Before I start in on the 10 worst moments in New England Patriots history since 1976, let me answer the question—why since 1976?
Not to date myself too much, but I was very young in 1976, and that is when I first started watching football.
I really didn’t understand it much then, but I knew two things: I loved Steve Grogan, and I loved the Pat Patriot logo that everyone seems to loathe so much.
I didn’t live and die week to week with each win or loss in 1976 because I really didn’t understand all the implications then. I was too young. But by 1978 I did.
To make a long story short, nothing that happened before 1976 had a real impact on me since I was too young and didn’t know anything about football at that time.
Another difficult decision about this list was whether to include on and off field incidents or only big losses. I decided to include both.
Another thing that will be noticeable in the list is a lot of the most painful things are more recent, from when we have had a winning team, a dynasty and left a bit of history on the table. When we were mired in mediocrity and misery in the early 1990s, the suffering was quiet and ongoing. It was a recurrent yearly trauma to the psyche. Those were the dark days.
The whole period from 1987 to 1993 was utterly forgettable, with 1-15 and 2-14 records sprinkled in and woefully poor ownership. There was little to feel good about through that entire era. In fact, that entire period could easily rank No. 2 on my list. But let’s not do that.
Now on with the list.
No. 1: August 12, 1978—New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley paralyzed in meaningless preseason game after hit by the Oakland Raiders’ Jack Tatum.
This was a tragedy not just for the New England Patriots but the entire NFL.
In a meaningless preseason game Steve Grogan overthrew promising young wide receiver Darryl Stingley, who went up for the ball. Jack Tatum, known for his vicious hits, nailed Stingley while he was in the air full speed, snapping vertebrae in his neck.
Stingley was a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. He died in April of 2007 at the age of 55 of heart disease and pneumonia complicated by his quadriplegia.
No. 2: February 3, 2008, Super Bowl XLII—New York Giants over New England Patriots 17-14
The New England Patriots squandered a chance to make history by going 19-0 and having an undefeated season by losing Super Bowl XLII.
Granted, it took an absolute miracle drive and a miracle play by nobody wide receiver David Tyree to make it happen. But happen it did.
This is not only the most depressed I have been after a Patriots loss, but also, I am still not over it—and I never will be. I wrote a couple of articles about it after the game, and then a year later. My feelings are still the same.
No. 3: December 18, 1976—Referee Ben Dreith robs the New England Patriots on phantom roughing the passer call against Ray Hamilton, handing the Oakland Raiders a 24-21 victory in the playoffs over the New England Patriots.
Many will ask why this loss ranks ahead of losses in Super Bowls XX and XXI. Simply put, nobody, including Patriots fans, thought the team would win those Super Bowls.
However, from 1976 through 1978 the New England Patriots were considered by many to have one of the most talented teams on paper, but they could just never get over the hump. This was their year and probably the best chance they had to do it.
After beating the Raiders most of the day, a very, very bad call handed the Raiders an almost gift touchdown and sent the Oakland Raiders, not the New England Patriots, on to a Super Bowl championship.
No. 4: January 21, 2007—Indianapolis Colts over New England Patriots 38-34 in Super Bowl XLI ½
Going into this AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts, I promised myself I would not be depressed for weeks if we lost like I was the year before, when we fell apart against the Denver Broncos.
Alas, it was the most painful loss up to Super Bowl XLII.
Granted, the Patriots were totally lucky to escape the San Diego Chargers the week before with a win. In fact, were I a Chargers fan, that loss to the Patriots probably would rank up near the top of my all-time worst moments list because San Diego was poised to make a Super Bowl run of its own, having the best record in the AFC and home field advantage throughout. But we did win to face the Colts a week later.
The 2006 Patriots were not a great team. Their defense was aging, and they were relying on Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney as their primary receivers, with Laurence “Baloney” Maroney already showing what he would always be—a running back with a lot of squandered potential.
Yet New England jumped out to a 21-6 halftime lead in this game and could have, should have won to move on and secure our fourth Super Bowl victory.
The defense was clearly gassed at halftime, and it showed in the second half as they allowed the Colts to make a big comeback.
