To stop getting its stuffing kicked out, a pro football team must first cease being a turkey. Based on this old Pilgrim adage, not to mention past performance, the New England Patriots had only two small things to do on the weekend before Thanksgiving to end their imitation of the bird of their forefathers.
1) Despite their 7-3 record they had to show they were for real.
2) They had to demonstrate total mastery of the meek New York Jets, whom they had beaten soundly earlier in the year, 41-7, but who had knocked them off in 17 of their previous 19 meetings.
Indeed, the Patriots had to struggle back from a quick 10-0 deficit to beat the Jets 38-24 last Sunday, thereby improving their record to 8-3 and practically assuring them a playoff berth for the first time in their NFL history. Fumbles on New England's first two series led to a field goal and a touchdown for the Jets. But the turnover bug was infecting everyone on the Shea Stadium field, where the Patriots had won only a single game in the past 10 years. The Patriots gave up the ball three times—twice on fumbles, once on an interception—while the Jets had 10 giveaways—seven by interceptions, three by fumbles. It was not a well-played game, but it was definitely exciting.
November 29, 1976
New England Linebacker Sam Hunt picked up the first Jet fumble. Then Don Calhoun—who rushed for 141 yards when he came in for the injured Sam (Bam) Cunningham against Baltimore the week before and was to add 109 against the Jets this day—helped move the ball to the New York 15. Quarterback Steve Grogan passed to Running Back Andy Johnson for the touchdown. The second New York bobble was picked up by Safety Prentice McCray, and this time Grogan hit Wide Receiver Darryl Stingley for a 14-10 lead. With Joe Namath moving the New Yorkers nicely, when he wasn't throwing five passes to various Pats, the Jets were far from collapsing. But then McCray snitched a Namath-to-Rich Caster pass and galloped 63 yards for a 21-10 New England lead. Safe one moment, burned the next, as they say. With 2:45 left in the first half, Greg Buttle, the Jets' tough rookie linebacker, intercepted a Grogan pass. Namath sent his newly returned "favorite target," Jerome Barkum, over Mike Haynes deep into the left corner of the end zone, and New York was in sight at 21-17.
Someone must have said something to Haynes, the super rookie from Arizona State, in the locker room at halftime, for no sooner had he come back out than he stalled another Namath drive with an end-zone interception. McCray struck again moments later, intercepting still another Namath pass and running it back 55 yards for yet another' score—and a 28-17 lead. McCray, a third-year man from Arizona State, where he played alongside Haynes one season, hadn't scored a touchdown as a pro until this game, and now he had two.
In the fourth period Linebacker Steve Zabel recovered a Jet fumble, and Grogan went to work. A pass to Wide Receiver Randy Vataha on third and four brought the ball to the New York six. Three plays later, Grogan threw to a teammate with the number 58 on his back. An interior lineman? Yes and no. Pete Brock is a center, but he doubles as the second tight end on short yardage downs. Brock caught the ball all alone in the end zone, his first touchdown since high school. His teammates now call him "Deep Threat."
By then the turnovers had blended into a blur, but New England added a field goal after an interception by another fine rookie back, Tim Fox, and the Jets—with Richard Todd at quarterback—scored again, this time on a pass to rookie Running Back Clark Gaines. But Haynes grabbed his third interception, and the whole wild mess was over. The Patriot fans back home could hardly believe it. The Patriots have always been fairly unbelievable, and usually overlooked, in sports-minded Boston, home of the revered Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox. Not since 1963, when they were the Boston Patriots, have they managed a first-place finish, winning the old AFL's Eastern Division title in a playoff against Buffalo after an undistinguished 7-6-1 season. Even then, the glory was quickly tarnished as San Diego went on to take the AFL championship 51-10. In fact, until this year, the Patriots had not had a winning season in nine years.
