From that wonderful land that gave you statesmanship, rusted anchors, America, intellectuals, banking, town houses, landscape painting, Ted Williams, Bill Russell and Bobby Orr, there now comes football. A new kind of madness is sweeping New England. Four weeks deep into the season some guys known as Patriots instead of your basic Celtics or Bruins or Red Sox or Political Activists or Scrods just happen to be undefeated and untied and unafraid, and if this sort of thing continues much longer there is the possibility that someone sitting around Harvard Square discussing Sanskrit poetry as it applies to the works of Joan Didion may even look up from the water pipe and ask who Chuck Fairbanks and Jim Plunkett are.
It all started way back there on Sept. 15 when the Patriots, those funny people who used to play football wherever they could find an empty parking lot, whipped up on the Miami Dolphins. It continued when the Patriots, those hilarious comedians who once played a home game in Birmingham, Ala., defeated the New York Giants. It kept up when the Patriots, those laugh-a-minute clowns who once used to view their game films on bed sheets, startled the Los Angeles Rams. And last Sunday the excitement held at a peak when the Patriots, those howling vaudevillians who once almost had to elect John Quincy Adams their most valuable player, went out and utterly destroyed the Baltimore Colts by 42-3.
Heretofore, the Patriots had been doing what they were not supposed to do. They had been scoring upsets. This time, as heavy favorites, they were confronted with the task of having to look good against a group of mystery folks, the Colts, who were in the midst of a strange emotional trauma. And all the Patriots did was come roaring into their stadium out there in an obscure forest halfway between Boston and Providence and look as though they could pile up about a million points if they needed to.
In a way, their performance against the Colts did more to make them believable than any of those past wonders. If they were any good, they would win big. If they weren't, they might have problems with a Baltimore team that suddenly had a new head coach out of the business office because it had a relatively new owner out of heating & ventilating and a lot of players who were still wondering whatever happened to Johnny Unitas.
Well, what the Patriots did, of course, with all of this new confidence and collegiate kind of spirit that has been given to them by Head Coach Chuck Fairbanks, was once again unleash the throwing arm and savvy of Quarterback Jim Plunkett; the unnerving speed and psssst of Running Back Micro-Mini-Marvy-Mack Herron; the good hands and stimulating antics of Reggie Rucker, the pass catcher; and the swarming gnat-like defense of a bunch of unknown gypsies culled from waiver lists, the 14th round of drafts and the exotic world of free agents. The Patriots were so certain of what they could do against Baltimore that they hopped up and down, clapping their hands, before the pregame introductions. Then, one by one, led by Rucker, they aroused the crowd by trotting out with their fists raised in the air. College kids, right?
"I like to get 'em stirred up," said Rucker later. "If you get yourself stirred up, the other team might get the idea you're ready to pounce on 'em early."
But pros don't act like that, he was told.
"Maybe that's wrong," he said. "Maybe that's something that needs to change. We're playing with enthusiasm and we're having fun."
It was particularly fun on the game's third play from scrimmage. Plunkett, who read the Colt defense like the funny papers all day long, called a beautiful pass pattern known intimately to the Patriots as "142 DIG," whatever that means. Plunkett read the Colt blitz, which told him Rucker had some poor soul one-on-one and would beat him deep. Center Bill Lenkaitis and Fullback Sam Cunningham picked up the blitz, the way centers and fullbacks should. Plunkett pitched one of those nifty bombs of his, and as it hung in the clear autumn air everybody knew it was going to find the hands of Reggie Rucker, who had outdistanced Colt Cornerback Doug Nettles and was streaking for the town commons of Foxboro, and that this was going to be a 69-yard touchdown play.
Poor Baltimore was doomed.
A few minutes later Plunkett saw the Colt defense set up just perfect for a double-reverse end-around, and Darryl Stingley did a minuet behind Lenkaitis and swept 23 yards for a touchdown. The Colts could be fooled any number of ways.
Plunkett hurled two more touchdown passes—another to Rucker, a short one to Cunningham—giving him nine scoring passes in four games. He has scarcely been intercepted by anybody except Fairbanks, who summons him into meditative session from time to time to make sure Jim is still thinking good enough to keep on calling 95% of the Patriots' plays, which is what he has been doing. Last year, when Fairbanks was finding his way, making the adjustment from college ball, he called the plays, possibly because he had read somewhere that Paul Brown and Tom Landry did it. Plunkett didn't like that system at all, and now it's been changed.
Last year Fairbanks tried to use a standard pro defense, which required linebackers he didn't have. Now he has adopted the mystique of the 3-4, with its concealed rushes, and he has several helmets in the defensive lineup that weren't there a year ago.
Fairbanks also decided to use little Herron (he's 5'5", 170) as a regular rather than as a spot speedster. These days, a pro team without the outside running threat can forget it. "You've got to have one of those who ain't gonna let the grass grow under his feet," says Fairbanks. "You've got to have that guy who can make something happen. When Mack gets the football, he makes the other crowd hold onto the seat of their pants."
