1992 New England Patriots: The Last Dark Year

The good people of New England have seen some great football for a long period of time. For a younger generation nationwide the Patriots have become the team that defines NFL life, whether you love them or hate. But a generation a little older recalls that it wasn’t always so. This franchise used to be mediocre at best and a laughingstock at worst. The 1992 New England Patriots represented some of the darkest of days.

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New England had only made the playoffs five times since the NFL-AFL merger of 1970. Just two years earlier, in 1990, they went 1-15. The hiring of Syracuse head coach Dick MacPherson for 1991 seemed to provide a bit of a boost—the Pats won six games and the new coach showed a lot of enthusiasm. But it quickly spiraled back downhill in 1992.

There were a handful of good individual players, as there are on most any professional roster. Left tackle Bruce Armstrong was a perennial Pro Bowl player, Outside linebacker Andre Tippett, a hero of the 1985 team that reached a Super Bowl, was now 33-years-old, but he could still rush the passer. Tight end Marv Cook was the team’s only player to make the Pro Bowl in 1992, catching 52 passes.

Wide receiver Irving Fryar, another holdover from ‘85, could still stretch the field and he averaged 14.4 yards-per-catch. Greg McMurtry and Michael Timpson were wideouts that also averaged better than 12 yards a pop.

But they had no one to get them the football consistently. Hugh Millen was the starter and while his 61% completion rate would have been sixth in the league, the yards-per-attempt was a woeful 5.6 And the reason his completion rate only “would have been” sixth is that shoulder injuries limited him to seven starts and he didn’t throw enough passes to qualify.

With Millen’s health on a roller-coaster all season, MacPherson ran through Tom Hodson, Scott Zolak and Jeff Carlson. All of them got multiple starts. All were erratic. And my guess is that you’ve even heard one of those names before, you’re a pretty knowledgeable football fan—or need a life. It took researching this article for me to even hear of Carlson or to recall that former LSU product Hodson had once started in the NFL.

Nor could the Patriots make up for it with a running game. Jon Vaughn was the leading rusher and he only produced 451 yards. Leonard Russell and John Stephens also got carries, but to little effect. All three backs had talent, but the offensive line beyond Armstrong was filled with no-names. And the defense didn’t have a single Pro Bowl player in 1992.

All told, it added up to an offense that ranked 27th and a defense that was 23rd in scoring, at a time when the league only had 28 teams.

Maybe the first week of the season was an omen. New England was supposed to open in Miami on the Sunday prior to Labor Day, but when Hurricane Andrew ripped through, the game was postponed to October 18, when the AFC East teams had their bye week.

The season finally began the following week in Los Angeles, although the offense didn’t get the memo. Millen was sacked seven times, intercepted four more and incurred the shoulder injury that would hamper him all year. The Patriots lost 14-0 to a subpar Rams team.

It got worse the following week at home against Seattle. Millen was sacked six more times. The Pats trailed 7-6 in the fourth quarter because they had missed an extra point and losing the turnover battle 3-zip finally did them in. The Seahawks won the game 10-6, although this would be a loss that loomed very large by season’s end.

The offense made it three straight weeks without a first-half point at home against Buffalo. Millen played to form—24/33 for 202 yards being pretty high-percentage without generating big plays. The defense hung in for a half against a Bills team that was the two-time defending AFC champ and would make it three in a row this year. It was only 6-0 in the third quarter, but then Buffalo rapidly reeled off five straight touchdowns before the Patriots found the end zone for a meaningless score. The final was 41-7.

Fryar had his best game of the year in the Meadowlands against the Jets, catching eight balls for 165 yards. But Millen hit the deck seven more times, the Pats turned it over three times and they took a 30-21 loss to a fellow bad team.

It was unsurprising then, that oddsmakers installed the Patriots as a (+17.5) underdog against the powerful San Francisco 49ers on the road. But the defense came to play against an offense that had the eventual MVP in quarterback Steve Young. It was a scoreless first quarter and with McMurtry catching seven passes for 84 yards, New England had an improbable 12-10 lead after three quarters. Alas, the running and receiving of 49er back Ricky Watters was too much. He scored a couple fourth-quarter touchdowns and the Pats fell 24-12.

