After a disappointing playoff miss in 1987, the New England Patriots were looking to get back on track. Under head coach Raymond Berry, the latter part of this decade had been what was—to that point—the most successful in franchise history. The Patriots reached their first Super Bowl in 1985 and won the AFC East in 1986 before narrowly missing in the strange strike year of ’87. The 1988 New England Patriots came awfully close to getting back in the dance, but their near miss foreshadowed the end of the Berry era.
A defense that ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed put the Patriots into contention. The 3-4 defensive scheme was led by its linebackers. Andre Tippett, the future Hall of Famer, had a Pro Bowl year on the outside. So did Johnny Rembert on the inside. The defensive front was keyed by end Brent Williams and his eight sacks. The secondary had steady veterans like Raymond Clayborn at corner, along with Roland James and Fred Marion at the safety spots.
But if the defense giveth, the offense taketh away. The passing game was awful. Veteran Steve Grogan was the starter to open the season, but a mix of inconsistency and injuries kept Grogan limited to four starts and a number of appearances as a backup. Tony Eason got a couple starts and Tom Ramsey started another game.
The bulk of the starts went to local legend Doug Flutie. After winning the Heisman Trophy at Boston College in 1984 and leading the Eagles to a national top 5 finish, Flutie’s NFL endeavors had been less than successful. He got nine starts for the Patriots in 1988 and the results were not good.
Flutie finished with a 51% completion rate, generated 6.4 yards-per-attempt and was intercepted on 5.6% of his passes. Every one of those stats put him in the bottom half of the league. The leading receiver for the ’88 Patriots was a running back, Reggie Dupard, who caught 34 balls. Production from normally good receivers in Stanley Morgan and Irving Fryar dropped substantially.
If New England was going to move the ball, it would have to be on the ground. That had been a big problem in 1987 and Berry addressed it by drafting running back John Stephens out of Northwestern State (LA) in the first round. The year before the Pats used their first round pick on right tackle Bruce Armstrong. The investment in the ground game paid off in 1988.
Stephens rushed for 1,168 yards, fifth-best in the NFL. Armstrong continued to improve and by the 1990s he would be a perennial Pro Bowl player. They weren’t enough to save the Patriot offense, which ranked 24th in a 28-team league for points scored. But they provided enough to keep the team afloat and let the defense go to work.
The work began with a home game against the New York Jets. After a defensive first half, the Patriots led 6-3. Then something that would occur all-too-infrequently in 1988 took place. Grogan and the passing game took over. The quarterback hit Fryar on two second half TD passes and Fryar finished with six catches for 92 yards in a 28-3 rout.
A difficult schedule stretch was ahead. The next three opponents were the Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills and Houston Oilers. All would make the playoffs and all would at least be in the conversation regarding Super Bowl contenders. And New England looked out of their depth for much of this stretch.
Grogan threw three interceptions in an erratic performance at Minnesota, a disappointment for a game where the QB got decent protection against one of the league’s best pass rushes. The result was a 36-6 rout. Two weeks later in Houston, Grogan threw four interceptions and the Pats were carved up by an Oiler team playing without quarterback Warren Moon. The final was 31-6.
In between those two debacles was a good home game with Buffalo. Grogan threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to Cedric Jones and a 19-yard scoring strike to Morgan, giving the Patriots a 14-3 lead in the second quarter. But the offense bogged down after that and the Bills rallied with ten points in the fourth quarter to win 16-14.
New England was 1-3 and coming to town was another 1-3 team that started the season with high hopes. The Indianapolis Colts, a divisional rival prior to the realignment of 2002, had won the AFC East in ’87. The Pats and Colts both desperately needed a win here in Week 5.
Flutie got the call and he played well, going 12/16 for 132 yards. And he showed his legs, with a 13-yard TD run in the fourth quarter that pulled out a 21-17 win.
That was followed up by one of the team’s most embarrassing performances of the decade. Playing at what was then a terrible Green Bay Packers team, the Patriots allowed over 200 yards on the ground. Flutie was picked off three times. Grogan threw two more interceptions. The result was an astonishingly bad 45-3 loss.
