New England Patriots offensive tackle Brian Holloway addressed a gathering of die-hard Patriots fans upon the team’s exit from Boston on a cold January day.
The year was 1986. The stage was the AFC Championship Game. The opponent was the Miami Dolphins.
“We’re going to take the Orange Bowl apart brick by brick,’’ he told the pack of devoted Patriots fans on hand to wish the team luck before their journey to Florida.
Holloway’s statement was no small task. The Patriots had never won in the Orange Bowl, losing 18 straight, and experts across the NFL landscape were convinced New England had no business playing in this game. And they made sure at every turn to let them know.
But this Patriots team had been through too much together. They were battle tested. They were tough as nails. But more importantly—they believed.
Patriots fans have been blessed with one of the most successful franchises in the history of professional sports. But before Bill Belichick and Tom Brady turned this franchise into a consistent title contender, before the team hired Bill Parcells and drafted Drew Bledsoe, before Bob Kraft saved the team from the clutches of Connecticut, before the flying Elvis replaced Pat Patriot on the side of the helmets, there was Grogan, Eason, Nellie, Marion, James, Mosi, Morgan, Tippett, Veris, Blackmon, Lippett, and a slew of other hard-nosed footballers that compiled the 1985-86 New England Patriots.
And for those who have only lived through No. 11 passing the torch to No. 12, know this about this particular mid-80s New England football team: You would have absolutely loved them.
Tough as Nails
You have to go no further than NFL Hall of Famer and Patriot legend John Hannah for a symbol of grit and utter toughness that embodied that 1985 season, which would ultimately be his last. Drafted as the 4th pick overall in 1973 out of Alabama, Hannah was hoping to milk a couple more years beyond 1986.
“My goal was to play 16 years,’’ he said. “During that season [1985-86], I had a torn calf muscle, two torn rotator cuffs, and a blown up knee. They repaired both shoulders at the same time. When I went in to get my knee done, my cartilage looked like sand. My femur was wearing down. I was told by the doctor that if I had a job I could do outside of football, I should go do that. And that’s what I did.’’
Go read that paragraph again. That was the symbol of the 1985 Patriots. Hannah was the horse – or Hog – that pulled the wagon. To boot, the Pats had a barefoot kicker in the name of Tony Franklin.
Barefoot. What could be more perfect?
A Guy Named Grogan
Tony Eason was part of the 1983 quarterback draft for the ages, being one of six QBs taken in the first round. You know the big names: Elway, Marino and Jim Kelly. New England was hoping Eason, its 15th pick and University of Illinois product, would be the cornerstone of a team that had some weapons to build on.
Eason showed glimpses of excellence in the 1984 season, starting 13 games for a Patriots team that ended the season short of the playoffs but over .500 at 9-7. But New England had something brewing.
In typical Patsies fashion, however, that season was nothing but false hope. Eason and the Patriots stumbled out of the gates in 1985 with a 2-4 record, another lost season in the New England Patriots recent annals of mediocrity. And just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, in game seven of the season against the Buffalo Bills, Eason went down with a separated shoulder. And in comes Steve Grogan.
Good ol’ Grogan had already been put out to pasture, but was great to have around for his locker room presence, guts, and knowledge of the game. Little did all of New England know that he had one magical run in the tank that inspired the Patriots to a realm nobody expected, or at the end of the day, even respected. But in retrospect, it was one of the greatest runs in the history of the NFL.
“I figured my time in New England was over with,’’ said Grogan, on playing behind Eason. “I figured they would look to deal me when the season was over with. I had no idea that this would even happen.’’
Grogan – who called his own plays in the huddle – led the Patriots to a victory upon entering that game against the Bills. He was the consummate field general. But more importantly, he always believed.
“Grogan was always confident,’’ said Hannah. “No matter if we were 100 points behind, he always thought we were going to win.’’
Grogan’s first start since the third game of the previous season came at home a week later against the Jets – a solid New York team – that featured another 1983 first-round QB pick in Ken O’Brien and the lethal Mark Gastineau on the defensive side of the football.
This happened to be my first-ever Patriots game. My father took me to the old stadium on a crisp autumn afternoon. It was a late game. We ate subs in the parking lot, and he bought me a No. 1 Patriots foam finger when we got inside. In the second half of a tight game, Grogan pulled a naked bootleg to the left and ran into the end zone for a touchdown. I had no idea what was going on or where the ball was, but the Sullivan Stadium crowd was going wild. My dad turned to me, screaming, “Grogan ran it in! Grogan ran it in!’’
