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The immortal clash that yielded the only other playoff defeat on their home turf in the Patriots’ Foxborough incarnation is remembered especially well in this corner. It was the riotous conclusion of a season rife with the madcap misadventures then par for the course in the house the beloved Billy Sullivan built. In his raucous life and times, Billy had some epics. But this one was truly a corker.
It was the 1978 season. The unsinkable Billy, then at the height of his incomparable whimsy, shared star billing in the zany production with his head coach, Chuck Fairbanks, the great stone face of the sidelines. It was a shotgun marriage made in gridiron hell.
Whatever the defects of his personality Fairbanks was a superior football-man, superb judge of talent, and first-class gridiron tactician. Moreover, as a notably moody football genius he was not always on the same page with the colorful Sullivan clan. The fact that Chuck was also thoroughly eccentric when he was not being impossibly inscrutable made him a brilliant fore-runner of the current resident wizard, Bill Belichick. In football the price of genius is often intolerable.
Anyway, things were humming much of the way. The Pats were widely ranked among the league’s best teams which was saying a heap considering the likes of the Steel Curtain Pittsburgh Steelers were then in vogue. It had taken Fairbanks only three years to assemble a genuine wagon. Stars included Mike Haynes and John Hannah, pound for pound still arguably the two finest talents they’ve featured in their entire history. It was a team near the equal, for my money, of Belichick’s champion squads. They’d been cheated out of a near certain championship in ’76 on an outrageous officiating call in Oakland. Redemption was widely anticipated in ’78.
Whereupon Fairbanks chose the most exquisite of moments -- the eve of the playoffs -- to reach the crescendo of a royal mid-life crisis that had been building for months. In the end he would dissolve into silly-putty which, considering he’d been parading around town as the original man of steel, was a quite remarkable metamorphosis to observe.
It was a complex tale having much to do with Fairbanks’ personal life and further complicated by his wacky relationship with the Sullivan Family. We’re greatly over-simplifying the issues here but it’s enough to say Billy went ballistic and in the fiasco that ensued he fired Fairbanks only to be forced to take him back under the threat of a lawsuit. Meanwhile the team, quite naturally, completely unraveled.
In the late afternoon of New Years’ Eve, 1978, the Houston Oilers made a cruel farce of the first football playoff game ever staged in New England by smashing the Pats, 31-14. My richest memory is of being an eager member of the huge posse of media zealots that chased Fairbanks off the field as the crowd of some 61,000 jilted Pats fanatics serenaded their plainly crushed departing coach with a stirring rendition of ‘‘Goodbye Chuckie” sung resoundingly and with a relish quite wicked to the timeless ditty, “Goodnight Ladies.”
“Goodbye Chuckie,” they chorused. “We just hate to see you go.” Believe me when I tell you, those were the days.
The connection of all of this with the recent stunning end to yet another Patriots football season of failed promise 32 years later is remote, I grant you. But I catch some echoes that have a familiar ring.
Foremost of them has to do with the notion that we may be seeing -- as we did that wild day in ’78 -- the end of an era for this team and a major bend in the road which the Fairbanks chapter should remind you has more often than not been rocky. And if you think the Foxborough follies were confined to the Sullivan ownership you’ve conveniently overlooked the dumb, nasty, needless, and damaging battle that Clan Kraft waged with the mighty Bill Parcells in the late nineties.
The Kraft’s were lucky to extricate themselves from that mess by luring Belichick back. The Jets could have prevented that, or at least made it a lot more messy. What followed has been unquestionably special. You’ve had a decade’s dandy run under the Belichick watch, my dear and so thoroughly spoiled Patriots Nation. But nothing lasts forever and in sports very little survives a full generation. The question of the hour is, ‘‘for the Patriots, might the party be over?’’
Look at it this way. Since David Tyree came down with that phenomenal catch that ended their hollow dreams of perfection and greased their skids in the Soupy Classic against the Giants two years ago this team’s slide has been precipitous and determined so there’s no way you can write off the Ravens’ atrocity as an aberration.
What you’ve had since is a checkered season in which you missed the playoffs while playing in a weak division followed by an uneven season featuring six losses on the road including a meltdown in Indianapolis -- all of it sheer blasphemy in the Book of Belichick -- climaxed by an old fashioned buggy-whipping from a defensively tough but offensively ordinary Baltimore team on your home turf which is the first such disaster since the comparable humiliation 32 years earlier against the Oilers. Meanwhile, your team ages. The star quarterback grows weary. The recruits are unexceptional. This is what the end of an era looks like, Fans. It’s not always quite so clear.
Excuses abound. The Tom Brady injury that clearly still burdens the gilded franchise quarterback leads that list. But injury is an immutable factor in this vicious game of triage. It’s an absolute and it’s never an adequate excuse. Where injuries are concerned teams sometimes get lucky for a few years and the Patriots sure did. But in the end, that all evens out and it has. It is no excuse.
Of course it would help to know the full truth about the injuries. Exactly, how much hurt is Brady? Knowing that answer would enable us to judge more fairly. You who keep this moveable feast afloat with your tender, loving support have a right to the answer. But the coach, believing there’s some vague tactical advantage in keeping us confused, won’t allow that. Thus we inevitably conclude Brady is on the downside. Does he not seem more comfortable on the cover of Gentleman’s Quarterly than the Sporting News? Is Hollywood his next stop? Maybe all of this is unfair. But is that our fault?
Other explanations for the decline include the annual college draft where reinforcements must be found. It’s been a while since they’ve had a good draft and the chap who did that stuff best, Scott Pioli, has departed. Belichick, a law unto himself, assumes too much burden.
The loss of once so prized veteran leadership of exceptional character also becomes noteworthy. Maybe, as Belichick insists, the championship warriors like Brothers Bruschi, Seymour, Izzo, Vrabel, Harrison, et all were truly washed up. They were nicked and no longer kids. Maybe this season’s dramatic dumping of the estimable Seymour will prove smart in the long run. On such matters, few would anxiously dispute the Boss. But who did he replace them with? Randy Moss? An accidental tourist named Springs? The ghost of Junior Seau? If sterling character remains much valued what is Moss doing on this team? Given Randy’s odd works at key moments of this strange season, that’s a reasonable question.
But it too will go unanswered. Boss Belichick like even the lesser gods doesn’t answer letters. It’s a policy that’s mighty convenient at times like this although from my admittedly considerable distance it looks more like neurosis than tactics.
Hey, he’s a great coach. Only a fool would deny that. But know this much. A lot of people around football have been waiting for this moment. And they are not now weeping.
The Patriots have lost two playoff games in their own backyard in their entire history and the more you think about the two epic events separated by a gulf of 32 years the more you sense similarities.