New England was back on the brink at 2-4 and with three tough games ahead, they were staring into the abyss.
The Cincinnati Bengals were on their way to the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs and a Super Bowl appearance. Which makes the Patriot turnaround at home even more surprising. They jumped on Cincy for a 20-0 lead early and forced six turnovers. Flutie played mistake-free football and completely outplayed eventual league MVP Boomer Esiason. The Bengals rallied, but the Patriots still won 27-21.
A return trip to Buffalo produced another well-played game, with Stephens rushing for 134 yards against the team that would run away with the AFC East and get the 2-seed for the playoffs. But Flutie couldn’t get anything going, with a 5/16 for 58 yards performance. The Bills pulled it out 23-20.
That made a home date with Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears a must-win. The Bears would get the 1-seed in the NFC bracket and reach the conference championship game. Flutie got the proceedings started with an 80-yard touchdown strike to Fryar. It was the beginning of a weird day for Flutie, who only completed six passes, but four of them went for touchdowns. Stephens muscled his way for 124 yards on the ground. A 30-7 blowout win kept the Patriots alive.
At 4-5, New England may have been alive, but they were still on the respirator. That changed with a three-game stretch against divisional rivals. It started at home against Miami. The Dolphins were on their way to a rough 6-10 year and Stephens ran for 104 yards to key a 21-10 win. The running back that would win Offensive Rookie of the Year then pounded out 87 yards in a tough 14-13 win over the Jets.
The stretch concluded with a Sunday Night visit to Miami. A rainy and windy evening in South Beach worked well for a team built on running the ball and playing defense, while going up against Dan Marino. Stephens produced 88 yards and that was the difference in a 6-3 win.
New England was now 7-5 in the midst of four-way fight for two wild-card spots. The Oilers were leading the way, the Cleveland Browns were also in the hunt and so were the resurgent Indianapolis Colts, who got off the mat after their earlier loss to the Patriots.
That set up New England’s return visit to Indianapolis. Patriot return man Sammy Martin got the day off to a good start when he took the opening kickoff 95 yards to the house. But Stephens could never get started. Even though the D contained Indy’s great runner, Eric Dickerson, the Patriots also failed to cash in opportunities. Kicker Jason Staurovsky missed a couple field goals and the result was a tough 24-21 loss.
It was must-win when Seattle came to Foxboro on the first weekend of December. The Seahawks, an AFC team prior to the ’02 realignment, would win a mediocre AFC West. New England had a couple of good early drives, but both ended with field goals. In this case, the missed opportunities didn’t hurt, because the defense went from being good to being dominant. They held the Seahawks to 20 rushing yards in a 13-7 win.
Looking for offense, Berry gave the keys to Eason for the penultimate game against Tampa Bay. Eason was respectable—16/27 for 155 yards. But Stephens was shut down, only gaining 10 yards on 12 carries. Against a bad team, the Pats were forced into overtime. But all’s well that ends well—a Staurovsky field goal gave them a 10-7 win.
The record now 9-6, New England got great news one night later. Cleveland lost on Monday Night in Miami. The Patriots controlled their destiny going into the final game of the season.
That last game would not be easy. It was a road trip to play John Elway’s Denver Broncos and the late Saturday afternoon kickoff put the Patriots on a short week with travel ahead. The Broncos weren’t what they had been in 1986 or 1987 when they won the AFC crown. At 7-8, they were out of the playoffs. But they had pride.
Stephens got the Pats off to a good start with a 23-yard TD run in the first quarter. But New England trailed 14-10 by the half. Neither Grogan nor Eason could get anything going offensively. The defense hung in and kept Elway under control, but Denver finally added a clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter. The 21-10 loss was an all-too-fitting end to the Patriot season.
There was still slim hope of getting in the playoffs going into Sunday, but Indianapolis and Cleveland both had to lose. They were both playing good opponents, the Colts against the Bills and the Browns facing the Oilers. But both Indy and Cleveland won and New England was going home.
Berry had one more year left as the head coach, but 1989 saw the team fall to 5-11. The 1988 season was the last of a nice four-year run for an organization that was—at least at the time—starved for consistent winning football.