But the offense wasn’t totally inept, except for one player: Reche Caldwell. In the fourth quarter, with an easy pass and only green Astroturf between himself and a likely game-winning touchdown, Caldwell dropped the ball. He had been dropping balls all year long.
Okay, he had a very nice catch against the Chargers the week before to help win the game. But it doesn’t matter. He dropped an easy pass for a touchdown, as he had been dropping passes all year long.
Caldwell was such a bad receiver that when the Patriots released him and he went to the Washington Redskins the next year, a team with no good receivers outside of Santana Moss at the time, he was at best the fifth receiver and never saw the field and was eventually cut.
I understand why the Patriots didn’t want to sign the injury-prone Deion Branch to a big contract that year. I really, really do. Despite his Super Bowl heroics, he was always hurt. So he went to the Seattle Seahawks for a big contract. Do you think Seattle got its money’s worth? No.
But instead of Deion Branch we dug to the bottom of the talent heap for receivers—and we paid for it.
I have no doubt whatsoever that had we won this game, which was so within grasp, we would have romped the Chicago Bears the way the Indianapolis Colts did. The Patriots handed Peyton Manning his first ring. He should share it with Tom Brady.
No. 5: January 26, 1986—Chicago Bears over New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX
Let’s face it: Everybody knew the Chicago Bears were going to beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. It was just a matter of by how much.
I was just hoping we would make a decent game of it, but we got thrashed and embarrassed—so much so that fat-ass William “The Refrigerator" Perry not only scored on a halfback run, but the Bears also had the audacity to have him try a halfback pass for a touchdown! Thankfully, eventual Hall of Fame linebacker Andre Tippett put a stop to the latter travesty.
I have debated over the years with fellow Patriots fan about whether this or Super Bowl XLII was the most painful loss in our history. I am surprised that some choose this one, only because other than our early 3-0 lead, we were never in the game.
Yes, it was painful and depressing, but you just knew going in that the Patriots were overmatched against one of the nastiest defenses ever to menace the gridiron. And with Tony Eason at quarterback?
Other than the William Perry shenanigans mentioned above, I will never forget seeing Craig James dragged around like a rag doll by Richard Dent.
The one little highlight of this game for me, and thankfully I suffered through the torture to see it, was my childhood hero Steve Grogan throwing a touchdown pass to Irving Fryar in the fourth quarter. He might not have gotten a ring, but in relief of Tony Eason he did get to throw a touchdown in a Super Bowl.
No. 6: December 31, 1978—Chuck Fairbanks suspended for playoffs, New England Patriots lose to Houston Oilers 31-14
As noted earlier, the New England Patriots teams of 1976 to 1978 had a lot of talent. In 1978 they were once again poised to make a run for the Super Bowl with one of the best teams in the league on paper. But it wasn’t to be.
Before the game the Patriots’ owner, Billy Sullivan—but really his oldest son Chuck Sullivan, who really ran the team by that time—suspended Chuck Fairbanks after finding out he had taken a head coaching job at the University of Colorado. Their relationship was somewhat frosty after contract disputes with guard John Hannah and tackle Leon Gray in 1977 caused some dissension on the team.
By all accounts this episode deflated the team, and they laid an egg against the Houston Oilers in the playoffs.
Fairbanks went on to be a miserable failure as coach of the University of Colorado and later the New Jersey Generals in the USFL.
Former Patriots Owner Victor Kiam
No. 7: October 1990—The Lisa Olson Incident
Maybe it should be argued that this should be ranked higher on my list, but it was an incident during a pathetic 1-15 season, following a pathetic 5-11 season, followed by three more pathetic seasons.
But have no doubt—this was one of the most embarrassing, unacceptable, humiliating times to be a Patriots fan.
Several players, lead by a sorry castoff tight end from the New York Giants, Zeke Mowatt, surrounded Lisa Olson, at that time a Boston Herald sports reporter, and dangled their genitals in her face and made crude comments. When she complained, idiot owner at the time Victor Kiam II dismissed her complaints and reportedly called her a “classic bitch” to reporters (he later denied he said this).
At the time, we had an idiot for an owner in Kiam and were on our way to a 1-15 season with no real hope for the future given what we had for management.