Fairbanks, who came to New England from the University of Oklahoma, readily admits that he has tried to instill something of a Boomer Sooner spirit and attitude in the Patriots. With his clockwork practices, the fact that he works harder than anyone else, and his positive beliefs, he surely deserves most of the credit for turning the team around.
"It's nice we've been able to win, because now these guys might get the idea that what I've said about hard work pays off," he says with a grin. "We're not out of the woods yet by any means. You can't look at the teams we've got to play up ahead and feel very secure."
That's certainly true. Joe Namath this week. Buffalo and O.J. twice. Miami again. Oakland. Minnesota. Pittsburgh. New England's schedule must have been devised by Charles Addams. The miracle might not last much longer. The odds are against it, but then the odds on New England being 4-0 right now were about as good as those on Las Vegas joining the Union. On the other hand, New England is a young team, which may explain why it buys Fairbanks' motivations. Who can say what it might be capable of? Emotion might go a greater distance than x's and o's, especially if you combine it with Jim Plunkett's arm and some varied speed.
Last Sunday, for once, it was the Patriots who were predictable, while Baltimore came into the game needing John Le Carré to fathom its mysteries after the bizarre events of the previous week. On Sept. 29, while the Colts were in the process of losing their third straight game of the young season, a little light bulb came on over the head of Baltimore Owner Bob Irsay. Things probably wouldn't be so horrible, he thought, if Coach Howard Schnellenberger would use Bert Jones at quarterback instead of Marty Domres. Most Baltimore fans agreed with Irsay, or, if that wasn't the case, they simply liked the ring of a chant which went "We Want Jones."
In any event, Irsay, who was down on the sideline during the third quarter, went over to Schnellenberger and said something on the order of "Don't you think it's about time you put Jones in at quarterback?"
At which point Schnellenberger gave the owner the thumb, and, according to Irsay, used some profanity that he did not have the copyright to. That was not a terrific thing for a coach to say to an owner, and it didn't help that right after it Domres threw an interception for a touchdown. Irsay seethed for a while, then went to the locker room, although the game hadn't ended. Before Joe Thomas, the general manager, could get there Irsay announced that Schnellenberger was fired and that Thomas, who had not had a whistle around his neck in 13 years, was taking over.
The Colt players were stunned, then confused, then angered—partly because they liked Schnellenberger and partly because Thomas had not endeared himself to them.
Bert Jones said, "This is pro football? I think Howard's a hell of a coach. We've got 11 more weeks in the season and we'll be counting the days until we can get out of here."
Domres said, "I think it's all ridiculous. If we start to win, it won't be because of Joe Thomas. It will be in spite of what's happened."
Thomas had a week to find a baseball cap and a windbreaker, not to mention a whistle. He had not coached since he left Calgary in 1960 to become a scout and then a general manager. As a front-office leader he had earned much of the credit for building the Minnesota Vikings and the Miami Dolphins.
The first thing he did as new head coach was try to be a wonderful fellow. He said, "You guys have been working too hard," and he cut the practice time in half. Then he cut the playbook in half.
"I honestly don't know if I can be a good head coach," he said. "I'm not qualified to go out and install a whole new system. But I'm qualified to function as a coordinator. We've got six assistants. They'll do most of the work, and I'll be the guy on the sideline who says whether we try a field goal, or punt, or go for it." At practices during the week before the Patriots game he spent most of his time chatting and joking with the press about his new role, letting the underlings do the manual labor.
"When I was a scout, I saw how the big-time guys did it," he said. "Bear Bryant, Bobby Dodd, those fellows. They stood around a lot and pretended to be disinterested."
But in New England on Sunday it was evident that Thomas and the shattered Colts have a long season ahead. They appeared fairly loose, but they also looked fairly uninspired. Jones stayed out there sailing missiles all afternoon, but most of them sailed over everyone's head. When Bert did complete one to Ray Chester, Chester was met by Prentice McCray, the Patriots' safety, who, instead of tackling him, seized on Chester's preoccupation with gloom to take the football out of his arms.
This was one of the things that contributed to the game being over by the middle of the third quarter. At this point the score was 35-3, and it was obvious to the crowd of 59,502 in Schaefer Stadium that the Patriots could make the score just about anything they chose. Fairbanks chose to hold it down just as if he were back at Oklahoma and the Sooners were facing Kansas State. He removed Plunkett and most of the other heroes, but the subs, led by the antique quarterback, Dick Shiner, got another touchdown anyhow, giving the New England fans one more chance to wave their red, white and blue streamers, their towels, their handkerchiefs and their tricorn hats.
In a way, it was too bad, for Baltimore's ineptitude obscured the fact that New England has become a fairly astonishing football team. As Reggie Rucker said for all the Patriots, who are believing more and more in themselves, "Something's happening around here, baby. Something's happening."