Harry Houdini, make way. When it comes to putting pressure on yourself, no one quite matches the New England Patriots. Before the season even started, Coach Chuck Fairbanks flatly stated, "We can beat any team in this league consistently with the players we have right now." Accordingly, New England introduced a new mascot named Superpatriot, a sort of combination Paul Revere and Superman in red, white and blue. It also circulated a team picture boldly inscribed, "The 1978 Superpatriots." Which was meant to suggest, of course, a succession of Super Sundays leading ultimately to the Super Bowl. At which point, the Patriots promptly lost two of their first three games.
But lo and behold, last Sunday the Superpatriots were making good on their boast, beating their chief division rivals, the Miami Dolphins, 33-24, to take sole possession of first place in the AFC East.
The Pats came from behind twice, breaking a 24-24 tie late in the fourth quarter with an impressive five-play, 64-yard touchdown drive, then locking up the win when Richard Bishop sacked Dolphin Quarterback Bob Griese for a safety. That produced the odd sight of George Roberts, the Dolphin punter, trying an onside punt with the free kick. Alas, it failed. As one banner proclaimed, THIS IS NOT THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN.
In moving a game in front of Miami with a 6-2 record, the Patriots showcased the sort of depth that does take teams to the Super Bowl. New England entered the game with five runners who had gained between 199 and 313 yards. Last on the list was second-year man Horace Ivory, but against Miami he led all New England rushers with 113 yards. He also scored the Patriots' last two touchdowns, going 23 yards for the clincher on a draw play. On that run Ivory broke a tackle by Dolphin Defensive Back Norris Thomas at the 15 and stumbled most of the way to the goal line before covering the last few feet on his knees. Ivory gained much of his yardage behind Right Guard Sam Adams and Right Tackle Shelby Jordan instead of New England's more heralded left side of John Hannah and Leon Gray, which also says something about Patriot depth. As Adams put it, "I resent the way people say, 'the other side of the Patriot line.' "
Beating Miami in Foxboro was important to the Patriots because they have not beaten the Dolphins in Miami since 1966, and the two teams are scheduled to meet there in the final game of the season, on Monday night, Dec. 18. More important, New England sank the Dolphins on the day they were supposed to be buoyed by the return of Griese. Last year's passing champion had not started since he suffered a partial tear of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in the Dolphins' final exhibition game.
But Griese's return wasn't the only cause for Dolphin optimism. In their last visit to Foxboro late last season, the Dolphins lost a shot at the playoffs when they managed only 25 yards rushing against New England's 3-4 defense and were beaten 14-10. In the off-season, seeking to resurrect his ball-control offense, Don Shula dealt his first-and fifth-round draft picks plus Wide Receiver Freddie Solomon and Safety Vern Roberson to San Francisco for Running Back Delvin Williams. Going into Sunday's game, Williams led the AFC with 673 yards on the ground. As a team the Dolphins were averaging better than five yards a carry to lead the league.
On the opposite side of the line, however, New England boasted a miserly defense. "First down is the crucial play for us," said Patriot Linebacker Steve Nelson, who leads the team in tackles and fumble recoveries and is tied for the lead in interceptions. "Miami likes to run. They've really put emphasis on the run this year. If we can hold them to three yards or less on first down, we can force them to pass. Then we can use our special pass defenses and dictate the game."
New England did just that. Miami went nowhere on the ground in its first two series and thereafter had to rely heavily on passing. Williams did manage to scratch out 116 yards, but overall the Dolphins were an aerial act last Sunday. Miami tried 40 pass plays and ran just 26 times.
Griese tied a Schaefer Stadium record with 22 completions, which accounted for 227 yards and two touchdowns. The first of these, nine yards to Nat Moore, tied the score at 14 in the second quarter, and the second, a four-yarder to Andre Tillman, moved Miami in front 21-17 midway through the third quarter. Griese also helped set up the game's first touchdown, a one-yard plunge by Williams, when his pass, intended for Moore in the end zone, resulted in an interference call against Patriot Defensive Back Raymond Clayborn. But Griese also was intercepted twice in the second quarter by New England Safety Doug Beaudoin, and both of those resulted in Patriot touchdowns.
Griese played, as he will for the rest of the season, with his knee in a brace. His performance was heroic but no more productive than that of the Pats' 25-year-old signal caller, Steve Grogan, who engineered the two second-half, 64-yard drives that ended with Ivory's touchdown runs. Grogan passed for 176 yards and ran for 34 more, including an 18-yard scamper that set up a 29-yard David Posey field goal in the closing seconds of the first half. That put New England ahead 17-14 and Fairbanks later cited it as a key to the win.
It was a rewarding day for Grogan, who has endured some booing from Patriot fans this season. When New England threw away those two early games, losing to Washington and Baltimore on touchdowns scored via a fumble return and a kickoff return, Grogan, who was passing poorly, became the scapegoat. After the Colt game one fan poured beer on him. "That just makes me play harder," Grogan said last week. "I don't care for being booed. I want to prove myself to the people here."
Grogan has a strong but sometimes erratic arm that commands attention in the AFC East, a quarterback's division. Buffalo's Joe Ferguson, the league's second-ranked passer this season, New York's much ballyhooed Richard Todd, Baltimore's Bert Jones and Griese can all hit a bird in the eye at 50 yards. But Grogan all too often hits defenders in the hands at much shorter range. In three and a half seasons he has thrown 74 interceptions. "Sometimes Steve's a little overconfident in the strength of his arm," admits Fairbanks. "He takes unnecessary chances which result in his high interception total."
Nevertheless, to the Patriots and to other teams in the league Grogan is "the man" in New England. "Steve may not have the polish or the glamor that surrounds quarterbacks like Stabler, Todd or Griese," says Guard John Hannah, "but he's our leader, our motivator. When we need big plays, he comes up with them." Frequently those big plays are runs—his own, which Fairbanks, flouting accepted NFL coaching dogma, encourages. "I've always believed in trying to take advantage of the abilities your players have," he says, "and Steve is a threat as a runner."
Those who view Grogan and his occasionally errant passes as a liability to the Patriots overlook the obvious—all things considered, he is a quality quarterback. In 1975 Fairbanks saw enough in the rookie from Kansas State to trade away the disappointing Jim Plunkett. In 1976, Grogan's first full year as a starter, the Patriots improved their record from 3-11 to 11-3. That season Grogan passed for almost 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns, ran for 12 more to set an NFL record and led the league's quarterbacks with 397 yards rushing.
That is superb production for any quarterback, much less a second-year man who a year earlier as a fifth-round draft choice had admitted, "All I hoped to do was stay around long enough to make a strong enough impression so that when I got cut I might be able to catch on with somebody else." This wasn't defeatism, just realism. After all, Grogan had been selected after such notable quarterbacks as Mike Franckowiak and Gary Sheide. Obviously he has survived, probably because his temperament is ideally suited to the sort of pressure the Patriots are currently thriving on. "If we're way ahead, it's not as exciting as if the game is close and I know I've got to produce," he says. "That's the excitement—what this game is all about."
In New England that's what might be called a superpatriotic attitude.