It’s hard to imagine today, but the New England Patriot franchise was once a bigger joke than a Denny Green sound bite.
Just a few years removed from a Super Bowl drubbing at the hands of the world famous ’85 Bears, the Pats entered the 1990's limping and hopeless.
In 1993, with things at an all-time low, a flash of hope entered the lowly franchise as they landed the No. 1 overall pick. With it they took a Washington State Cougar named Drew Bledsoe.
It would not be fair to say Bledsoe was slow in the pocket, because he simply didn’t move—but man could he throw a pretty pass. With his feet set his deep ball was so gorgeous it belonged in the Museum of Modern Art.
Even more good news came in that magical offseason of ’93 as two-time Super Bowl champion head coach Bill Parcells’ services were enlisted to run the team.
Yet, in 1995 New England failed miserably to capitalize on its surprise season from a year ago and the franchise took a giant step back.
The 1996 New England Patriots opened their season 0-2, dropping the franchise to 5-13 dating back to the ‘95 opener. It looked like another long and disappointing winter for the loyal fans in Foxborough.
Out of nowhere came a three game winning streak, then after dropping one to Washington, the Pats were able to rattle off a four game win streak against every team in their division.
A rookie, taken No. 7 overall named Terry Glenn, gave Bledsoe a nasty No. 1 threat at wide receiver alongside Troy Brown and Ben Coates was a Pro-Bowl tight end.
Curtis Martin, a slashing downhill running back (who’d finish his career the fourth-leading rusher of all-time) was giving the Pats over a 100 yards in nearly every critical game.
The Pats were young, explosive and balanced on both sides of the ball and especially dangerous on special teams. Kicker Adam Vinatieri, punter Tom Tupa and return man Dave Meggett were simply one of the best groups in football.
The way they played was both fascinating and freshly entertaining. They could steal 65-yards of field position in one crisp Bledsoe long ball.
If the offense was struggling the defense became eager. Leading the charge was Ted Johnson, Willie McGinest, Lawyer Milloy and Ty Law. Even rookie Tedy Bruschi got in on the fun.
New England would go on to win the AFC East at 11-5 earning the team its first playoff bye ever.
But they would enter the postseason as the “flavor of the month.”
A trendy pick to perhaps win a game or two, but most experts agreed ultimately their youth and history of losing would catch up with them.
How long could this nothing to lose attitude carry New England?
The Pats defeated long-time playoff rival Pittsburgh in the divisional round with ease.
In arguably the franchise’s finest day to that point, the Patriots eliminated Jacksonville 20-6 capturing the AFC’s Lamar Hunt trophy for the second time in team history.
They had earned a trip to Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans.
Now, it's important to realize these ‘96 Pats did not go on to win the Super Bowl two weeks later. The Super Bowl was just one game and didn’t make or break what made this team so special—although NE made it interesting, the Packers would cruise to a 35-21 win.
The 1996 Patriots will probably remain under the radar in the realm of pro football history, but that’s what makes them my favorite team of all-time.
This team marked such an auspicious start to one of the only true dynasties this league has ever known.
They turned around a losing attitude in New England, formed a core of what winning players should look like for the future and gave team owner Bob Kraft reason to believe the Vince Lombardi trophy was within grasp.
All the while assistant coach Bill Belichick, fresh off of being let go by Cleveland, paced the sidelines coaching the secondary.
The ’96 season would be the only year Belichick spent as an assistant in New England, but Kraft saw something he liked that year and hired him to run things in 2000.
Credit those ’96 Pats again because by 2005 the Patriots were three-time World Champions under the Belichick reign.
post script: Sorry Bear fans I wasn't alive for '85 and since then I haven't seen a Bear team that even comes close to being "My favorite of all-time."
Must be all those Wannstedt years—sigh.