With Millen’s shoulder continuing to plague him, Hodson got the call in Miami, the makeup game from Week 1. He went 25/43 for 267 yards, no interceptions and staked the Pats to an early 10-0 lead. But Dan Marino took over, threw four touchdown passes and New England lost 38-17.

A home game with mediocre Cleveland was slotted in the late Sunday afternoon window for reasons known only to NBC, which had the AFC television package in 1992. Maybe the network knew that someday it would be interesting to look back on Bill Belichick bringing his Browns team into Foxboro. Whatever the reason, the game ended up being pretty good.

The Patriots took a 9-0 lead, but it should have been more—all three drives had been into the red zone. They still clung to a 17-9 lead after three quarters. But they lost four fumbles and in the end allowed a Mike Tomczak-led offense to rally in the fourth quarter and beat them 19-17.

A visit to Buffalo opened the month of November. Linebacker Vincent Brown scooped up a fumble and brought it 25 yards to the house for an early 7-0 lead. But the offense did nothing. Hodson got the call and was sacked five times. The Patriots played competitively, but lost 16-7.

There was no illusion of competitiveness the next week when New Orleans came to town. The Saints were bound for the playoffs and they took a quick 14-0 lead. Hodson and Zolak were both horrible in a 31-14 loss.

At 0-9, there seemed to be no hope in sight when New England traveled to Indianapolis. The Patriots committed eleven penalties in this game and allowed a punt return for a touchdown to start the scoring.

But something happened along the way to oblivion—the Pats made big plays of heir own. They got Pick-6s from both David Pool and Chris Singleton. Zolak threw a 65-yard touchdown pass to McMurtry. Vaughn rushed for 88 yards. New England rallied from behind to tie the game 34-all and go into overtime…where they got their first win of the season. There would be no winless campaign in Foxboro.

Vaughn kept right on rolling the next week at home against the Jets in a late afternoon kickoff. He piled up 110 yards, Stephens ran for 51 more and the Patriots built a 24-0 lead in the second quarter. They coasted home to the 24-3 win. With two straight wins, were they ready to play spoiler and maybe save their coach’s job?

Not so fast. A visit to a weak Atlanta team brought New England back to earth. Zolak went 9/16 for 57 yards, was sacked five times and the running game returned to obscurity. They lost 34-0. Another shutout went down the next week at home against the Colts (Indy was an AFC East team prior to the realignment of 2002), when the Pats allowed eight sacks in 6-0 defeat amidst heavy winds.

Just when it looked like New England was mailing in the rest of the season, they showed some fight in Kansas City, where the Chiefs were bound for the playoffs. Tim Goad returned a fumble 19 yards for a score. The Pats led 13-3 after a quarter and were still tied 13-13 after three quarters. But with Zolak and Carlson each playing poorly, it was only a matter of time. New England gave up a defensive TD that would be the difference in a 27-20 loss.

Carlson got the start against a bad Cincinnati team and went a woeful 7/20 for 60 yards and threw a couple interceptions. The Pats gave up over 200 yards on the ground and lost 20-10.

It was time for this season to get its merciful ending when Miami visited Foxboro. The Dolphins were in the playoffs, but had a chance to win the AFC East and get a first-round bye if they could win this game and Buffalo lost in prime-time.

To the credit of MacPherson and the team, they competed like the game mattered. Scott Lockwood got a shot in the backfield and carried 30 teams for 123 yards. The Patriots moved the ball early, but twice settled for field goals deep in the red zone. They led 13-3, but they had allowed Marino to hang around.

Eventually the lack of any passing game slowed the New England offense, the Dolphins tied the game and eventually won in overtime, 16-13. It turned out the rally mattered because the Bills indeed lost that night.

For the Patriots the focus was about the future. Their 2-14 finish was tied with Seattle for the worst record in the league. The New England loss from Week 2 was the difference in deciding the first overall pick. And that proved to be the difference between drafting Drew Bledsoe, who would have a strong career in Foxboro before giving way to Tom Brady, and drafting Rick Mirer, who went to Seattle and flamed out.

Perhaps more important than the quarterback situation was that of head coach. The Pats hired Bill Parcells, a two-time Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants, to oversee the rebuilding project. Since that time, this franchise has only known three coaches—Parcells, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. The turnaround wouldn’t come immediately—it would be 1994 before Parcells made the playoffs. But there was real hope that materialized and the dark days have not returned since.