The 1991 New England Patriots represented the opportunity for a fresh start. The franchise hadn’t made the playoffs since 1986 and hadn’t produced a winning season since 1988. The 1990 season was a 1-15 disaster in Foxboro. The Patriots went into the college ranks to tap a new head coach, Dick MacPherson from Syracuse. They installed a new playing surface, moving to real grass at old Schaefer Stadium. And while they were a far cry from a contention, the ’91 Patriots played with enthusiasm and showed real improvement.
New England had ranked either at or near the bottom of what was then a 28-team NFL in both offense and defense in 1990, as you would expect from a team that only won one game. MacPherson brought in Joe Collier as his defensive coordinator. Collier had produced good defenses in Denver for teams that made it to Super Bowls in the late 1970s and in the 1980s.
Even though this Patriots edition was short on talent—no one made the Pro Bowl. In fact, outside of future Hall of Fame outside linebacker Andre Tippett there was only one Pro Bowl appearance for the rest of the defense combined throughout the career span of the other starters. Tippett was now 32-years-old and in decline. But Collier lifted the defense to 15th in the NFL for points allowed.
It took MacPherson a few weeks to find his quarterback. Tom Hodson was the starter on Opening Day, but Hugh Millen took the job by Week 4 and was pretty good. Millen ranked in the top 10 for both completion percentage and yards-per-attempt.
A propensity for mistakes was a big problem—Millen’s TD-INT ratio was 9/18 and he was intercepted on 4.4 percent of his passes—the latter ranking him near the bottom of the NFL. But it’s not as though he was replacing or being measured against Tom Brady. Millen’s production in 1991 represented improvement.
The quarterback had some targets who could stretch the field. Irving Fryar, the veteran receiver and holdover from the 1985 team that reached a Super Bowl, went over 1,000 yards and averaged nearly fifteen yards a catch. Greg McMurtry cleared the 600-yard threshold and was also good for 15 a pop.
But no one was more reliable than Marv Cook. The tight end was 1st-team All-NFL and caught 82 passes. To put that stat in 1991 context, it was fourth overall in the league for catches. The next-highest tight end (Jay Novacek in Dallas) caught 59 balls and ranked 32nd.
Leonard Russell stepped in at running back, replacing John Stephens. Russell, running behind an offensive line that included Pro Bowl left tackle Bruce Armstrong, ran for 959 yards and won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
The Patriot offense was far from productive. They still ranked 25th in points scored. But they were no longer the worst in the league and they had viable weapons to work with.
New England opened the season at Indianapolis. Hodson threw a 23-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to Cook. The defense delivered four sacks of Indy quarterback Jeff George. The Patriots won 16-7 in what proved to be a changing-of-the-guard game, so to speak—this year it was the Colts on their way to a hopeless 1-15 season.
The home opener with Cleveland brought what would one day be a friendly face to Foxboro. Bill Belichick had gotten his first head coaching job this season to rebuild the Browns. Like New England, Cleveland would show improvement, even if they weren’t very good. Even though Tippett picked up 2 ½ sacks, the Patriot offense was a mess and suffered a 20-0 shutout loss.
New England’s Hodson-led offense wasn’t much better at mediocre Pittsburgh a week later. Neither team could run the ball and the game was tied 6-6 after three quarters. The Steelers found a passing game with Bubby Brister and handed the Pats a 20-6 loss.
After two losses to teams headed for sub-.500 years, MacPherson handed the keys the offense to Millen. The changed paid immediate dividends. The Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) were a consistent playoff team with a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Warren Moon. But Millen knew how to find Cook—the tight end caught ten balls for 99 yards. And trailing 20-17 in the fourth quarter, Millen hit McMurtry on a 34-yard touchdown strike for a 24-20 win.
Splitting the first four games was a nice way to start and a road trip against a bad Cardinals team was up next. But New England played poorly. Their only points came on Jon Vaughn’s 99-yard kickoff return and they lost 24-10. Then the Patriots lost at home to Miami, when Dan Marino ripped off 17 consecutive second quarter points and handed New England a 20-10 defeat.
