By Mike Passanisi, Patriots Daily Guest Writer

It was really a different world. On December 11, 1988, at what was then called Sullivan Stadium, the Patriots played the then (as now) hapless Tampa Bay Bucs. A victory would put the team one win away from clinching their third playoff spot in four years. Did the stadium sell out? Not even close. Okay, there was a -10 degree wind chill. But in today’s Patriot world, the thought of a crowd of less than 40,000 paying fans is ludicrous under any circumstances. But it must be noted that in those days, there were less than 10,000 season ticketholders.

That day, the Pats would beat the Bucs in overtime, 10-7, on a Jason Staurovsky field goal. But what was interesting and a bit strange about that season-and the one to follow- was the Patriots’ multi-quarterback system. In 1988 alone, Doug Flutie, Steve Grogan, Tony Eason, and Tom Ramsey shared QB duties. Flutie was the most productive, passing for 1150 yards, followed by Grogan with 834. But for reasons that are a bit unclear, coach Raymond Berry started Eason against Tampa, though he had missed most of the season with injuries and had not played in many weeks.

The win nearly assured a playoff spot for the team. With a 9-6 overall record, the Pats needed only to beat the 8-8 Broncos at Denver the following week to make the postseason. Most writers predicted a NE win, despite the fact that the team had lost 8 straight games in Mile High Stadium. The Globe went for a 33-7 victory, feeling that the Broncos, who had been eliminated from the playoffs the previous week, would have little to play for.

john-stephensThe game started off well for the Pats, as the late John Stephens, who would be named AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1200 yards but then see his career decline, scored in the first quarter on a 23-yard TD run. But though John Elway had a bit of an off year in 88, Tony Dorsett, another Hall of Famer, was in Denver playing in his final NFL season. In the last game of his pro career, he scored in the second quarter to give the Broncos a 14-10 lead at the break.

Things looked good early in the third when Stephens broke one for 52 yards to the Denver 11. “But then,” says Mark Blaudschun’s story in the Globe, “the Goblins of Mile High Stadium started to appear.” The Pats failed to score, and Eason got hurt. Berry then went, not to Flutie, who had been the starter most of the year, but to Grogan, who had not played in a game in two months. The Broncos would score to make it 21-10, and the coach opted to still stay with Grogan in a no-huddle offense, but an interception ended their chances. The next day, wins by the Browns and Colts ended the Pats’ playoff hopes. During the winter, Billy Sullivan, facing enormous debts owing to the failure of the late Michael Jackson’s “victory tour” (we all remember that, don’t we?), sold the franchise to razor mogul Victor Kiam. A terrible slide had begun.

Many factors contributed to this slide. The team was going with a system that seemed at times to be a “quarterbacking by committee”. For example, when Grogan replaced Eason in the Denver game, some writers wondered: why not Flutie? Berry’s answer was: “We were in a no huddle situation. I wanted to see if Steve could move the team.” Though Grogan tried hard as always, he was unable to.

The loss hurt, but in the summer of 89, many writers and fans were still optimistic. The cash-strapped Sullivan had been finally thrown in the towel. Kiam, whose ads showed him saying “I bought the company” was not well known in football circles. He was, however, from Connecticut, sort of a New England state, and had written two books-“Going for It” and “Keep Going for It”. It wouldn’t work in Foxboro, however.

One of the teams problems lay in drafting. The late Dick Steinberg, who had been in charge of the draft since becoming Director of Player Personnel in the early 80’s, had made some good choices, including Tippett, Brian Holloway, Tony Collins, and Fred Marion, all of whom helped the Pats to the 1986 Super Bowl. But in later years, his choices were less successful. They included Reggie Dupard, a disappointing back from LSU, and Mike Ruth, a nose tackle from BC. Though he had won the Outland Trophy in 1985 as the country’s top college defensive lineman, he would play little for the Pats because of injuries and lack of quickness. Teddy Garcia, a placekicker drafted in the fourth round in 88, lasted only a few games before being cut. His record in New England included 6 for 13 on field goals and 11 for 16 on extra points. Other underachievers included Kenneth (Game Day) Sims and Trevor Matich. Eason, who was eventually driven out of New England because of comments by players and fans about his lack of toughness, was picked by Steinberg in 83, with Dan Marino still available. Imagine Marino quarterbacking the Patriots in the 1980’s? There would have been at least one Super Bowl win.

Steinberg, who would soon leave for the Jets, said: “This is the most depth we’ve had since 1985….our defense is solid. It played well last year, and we think it will again this season….Tony Eason has looked good. It could be a big year for us.” The Globe’s Mike Madden picked the Pats to win the AFC East.

Things would change in a hurry. In the fourth preseason game, that depth disappeared. Tippett, cornerback Ronnie Lippett, and defensive end Garin Veris all suffered season-ending injuries in a 16-0 loss against Green Bay that Madden called “an embarassing effort”. Though in past years, the Sullivans reportedly had their coaches play the starters more in preseason to increase ticket sales (attendance at these games averaged 25, 000), Tippett does not believe that was the reason that night. “We were trying to re-establish ourselves because we had stumbled the previous two years,” author Michael Felger quotes him as saying. “Berry, I think, was trying to show the public he was going to be a little tougher on us…I think if he had that crystal ball, none of us would have played that night. It was a fluke.”

