Sunday, February 4, 2018

Once the Patriots Were Likeable Underdogs

THEY HAD NO SUPERFANS. They had no song. They had no players named after appliances. Yet there they were, expected to compete on the same field, on the same terms, as the 15-1 Chicago Bears. They were the lovable underdog New England Patriots and they were in the Super Bowl for the very first time.

The twentieth title game of the NFL's modern era
It was 1986 and this was Super Bowl Double X.

Thirty-two seasons later, those Patriots are a barely acknowledged afterthought, eclipsed by the legend of that singular, stupendously successful Bears squad, little more than the answer to a trivia question: Who did the Bears beat?

Who knows? Who cares?

The Patriots have since become such a force, such a fixture on the big stage, that their first championship game forebears are all but forgotten, the franchise equivalent of the lost Roanoke Colony. Who wants to overlook a sickening amount of success to recall the big fail?

Rhetorical question. Don't answer.

Da Bears had da coach, Mike Ditka, who may still be the most popular man in Chicago. Running back Walter Payton, Sweetness, a secular saint struck down by cancer at age 45, keyed the offense. They also had colorful quarterback Jim McMahon, Olympic sprinter Willie Gault, linebacker Mike Singletary and the massive defense linemen Richard Dent and William "The Refrigerator" Perry.

The Fridge: a 23-year-old, 6'-2", 335-pound phenomenon.

The revered logo.
The Patriots' Super Bowl XX roster is somewhat less revered today than Pat the Patriot, the snarling minute man in a three-point stance who adorned their still-white helmets.

Irving Fryar, the first man taken in the 1984 National Football League draft, was their biggest star. His seven touchdowns, scored as a receiver and kick returner, tied for the team lead with running back Craig James. Tony Eason, one of six signal callers taken in the first round of the '83 draft, was their primary quarterback, backed by veteran QB Steve Grogan. Karate blackbelt and future football hall of famer Andre Tippett anchored the defense.

Their coach was Pro Football Hall of Fame member Raymond Berry, once a standout receiver for the Baltimore Colts. He directed them to an 11-3 regular season record and a wild card game match-up with the New York Jets -- and Eason's '83 draft classmate QB Ken O'Brien -- at the Meadowlands.

New England beat New York, 26-14, after a Tippett hit forced O'Brien -- the league's top-rated passer -- from the game. A week later, the Patriots beat the Raiders 27-20 in Los Angeles, setting up a conference championship game with Dolphins in Miami.

Helmed by another class of 1983 draftee, Dan Marino, those same Dolphins had handed the Bears their only regular season loss. Still, it was full speed ahead. The battle cry in Boston: Squish the fish!
New England linebacker Andre Tippett,
from the Super Bowl XX program

And squish 'em they did, 31-14, punching the Patriots' Super Bowl ticket and giving rise to the somewhat faulty fan logic: If the Dolphins could beat the Bears and we could beat the Dolphins, then we must be able to beat the Bears too.

Defrost the Refrigerator! Berry the Bears!

Not so fast. Chicago had rampaged through the NFC post season, beating the New York Giants, 21-0, and then the Los Angeles Rams, 24-0. Eight quarters of football. No points allowed.

Barefoot Patriots kicker Tony Franklin would break that string with a field goal less than two minutes into Super Bowl XX at the Louisiana Superdome, giving New England a 3-0 lead. Kicker Kevin Butler tied it for Chicago about four minutes later, then gave the Bears their first lead near the end of the first quarter, 6-3.

QB Tony Eason and lineman John Hannah,
from the Super Bowl XX program
The game was, for all intents and purposes over. Da Bears dominated on both sides of the ball, piling on the points while keeping New England off the board. Even the massive Refrigerator was allowed to run one in, running up the score to 44-3 (a one-yard plunge denied the beloved Payton, who went scoreless).

Grogan, who replaced Eason in the second quarter with Chicago already ahead 20-3, connected with Fryar in the fourth for a Patriots touchdown, 44-10. A Bears safety made the final tally 46-10.

Bad as that day was for New England, it was the Patriots who were bound for glory, again and again and again ad nauseum, while the fearsome Bears were one-and-done, still searching for that next championship season.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

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