So Patriot fans were wary again this fall, and it wasn't until the win over the Jets, on top of the previous Sunday's 21-14 upset of the Baltimore Colts, leaders of the AFC Eastern Division, that playoff talk heated up in New England. The air had been a little rarefied around Foxboro all week as fans tried to figure out the NFL's baffling system for deciding wild-card playoff berths, particularly those regulations that apply to tie-breakers. Local newspapermen began their explanations with such mind-benders as: "If we beat Denver, but lose to New Orleans and end up 10-4, and Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Denver end up 10-4—of course it depends on in-conference losses...." and then trailed off. As one writer sighed, "It's all a mirage anyway."
Not so. The Patriots are for real. Just how real—Super Bowl real?—remains to be seen. But for the future, they have to be contended with. They are indeed contenders.
During training camp, Coach Chuck Fairbanks told his players that, for the first time since he took over as head coach and general manager on January 26, 1973, New England would be capable of fielding a competent man at every position. Then the taciturn Michigan-born and Oklahoma-steeled Fairbanks showed the depth of his trust by virtually ignoring the late cuts and free agents. That ended once and for all the New England football tradition of running players through camp like truckloads of scrod. Or so the Pats fans hoped.
In truth, Fairbanks' confidence is well founded. He has a sound offense, in pro football terms. One that runs before it passes and then doesn't try things beyond its talents, like passing deep. (You do that if you've got a Roger Carr to go with a Bert Jones, or a Cliff Branch to fit the reach of a Ken Stabler.) It is a team that can count on a Cunningham to produce an average of almost five yards per carry this season, or a Calhoun to step in and come up with similar statistics. One that has a quarterback like Grogan, a second-year man who knows his team's talents and drawbacks and who can run like a whitetail buck when he has to. One that has a tight end like 6'6", 240-pound Russell Ross Francis, late of Hawaii, who chants the "Kahuna" of the islands at the opposition and reduces them to so many Captain Cooks.
It helps to have an offensive line as well. Oakland Coach John Madden was slightly in awe after the Pats cleared his nose with a 48-17 early-season victory, the Raiders' only loss this year. "They have five offensive linemen who can block, a fullback who can block and a tight end who can block," Madden said. "It's like playing against a seven-man line all day. Devastating."
The offensive linemen—left to right, Leon Gray, John Hannah, Bill Lenkaitis, Sam Adams and Bob McKay—are one of those groups that gets attention only when a Juice runs behind it and it can be called an "Electric Company." Sam Bam, though, hasn't given his line any nickname to latch on to—not because of his lack of yardage, but because they're all a bit shy, just like most New England folks. Perhaps they should be called the "E. B. Whites," in honor of that other distinguished but reticent Down East talent. Or the "Samuel Eliot Morisons," to commemorate their courage in the face of waves.
Defensively, New England has a strong point and a weak point. The latter is its rush line, which sacked the immobile Namath only three times. Fairbanks favors the 3-4 defense, which he brought with him from Oklahoma, and as a result the linebackers have knocked down many more passers than the linemen—and many more passes. Steve Nelson, one of the inside linebackers, missed the Jets' game with a dislocated kneecap and may well be out next week, but the others were working hard as always. Steve Zabel recovered a fumble to set up a touchdown. Sam Hunt, a hard-hitter frequently accused of cheap shots, particularly in the most recent Buffalo and Baltimore games, plugged the middle along with Nelson's replacement, Jim Romaniszysn. And veterans Pete Barnes and George Webster handled things perfectly at the right side. Those men, plus the suddenly reliable cornerbacks and safeties, constitute New England's defensive strength. The two rookies, Haynes and Fox, start in a secondary that was burned like buttered lobster again and again last season. The 6'2", 189-pound Haynes was the first defensive back chosen in this year's draft—and the fifth choice overall. His college credentials (17 interceptions) held up against the Colts and Jets: he picked off two Bert Jones passes, two of Namath's and one of Todd's.
For fear of reviving those old Boston doubts, it's best not to talk about the failure of the three wide receivers—Stingley, Vataha and Marlin Briscoe—to catch more than 32 passes to date. Vataha, who had caught 167 passes for 2,863 yards and 22 touchdowns in his first five years with the Pats, has caught only nine.