The fluke cost the Patriots dearly. In the opening game in New York against a Jets squad that would finish 4-12, the team had a great first half behind starter Eason. At the break, it was 21-0, as the Pats scored on their first three possessions, causing Jets fans to chant: “Joe must go.” (Coach Joe Walton would be fired after the season). It wouldn’t last. Early in the third, the block of a Jeff Feagles punt woke up the NY offense, and suddenly it was Ken O’Brien who could do no wrong. A touchdown, a Pat Leahy field goal, and a scoring run off a fake FG later, it was 21-17, and the Patriots were reeling. When O’Brien connected with Jo Jo Townsell for a 49-yard scoring pass, it was 24-21 and a terrible loss was a possibility. Only a late drive resulting in a Dupard score saved the Pats-for one week.

A week later, Madden’s story of the team’s home opener against the Dolphins started like this: “The punter thought he was a quarterback. The quarterback thought he was a tackling dummy and the coach thought he was a coach.” Rather strong words, especially about Berry. They referred to Eason’s seven sacks and Feagles’ two incomplete passes- one on a fake punt (called by Berry) and one after a high snap from center. The turnovers resulted in 10 Miami points in an easy 24-10 win. Headlines called the game “a comedy of errors.” Things would get worse.

The following week, things with Eason reached the breaking point. In the midst of a sad 24-3 loss to the winless Seahawks, not only was Eason booed unmercifully, but, after one sack, two fans raced on the field with a “Play Flutie” sign and were roundly cheered. During the week, Berry gave in. Doug started the next game at Buffalo, but fared no better in a 31-10 drubbing to Jim Kelly and the Bills. One thing Flutie was, however, was resilient. In the next contest, he was able to move the team a little bit and, with an improved running game (144 yards) the Pats beat Houston at home to make their record 2-3.

Now came one of the cruelest losses of the season. Though Flutie (12-30-172-3 interceptions) was subpar once again, three Greg Davis field goals helped the Pats to a 15-13 lead with 3:21 left. But Doug, who had only 16 passing yards in the second half, failed to get a first down on the next series. In the final two minutes, the Falcons’ Chris Miller drove his team the length of the field, and Paul McFadden’s last minute field goal sent New England to a crushing 16-15 defeat.

The next few weeks would see Eason unceremoniously waived and Grogan take over. There was a loss at San Francisco, a win at Indianapolis on a Davis FG in overtime, but one more depressing loss to the hapless Jets at home. In this game, a concussion, one of many Steve would suffer in his career, put Grogan on the bench in favor of Marc Wilson, the year’s fourth qb. To his credit, Wilson, who hadn’t played in a regular season contest in almost two years, brought his squad back from a 24-12 deficit. His 11-yard TD pass to Hart Lee Dykes- one of only 5 the first-round draft choice would have all season- with 1:03 left seemed to clinch a 26-24 victory. But the erratic Davis had missed an extra point, and it would cost the Pats again. O’Brien methodically moved his team downfield and, with two seconds left, a Leahy field goal effectively ended the Pats season.The final was 27-26. “It can’t get any lower,” Madden wrote.

The Pats went 2-5 for the rest of the year as the crowds dwindled away. Wilson and Grogan did their best at QB, but the squad finished 5-11, their worst record in eight years. The front office seemed in chaos.

Berry was definitely on the hot seat at the end of the season. Kiam appeared to waffle about his future, sometimes hinting he would give Raymond a two-year contract extension, sometimes being very critical and implying he might not be back as coach. Most of the season, Kiam had been pretty much an absentee owner, sometimes even sitting in the stands during games. But after Steinberg bolted for the Jets immediately after the season, Victor changed his tune. He told reporters he “didn’t know enough about everything to make decisions like that.” He decided to hold meetings with GM Pat Sullivan, VP Bucko Kilroy, and Berry, apparently to decide on the team’s future. “A consensus of what we do has to emerge from these meetings”, he continued…”there seem to be some divergent feelings in the organization.”

In the end, Berry was told to reorganize his coaching staff and give up most of his power. A proud man, Raymond refused and was fired. The dismissal did not occur until February 26, however, and the only suitable replacement was former defensive coordinator Rod Rust. Rust’s experiences with the Pats the following year are well known.

Though the fans and media were hard on Berry, most players rank him high on their coaching list. “I would rank Raymond Berry at the top”, says Roland James, a defensive back on those teams and now Youth Coordinator for the city of Somerville. “Not only did he know the game but he knew the mental makeup a player needed to improve and get better. He was a fundamental teacher who emphasized doing the little things correctly.”

Grogan, now co-owner of a sporting goods store in Mansfield, agrees. “Raymond was the equal of Chuck Fairbanks as far as the best head coaches I played for. I think it would have been good to retain him. However, there were a lot of extenuating circumstances taking place with the team at the time. I think a move was probably made to appease the new owner.”

Yes, it was a different world in Foxboro 20 years ago. The slide into the darkest days of the franchise had begun.