“I didn’t tell anybody in the huddle what I was going to do,’’ said Grogan when talking about that play, which the Pats needed late in the game to take the lead. “I called a run right. [Wide receiver Stanley] Morgan and I had a relationship, and when I said a certain thing, he knew I was coming his way.’’
From there, Grogan kept the train moving and the Patriots ultimately ripped off six wins in a row.
“He was the turnaround king. Grogan was a good quarterback,’’ said Hannah.
But as good as Grogan was in leading the offense, it was a devastating defense that consistently sparked an explosion of turnovers game in and game out.
They were flat-out mean.
“We had a great defense,’’ said Hannah. “We had Andre Tippet and Donnie Blackmon as bookends. You couldn’t double-team one and leave the other unblocked. There was no getting outside on those two guys. They were the best outside linebackers I’ve ever seen put on a team.’’
Tippett, the Hall of Fame linebacker, attributes the tenacity of that New England defense to the demand for perfection.
“We had guys who were willing to push each other and challenge each other,’’ said Tippett. “We set the tempo in practice, and it got pretty heated out there. Don Blackmon was good as any linebacker in the league. We prided ourselves in controlling the tight ends and man handling those guys with the demand for perfection.’’
Let’s Win on the Road
The Patriots, despite Grogan going down with a broken leg in game 13 against the Bills, were able to hang on with the leadership of Eason to claim the AFC Wildcard with an 11-5 record.
But the road to New Orleans had to start at the Meadowlands. Eason played a near-flawless game, and the Patriots were able to win their first playoff contest since the AFL days of the early-1960’s.
Do you believe? What on earth is happening?
Next up was a west coast trip to Los Angeles to face the mighty Raiders, featuring Howie Long and Co. The Raiders were the top-rated team in the AFC. But it was the ball-hawking Patriots that forced six turnovers en route to an improbable 27-20 win at the Coliseum.
Nobody knew what the hell was going on. The Patriots pulled two big upsets on the road, and somehow set up a date with Dan Marino and the high-flying Dolphins to decide who would go the Super Bowl.
A confident Miami fan base rejoiced in the lowly Patriots coming into the Orange Bowl. New England didn’t stand a chance.
Squish the Fish
One of the greatest sports rallying cries of all-time: Squish the Fish. T-shirts were everywhere, Patriots fever had swept up blue collar New England with fervor, and everyone was proud. I brought my foam finger to school every day.
“We’re going to take the Orange Bowl apart … brick by brick!’’
And take it apart they did, in the most old-fashioned way you could ever pull apart a brick building. The Patriots just straight smashed it.
“The coaches decided we were going to run the ball and keep it from Marino,’’ said Hannah. “I think we only threw the ball like 10 or 12 times. It was rock ‘em, sock ‘em football.’’
It was 12 times, 10 Tony Eason completions for 71 yards. But they ran the ball a whopping 59 times for 255 yards, and possessed the ball for a staggering 40 minutes. It had rained a bit in Miami, which cooled down the temps and made the field muddy. Even better for some northern smashmouth festivities. The Patriots simply said: the ball is ours, try to take it away. We are tougher than you.
The Dolphins were never close, coughing the ball up six times en route to a 31-14 trouncing at the hands of the lowly New England Patriots.
My family watched the first half at Memere’s house, and the second half at my Aunt Karen and Uncle Bill’s house, all in Haverhill. As the clock wound down in the fourth quarter, my dad laid on the floor with his hands on his forehead, and said a few times: “I can’t believe the Patriots are going to the Super Bowl.’’
LA Times columnist Scott Ostler was visibly agitated in his Jan. 13, 1986 column, and at the time, shared the sentiments of many NFL-watching Americans.
OK, so what’s the crime in running the ball? What’s wrong with a conservative offense? Nothing, except this is the Super Bowl we’re coming up to, a game the NFL builds up like a show-biz spectacular, a game where the fans want to see a little glitter and dazzle, and here come the New England Molemen.’’
Everybody wanted the Dolphins to win. Just a few weeks prior, Miami handed the Chicago Bears – the eventual Super Bowl champion – their only negative mark in the standings on a national Monday Night Football stage.
But instead, it was the Patriots. The hard-working, no nonsense, get your boots on and your lunch pale packed—it’s time to do some demo work—ragtime bunch. There are few moments in sports history where a team reflected its region like this crew and the residents of New England.
Regardless of the outcome of Super Bowl XX, which was a 46-10 drubbing at the hands of one of the greatest single season teams in the history of the NFL, the Patriots’ magical run of 1985 should be held in the highest regard by sports fans across New England.
It’s a team you should always think back on and feel extremely proud. They are New England to the core. And if you don’t know, take it from me. You would have loved them. Maybe you do right now.
Photos from the 1985 Patriots season.