro Bowler at age 33. Brian Holloway, the left tackle, also got Pro Bowl recognition. The offense finished 10th in the 28-team NFL in points scored.
Defensively was where the problems came. It wasn’t that the Patriots lacked individual talent. Outside linebacker Andre Tippett was a rising force at age 25. In 1984 he registered 18 ½ sacks, made the Pro Bowl and was the most feared outside linebacker this side of Lawrence Taylor. Tippett was joined by another Pro Bowler, Steve Nelson who shored up the inside linebacking spot.
The Pats defense had respectable players in Dennis Owens and Toby Williams on the three-man front, along with Don Blackmon at the OLB spot opposite Tippett. Raymond Clayborn was a reliable corner.
What New England couldn’t do was get turnovers. They ranked 25th in the NFL in takeaways and that’s the biggest reason they were a subpar 18th in points allowed.
The season started on Labor Day weekend with a road trip against a bad Buffalo Bills team. Grogan threw an early 65-yard touchdown pass to Starring and finished the day 12/22 for 227 yards. The Pats were up 21-0 in the second quarter before holding on to win 21-17.
Miami was up next and the Dolphins were primed for a big year in the second season with Dan Marino at quarterback. Visits to Miami had never gone well for New England, but they were hanging in at the half with a 7-7 tie. Collins finished the day with 87 yards on 20 carries. But Grogan was making mistakes—four interceptions, including a Pick-6. The game got away in the second half and ended up a 28-7 loss.
Seattle was an AFC team prior to the realignment of 2002 and they were the team the Patriots had lost to in the 1983 Week 16 finale for a wild-card berth. And this home opener couldn’t have started much worse. They fell behind 23-0 by the second quarter. Grogan misfired on his first four passes and got the hook. Eason was on.
The new quarterback played well, going 12/22 for 126 yards, two touchdowns and no mistakes. But the most important decision was the one made by Meyer to keep running the football, even with the early deficit. With Collins leading the way, the Pats won rush yardage 189-37. The result was a stunning turnabout. New England first rallied, then took the lead and then pulled away. They ended up with a 38-23 win.
A difficult early schedule continued with a visit from the Redskins, who had been in the previous two Super Bowls and would win the NFC East this year. Eason threw the ball well, going 21/30 for 254 yards. But the Patriot offensive line did not play well. Eason was sacked four times. They only generated 17 rush yards. The ‘Skins ran for 235 and the result was a decisive 26-10 loss.
On the final day of September, New England went on the road to meet the Jets, in their first year of playing in the Meadowlands. Eason was brilliant—28/42 for 354 yards, three touchdowns, no mistakes and he spread the ball to nine different receivers. A 28-21 win lifted the Patriot record to 3-2.
The next two weeks saw sluggish play against bad teams in the Browns and Bengals. On the road at Cleveland, New England trailed 16-3 in the third quarter. Eason threw a 42-yard touchdown strike to Starring to get the Pats back in the game and they eventually won 17-16. A 14-3 deficit at home to Cincinnati persisted into the third quarter. This time Eason did it with his legs, running for TDs from 13 and 25 yards out. Tatupu ran for 93 in the more conventional running game. The Patriots escaped 20-14.
New England was 5-2 and ready for a visit from frontunning Miami. But in the midst of the winning, a rebellion was brewing. The players couldn’t stand Meyer. After a 44-24 loss to the team that would eventually make the Super Bowl out of the AFC, the front office made a change. Meyer was out.
The man who got the call was Raymond Berry. Once the favorite receiver of Johnny Unitas in Baltimore, Berry had been part of the staff in Foxboro during the tenures of Chuck Fairbanks and Ron Erhardt. Both had success until the collapse of 1981 when Meyer came in and cleaned house. Berry worked as a real estate agent in nearby Medfield until he got the call to come back and settle the locker room down.
Berry’s first game was the home date with the Jets. New York was a mediocre team, but they jumped out to leads of 10-0 early and 20-3 at the half. For the second time this season, New England would make a blazing comeback. Eason finished 23/35 for 273 yards. James was the man getting the carries now and he added 79 yards on the ground. The Pats won 30-20.
Now it was time for a big road trip to Denver. The Broncos were having a big year in John Elway’s second season and ultimately ended up as the 2-seed in the AFC playoffs. New England played well in Mile High Stadium, but missed opportunities would haunt them.
Two drives near the end zone ended in field goals and the game was tied 19-19 late. The Patriots were still driving for the go-ahead points when they fumbled and watched Bronco safety Dennis Smith scoop and score from 64 yards out. A good effort ended in a tough 26-19 loss.
Bad opponents awaited in Buffalo and Indianapolis and New England took full advantage. They got eight sacks against the Bills and blew open a tie game in the third quarter, en route to a 38-10 win. Eason then enjoyed the indoor climate of Indy and carved up the Colts to the tune of 29/42, 291 yards, four touchdowns with nary a mistake to be found. Ramsey caught eight balls for 104 yards. The 50-17 blasting lifted the Patriot record to 8-4.
The bar for the playoffs was high in the AFC this year. Miami had control of the AFC East, but a wild-card berth was in play. The other contenders were in the AFC West, where Denver, Seattle and the Los Angeles Raiders were setting the pace. The Broncos were 11-1 and the Seahawks were 10-2. But the Raiders, the defending Super Bowl champs, were 8-4 like the Patriots.
It was poised to be a tough race for that final playoff spot. New England had to begin the stretch drive on Thanksgiving in Dallas. The Cowboys were facing a must-win spot themselves. They were 7-5 and this would end up being the team that ended a long string of playoff trips for the franchise.
But Eason made an uncharacteristic big mistake, throwing an early Pick-6 deep in his own end. The offensive line was a mess and allowed ten sacks. Even though James ran for 112 yards, the Patriots lost 20-17. On Sunday they watched the Raiders beat the Colts and go a game up in the wild-card race.
New England was still coming home to face a St. Louis Cardinals team that, while in the hunt for the NFC East, was a mediocre 7-6 coming in. What’s more, the Raiders had to go to Miami later in the afternoon. There was every reason to expect this race to be back even by day’s end.
Instead, the Patriots were awful. They were outrushed 220-87. They allowed another first-quarter defensive touchdown that set the tone. They lost 33-10. To make matters worse, the Raiders rose to the occasion and beat the Dolphins 45-34 for a national audience in the late afternoon TV window.
The playoff push was realistically over, but if anyone in New England harbored faint hopes, the Pats took care of those with another poor performance against another mediocre team from the NFC East. Eason was erratic in Philadelphia and even with James and Collins combining for 152 rush yards, the Patriots lost 27-17.
The home finale with Indianapolis (an AFC East team prior to the ’02 realignment) ended up anticlimactic. But if nothing else, New England restored some pride by dominating on the ground. James ran for 138 yards in a 16-10 win and that gave the Patriots a winning record at 9-7.
In spite of the late collapse, the franchise had finally found something. Eason was now the quarterback. James was settled in as the primary ball-carrier. Most important, the head coach now had the respect of the team. By 1985, the Patriots would be in the Super Bowl for the first time.