Today, the New England Patriots are the gold standard of the NFL, with their five Super Bowl titles in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. To say that wasn’t always the case would be an understatement. The 1990 New England Patriots are a case study of the franchise’s bad old days—they were a hideous football team on the field and were in trouble off of it.
There was nothing in the team’s recent history that suggested a complete train wreck prior to 1990. Ray Berry coached the team to a decent run in the late 1980s that included a trip to the Super Bowl, another AFC East title and a couple more winning seasons. But when the Pats bottomed out in 1989, going 5-11, a coaching change was made. Rod Rust, a successful defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, got the opportunity.
The season opened at home against the Miami Dolphins. The Patriot defense picked off Dan Marino three times and led 21-6 at the half. Even though problems defending the run led to a Dolphin comeback and a 27-24 loss, it was still a competitive showing against a team that would ultimately make the playoffs.
Rust’s defense continued its ballhawking ways in Week 2, picking off Indianapolis Colts’ quarterback Jeff George four times. This time, New England got a running game, with 96 yards from John Stephens and they scraped out a 16-14 win on the road.
It was the day after this game that the season began to unravel and it happened in the locker room. Lisa Olson, a beat reporter covering the team for The Boston Herald, alleged that she’d been sexually harassed. The allegations were that players deliberately exposed themselves to her, presumably unhappy with her presence in the locker room.
The team owner at the time was Victor Kiam and over the course of the season, he would be caught making more lewd jokes at Olson’s expense. The league office eventually had to investigate and sided with Olson, fining both the offending players and the team for failing to respond.
New England fell apart after the Olson incident. They were a flawed team, to be sure—a revolving door at quarterback was used by veterans Steve Grogan and Marc Wilson, along with 23-year-old Tom Hodson. But with Stephens, a previously productive runner and a Pro Bowl left tackle in Bruce Armstrong there was no reason for this team to end up as the league’s most unproductive offense. The incompetence on this side of the ball was complemented by the second-worst defense in the NFL.
And the blowout losses started to rain down. There were five straight against a difficult portion of the schedule that included eventual playoff teams in Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Buffalo, along with the rematch at Miami. Seattle, the weakest team in this stretch, still finished 9-7 in 1990. Only at Miami, in a 17-10 Thursday night loss, were the Patriots competitive.
If nothing else, New England could play well against Indianapolis. The Colts were in the AFC East prior to the realignment of 2002 and they came to Foxboro on November 11. The Patriot pass defense found its early season mojo and only allowed six completed passes. They outrushed Indy 175-54. Yet…they still lost a 13-10 decision.
The Pats went to Buffalo the following Sunday and again competed. Against a Bills team that would come within one play of winning the Super Bowl, New England only trailed 7-0 in the fourth quarter. Finally, an 80-yard touchdown run by Thurman Thomas ended the upset bid, 14-0. And the Patriot season effectively shut down.
New England was crushed by the subpar Phoenix Cardinals on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. They were crushed by eventual playoff team Kansas City. They were crushed by Rust’s old employer in Pittsburgh. They were lifeless at home in the rain against the Redskins. The only close game was the finale against the New York Giants. The Giants had nothing to play for and the game was played in awful weather. The Patriots lost 13-10, bringing an end to the miserable 1-15 campaign.
Rust took the fall and was fired after just one season. The front office tried to rejuvenate things with old-fashioned college enthusiasm, hiring Syracuse head coach Dick MacPherson. Over the next two years, he won eight games. It wasn’t until the hiring of Bill Parcells and the drafting of quarterback Drew Bledsoe prior to the 1993 season that a light at the end of tunnel appeared.
In 1994, Robert Kraft bought the team and the organizational dysfunction eventually went away. And the rest, as they say, is history.