John Hannah and Steve Grogan sat on the unforgiving turf of Sullivan Stadium, looking like bad little boys in a sandbox deciding whether or not to trust one another. Grogan, New England's Lazarus, had just completed a 26-yard pass down the middle to tight end Lin Dawson before being bounced to the seat of his pants. Grogan was decked despite the efforts of Hannah, his All-Pro guard. In previous years, there had been no love lost between the two.
However, two days earlier, Hannah, speaking just loudly enough for Grogan to hear, had said, "There's only a few quarterbacks who'll do what Steve does now—he holds that ball. He'll sit there, hold it, know he'll get that lick, then throw. It makes you want to give up a little bit of your life for him. You can see that gritted-teeth determination in him now." So on Sunday Hannah had given up a little bit of his life, and now they sat on the turf together. Hannah spoke first.
"You all right, Steve?"
Grogan said, "You all right, John?"
November 18, 1985
They both were just fine. They'd done it again. They'd won.
The pass to Dawson hardly mattered. It came in the fourth quarter, and Grogan and the Patriots had already laid waste to the Indianapolis Colts on their way to a 34-15 victory. Grogan set the course, but the Patriots seem to be flying on automatic these days.
The Patriots (7-3) have won five straight games, something they haven't done since 1980, and were 5-0 in the AFC East, to the surprise of everyone but themselves. The Pats weren't chilling any champagne yet, but they weren't booking January golf junkets, either.
"Defense wins championships," Grogan said after the game, an ice wrap the size of a basketball comforting his sore Tight elbow. "Quarterbacks only keep championships from being lost."
It may be premature, even revolutionary, to discuss championships in the same breath with the Patriots—they have been 8-4 three times since 1979, but have made the playoffs only once since '78, and that was in the Super Bowl tournament of the strike-shortened '82 season. "We've had the talent before," Grogan said. "But never this kind of depth. Never this kind of experience. Never this kind of chance."
And never have the Patriots had this kind of quarterback, even though Grogan has been with the team for 10 years. Last year, he and everyone else thought his career had run its course; Grogan had been beaten out by Tony Eason. But this year Tony ran the club aground with a 2-3 start, and when he suffered a separated shoulder on Oct. 13, Grogan came off the bench and rallied the Patriots to a 14-3 win over Buffalo—and he has been No. 1 ever since.
Grogan has 32 touchdowns on the ground in his 10-year career and has out-passed every previous Patriot quarterback, yet in the old days he often failed to hold his temper in check and the team together. Wherever Grogan was leading, no one seemed very anxious to follow. Chuck Fairbanks, then the Patriots coach, said in 1975, "We've got a young quarterback who can be great if he can ever learn to control his temper." Grogan didn't until last year. By then, even he believed it was too late.
Grogan remembered the glory years—or were they gory years?—when he would rush for hundreds of yards (539 in 1978) and end up listening to thousands of boos. "I threw six interceptions in one game in San Francisco in 1980," he says. "They splashed it all over the papers. Nobody spoke up and said I had risked my career by playing on two bad knees that day." There was the tragic overthrow to Darryl Stingley in 1978, then only the advancing years, including a 2-14 record in 1981, when the Pats had one of the highest payrolls in the league. There was Ea-son. Then, for Grogan, there was nothing. "The low point was playing in Kansas City during this year's preseason. I never took the headphones off," Grogan says. Two busloads of folks from his hometown, Ottawa, Kans., had driven an hour to Arrowhead Stadium to see what old Steve could do. He didn't play.
Now Grogan is a quarterback with a different anatomy. "He may have lost something here and here," says New England coach Raymond Berry, pointing to his arm and legs, "but he's gained it all here and here." Berry pointed to his head and heart. "He doesn't throw his helmet anymore," adds the Pats' defensive back Raymond Clayborn.
"I've learned to accept success and failure," says Grogan. He laughed a bit, flexing his small right hand. "Now that I know what to do, the only problem is that I can't do it anymore."
Oh? On Sunday, he was 13 for 22, with 190 yards and two touchdowns. The touchdown passes were artistic—a five-yard fade to Irving Fryar over cornerback Eugene Daniel and a neat 19-yard lob to Stanley Morgan. Fades, feathers, lobs—Grogan can throw all manner of touch passes now. Good thing, too, for his tender arm is no longer capable of zinging the ball 70 yards.
Grogan stands tall in the pocket. With knees that have been operated on four times—not to mention assorted injuries to his neck and throwing shoulder and arm—he can do little else, although he did beat both the Jets and the Dolphins on rollouts. He calls his own plays. Currently he is one of only two NFL quarterbacks—the other is whoever takes the snaps for Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh—to do so.
Against the Colts, Grogan's selection was impeccable. Johnny Unitas himself could not have mixed it up better.
The fans who had booed Grogan now adore him. "I have a radio call-in show, and all the people want to talk about is Steve Grogan," said G.M. Patrick Sullivan, whose father, Billy, is considering selling the team. "Not so much about how well he's played, but about his character, his willingness—about the man. They talk about him like he's Havlicek, Orr or Ted Williams." Grogan's light-hearted response: "Didn't they boo Ted Williams?"
After Sunday's game, Billy Sullivan was beaming at Grogan as if he were a long-lost son. "We'll let the market dictate the price of the team," he said. "And every week, the market goes up."