I was distraught over the entire episode, but frankly more distraught that we had a no account, low-class owner who seemed like he could care less about making the kind of decisions that needed to be made to win ball games. Then this sorry episode in our history occurred.
Worse yet, idiot Patriots fans subjected Olson to taunts and threats.
It was a sad, sad time for Patriots fans.
No. 8: January 26, 1997—Green Bay Packers over New England Patriots 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI
For the second time in New England Patriots history, the disgruntlement of a coach who supposedly already had a new job cast a pall over a promising Patriots postseason.
Bill Parcells, who was largely responsible for turning the franchise around into a competitive football team and made a wise choice in Drew Bledsoe as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1993 draft (think of what we might have experienced had he taken Rick Mirer, who went to the Seattle Seahawks with the second pick), reportedly had already accepted a job with the hated New York Jets before Super Bowl XXXI.
Let’s face it—nobody really expected the Patriots to win this game either. They were big underdogs. But anytime you are in a championship game and are competitive, you really, really want to win that game.
While we made the game interesting, our inability to stop MVP Desmond Howard on kick returns did us in (along with a horrible defense play call pitting the hard-hitting but not swift strong safety Lawyer Milloy against the speedy Andre Rison in the slot on the first play of the game for a touchdown).
I was not as totally disgruntled after this loss as I have been with others on the list simply because I felt we were finally, finally out of the perennial mediocrity and losing seasons of the past. Little did I know how new coach Pete Carroll would dash these hopes into pieces.
No. 9: January 14, 2006—Denver Broncos over New England Patriots 27-13 in divisional playoff game
The New England Patriots were not a good team during the 2005 season. In fact, they were actually pretty bad most of the season.
Their defense was just horrid, especially their defensive backs. Duane Starks started the season as the starting cornerback but was eventually cut because he was so inept.
But we did make it to 10-6 and by the end of the season were a solid football team on offense and defense, especially with the return of defensive tackle Richard Seymour from injury late in the season and the emergence of Asante Samuel as a playmaker.
So what made this game such a travesty? First, this is one game where I absolutely beyond a doubt, other than the aforementioned Oakland Raiders game in 1976, think we were utterly screwed by the referees. In fact, the officiating was so bad that it was the talk on news channels and talk radio the entire week.
It started off with an egregiously horrible pass interference call on Samuel in the end zone that spotted the Denver Broncos a touchdown (which was preceded by some other questionable calls against the Patriots defense). The referees were so awful that Bill Belichick called a timeout and brought his entire defensive team to the sidelines to calm them down.
After a crappy first half, the Patriots were still in it down 10-3, and near the end of the third quarter they were down 10-6. Then the unexpected happened.
Denver’s eventual Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey intercepted Tom Brady in the end zone and ran it back nearly 100-plus yards for a touchdown. But tight end Ben Watson also made an incredible play, chasing him down from an angle and knocking him out of bounds at the 1-yard line. A touchdown later the Broncos were up 17-6, and then the Patriots self-destructed.
This thwarted the Patriots' chance to win three Super Bowls in a row. While the team was not as nearly as good as some of the past and in the future, their competition after Denver wasn’t much.
We went on to witness one of the worst officiated Super Bowls in NFL history, the sloppiest game in Super Bowl history by two contestants and two at best mediocre teams, with the Pittsburgh Steelers beating the Seattle Seahawks 21-10 in Super Bowl XL.
No. 10: September 7, 2008—The lost year; Tom Brady tears ACL in game against Kansas City Chiefs
This probably should rank much, much higher on my list than 10th.
I cried when Tom Brady tore his ACL in the first game of the season after nearly going undefeated the year before. I knew Matt Cassel was no Tom Brady. But injuries happen in football. You can always expect the unexpected.
Had Brady gone on to be a horrible quarterback after Drew Bledsoe was injured in 2001, that might have made the list about here.
While this list is entirely my own and mostly from my own memories, I should cite sources that made fact-checking much, much easier.
Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in New England Patriots History by Sean Glennon (Triumph Books, 2010)
Total Patriots: The Definitive Encyclopedia of the World Class Franchise by Bob Hyldburg (Triumph Books, 2009)