The Patriots went into the bye week at 2-4. Home games against an average Minnesota team and a good Denver Broncos squad were waiting on the far side. Millen stepped up against the Vikings and went 22/32 for 326 yards. Fryar caught nine of those passes for 161 yards. Even though the New England defense coughed up a 23-13 fourth quarter lead and the game went to overtime, Millen still led the way to a 26-23 sudden-death win.
Denver’s visit was about defense and the red zone. The Patriot defense was locked in, but the offense bogged down and settled for field goals on two trips inside the Bronco five-yard line. They lost 9-6.
One bright offensive spot was that Russell rushed for 89 yards. He kept it going the following week in Buffalo, racking up 106 yards. It wasn’t enough to avoid a 22-17 loss. But the Bills were headed for the Super Bowl and the Broncos on their way to the 2-seed. By playing competitively against both teams, the Patriots were continuing to show progress.
They were also showing a feisty spirit and MacPherson’s emotional, college-style sideline demeanor was making this team fun to watch. They dug a 17-3 hole for themselves at Miami and then rallied. Millen went 20/26 for 257 yards and spread the ball around. The game was tied 20-all by the fourth quarter before Marino proved too much to handle. The Pats lost 30-20.
Miami would go to the final week of the season in a battle for the last playoff spot with another AFC East rival, the New York Jets. New England welcomed the Jets into town in mid-November. Again, the Patriots fell behind, this time 21-0 after three quarters. Again, the Patriots rallied. Millen threw a 56-yard strike to Fryar and finished with 372 yards passing. McMurtry and Cook had big receiving numbers. New England pulled even 21-21 before falling 28-21.
These near-misses were getting national attention and even though New England was 3-8, they were become a team you at least waited to see the highlights on during ESPN’s then-legendary NFL Primetime show on Sunday evenings. If nothing else, to watch MacPherson’s raw emotion fuel his team.
And on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the big breakthrough win came. Buffalo came to Foxboro. New England picked off the great Jim Kelly four times, twice from defensive back Maurice Hurst. Fryar caught six balls for 134 yards. The Pats still trailed in the fourth quarter but this time their late touchdown was able to stand up in a 16-13 win.
New England went west for a rematch with Denver. The scheduling format of the time called for the fifth-place teams in the AFC East and AFC West in the previous year to play twice and the Broncos had an uncharacteristically rough year in 1990. In this second game, the Patriot offensive line struggled. They allowed five sacks and the running game only produced 51 yards in a 20-13 loss.
Indianapolis was the fifth AFC East team prior to the realignment of 2002 and they came to Foxboro the following week. New England fell behind 17-3 after three quarters and Millen was sacked eight times. But another rally was in store.
Millen finished 21/40 for 330 yards. McMurtry caught eight balls for 119 yards, while Cook’s numbers were six catches and 90 yards. The Patriots tied it 17-17. And in overtime, Millen went up Michael Timpson, 45 yards for the score in a 23-17 win. It seemed like no matter who New England played, the best in the AFC or the worst and the results were going to be the same—three quarters of mediocrity and a fourth quarter of electricity.
A road trip to face the Jets produced another physical, defense-first game. Russell rushed for 112 yards and that was the difference in a 6-3 win. The Patriots were up to 6-9. Their progress was obvious and it showed when linesmakers made them a two-point road favorite at lowly Cincinnati for the final game of the season.
It’s probably a mistake to read too much into the results of one season finale between teams on their way home. But after a season of playing with great enthusiasm in the face of long odds, New England seemed to mail this one in. Millen got his numbers—21/33 for 271 yards and Timpson caught seven passes for 150 yards. But nothing else went right in a 29-7 loss.
And it was that loss, not all of the improvement before it, that carried over into 1992. The Patriots immediately regressed back to the league’s worst team. MacPherson’s tenure, seemingly so promising during this 1991 season, immediately ended.
The good news for Patriots fans in retrospect is that Bill Parcells was tapped as the new head coach and winning times were ahead. And if nothing else, those ’91 Patriots were fun to watch as they battled everyone, from the NFL’s elites to its doormats, down to the wire.