That deficiency can be partly attributed to the fact that the Pats have developed a professionally balanced offense, relying more heavily on the run than the pass. It can also be explained by the fact that Jim Plunkett is now playing for San Francisco. In the words of one observer, Plunkett "liked to throw it up as long and far as he could and then giggle when he saw who caught it."
Steven James Grogan, 23 years old, 6'4", 200 pounds, out of Kansas and the cow country, became the New England quarterback almost by default after Plunkett was traded. Fairbanks, in keeping with his decision about the team's capability, accommodated Plunkett in a deal that required no small amount of confidence. Though both Denver and Los Angeles had offered alternatives to Plunkett—i.e., players who might have brought New England the instant flair the fans had been clamoring for since 1963—Fairbanks took the San Francisco deal with its many draft choices: two first-round picks this season (Brock and Fox), a first and second next year, plus Quarterback Tom Owen.
So Grogan came from the grasslands to the headlands. "I found out about the Plunkett trade from a reporter who called me back home," he says. "Nobody from the team ever told me about it." Later he learned that part of the deal included Owen, a sometime starter for the 49ers. It didn't seem to bother him. "We had a spring camp in late May," says Grogan, "and when I came in I was the only quarterback who had been here last year. So I was the only one who knew what was going on. I figured I was No. 1 until someone came up and told me to get out."
Grogan's statistics aren't overpowering: a completion rate of 49.4% and a 7.2% interception rate. But he has gained 358 yards this season on 47 runs, half of which were planned. He has no fear (yet) of scrambling. Of the Patriots' 35 touchdowns, Grogan has accounted for 24-15 in the air, and nine on the ground.
New England's success has meant increased recognition for Grogan, who is attempting to grow a beard, perhaps in an effort to remain anonymous. "We don't have anything like Boston in Kansas," he says. "I'm not used to going out shopping or to the movies and always being recognized. How do I handle it? I handle it by staying home."
On the field, though, he stays with his backs and his tight end, running the first and hitting the second with well-timed short passes. "With Grogan in the game," says Cunningham, "we're not going to try to bomb them. When Plunkett was our quarterback, he had a very good arm and we had to utilize it. But the thing is, you've got to set up the arm with the run. We know that with Grogan we're going to make the defenses run-conscious, and then work them with the pass."
One of Grogan's favorite targets is Francis, who thus far has caught 25 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns. Shortly before the Pats made Francis their first draft choice in 1975, scouts were sent to the University of Oregon to make a final check on the Hawaiian, who had refused to play his senior year (along with several other players) after a shake-up of the college team's coaching staff.
Francis convinced them with back-to-back 40s in 4.6 seconds each. After the Pats beat Pittsburgh earlier this season, Chuck Noll had this to say about Francis: "A special tight end." Says that other Chuck, who coaches in New England, "If you were to pick a prototype to play tight end, Russ Francis would be perfect." In other words, Francis has size, great hands and deceptive speed, and delights in cutting down defenders with crisp, cruel blocks.
Still, if Francis has done nothing more for the old whaling areas of America, he has at least made them familiar with a phrase picked up from his youth in Hawaii. As the ancient Polynesian shamans were known as "Kahuna," so too has Francis shamanized opponents. On the last play of the Patriots' 30-27 win over the Steelers, Pittsburgh Kicker Roy Gerela lined up for a game-tying field goal. On the sideline, Francis began mumbling, "Kahuna, Kahuna, Kahuna."
Before the Oakland game, Francis went on TV and made it work again.
And in Baltimore, the Kahunas once more worked their magic. "Bless this football, O great Kahuna, and help Russ hang on to it," pleaded one of his Hawaiian friends. Francis hung on to three passes that afternoon but pulled a hamstring after catching one of them and didn't play against the Jets.
The Patriots didn't require any Kahunas to beat the Jets, but they may need some outside help the next few weeks as they charge toward the playoffs. As the old Hawaiian adage goes, with a Kahuna in your game plan, you'll never be a turkey again.