December 10, 2016

50th Anniversary Minute – the 1978 Patriots

by Brendon Rosenau, Patriots Daily Staff
October 7, 2009

It had been almost a full year and half after they had been robbed in the 1976 playoffs when the New England Patriots returned to the scene of the crime of the century; the Oakland Coliseum. It was only a preseason game, but it was a night that changed the course of New England football history.

In a video clip that is still hard to watch today, 26-year old wideout Darryl Stingley, coming off a career year and on the verge of signing a brand new contract, met the helmet and forearm of Oakland’s Jack Tatum. Stingley, who was in a defenseless position, was an open target and Tatum didn’t hold back. The result left Stingley with two cracked vertebrae and paralyzed him for the rest of his life.

It was an inauspicious beginning. And when the Pats began the season 1-2, 1978 looked like a lost campaign.

As fate would have it, though, the team’s fortunes would turn again in, of all places, Oakland. The New England defense forced Raiders QB Kenny Stabler into three interceptions and Sam Cunningham’s fourth quarter score gave New England a 21-14 win. The win would be the first in a string of seven straight that saw the Pats wrest control of the AFC East. Led by the highest gaining rushing attack in league history, the Patriots where able to score when needed and had the defense to back up their hard running offense.

The Patriots wrapped up the division title in the 15th game (this was the first year the NFL expanded to a 16 game schedule) with a come-from-behind 26-24 win over Buffalo. Trailing 24-21 the Pats defense forced Buffalo to punt from their own end zone. Rather than risk a strong return and give up prime field position, Buffalo opted for the safety which cut the N.E. deficit to a point. Steve Grogan then drove the Pats down to the 4-yard line where David Posey, in his only NFL season taking the place of an injured John Smith, was true from 21 yards for the win.

The Pats train was rolling and they had locked up a bye into the divisional round. Then suddenly, everything changed.

Head coach Chuck Fairbanks, who had been with the team for six years, was unexpectedly suspended for the regular season finale against Miami on a Monday night game. According to an AP article from December 20, 1978, Fairbanks had told Pats owner Billy Sullivan that he would be leaving the professional ranks to accept the head coaching gig at the University of Colorado, though he had four years remaining on his contract. When Fairbanks informed the team of his decision they asked him to reconsider, but before the Monday night game Fairbanks told his assistants and players he was leaving after the year ended. Sullivan responded by suspending Fairbanks and giving the coaching reigns to Ron Erhardt and Hank Bullough. The Pats got smoked in Miami, leading to Fairbanks being reinstated for the playoffs. However, the damage was done and New England lost to Houston 31-14.

What are your recollections of this memorable year?

Leaders

  • Steve Grogan 2824 yards, 15 TD, 23INT (T-3rd NFL), 15.6 per completion (2nd NFL);5 rushing TD
  • Sam Cunningham 199-768 (9th)-8
  • Horace Ivory 147-693, 11 (3rd)
  • Rudd Francis 39-543-4
  • Harold Jackson 37-743 6
  • Stanley Morgan 34-820-5
  • Mike Haynes 6 INT (T-10th)

All Pro

Sam Cunningham (FB), Russ Francis (TE), Leon Gray (LT), John Hannah (LG), Steve Nelson (LILB), Mike Haynes (RCB),

Pro Bowl

Cunningham, Francis, Gray, Hannah, Haynes

Comments

  1. Loved the ’78 team. I was 9 years old, and remember having my Dad explain the Fairbanks situation as I didn’t understand what was going on. Those yards per catch from Jackson and Stanley Morgan are ridiculous.

    The other thing I remember is the Oilers beating them twice, once in the regular season and again in that playoff thumping, in Foxboro. Earl Campbell punished them in that regular season game.

    I think they played on Thanksgiving in Dallas that year too?

    • You’re correct.

      The Pats had a big lead on Houston in the regular season game at Foxboro, but blew it and lost by 3. They also played Dallas on Thanksgiving and hung in there, but ended up losing by a touchdown. I distinctly remember Randy White being manhandled by John Hannah that day, which didn’t happen very often in White’s career.

      I was young back then as well, so I didn’t really understand the Fairbanks thing. I remember him coaching the playoff game and I remember just being shocked at how badly they were beaten that day.

      In the end, Houston probably was a better team since they beat the Pats twice.

      The Pats’ defense was good, especially the secondary, but not great that season, and they really had no answer for Earl Campbell either time they faced Houston.

  2. Loved those mid-to-late ’70s Fairbanks-coached teams. Because of the way his tenure ended, I don’t believe he gets as much credit as he should around here for righting the team and putting the franchise on a successful track. For really the first time in the Patriots history (up to that point), they actually had a strategy regarding how they approached the draft, the types of players they wanted, etc.

    Fairbanks also was one of the first NFL coaches to employ a 3-4 defense due to the fact the Pats had some very capable and smart linebackers (Steve Zabel, Steve King, Steve Nelson, Sam Hunt, Rod Shoate).

    If I remember correctly, in that regular season Oakland game in ’78, on a run to the outside Grogan lowered his shoulder and knocked the Raiders DB who came up and tried to make the tackle about five yards back on his a**. Great stuff.

  3. Oh, memories. I was 10 that year. I was actually at the division-clinching win against Buffalo. The crowd went totally berserk when the game ended. Awesomeness.

  4. Thanks for this Scott. I first got into the Patriots in 1978 when my dad took me to my first game which happened to be the playoff game against the Oilers. I remember everyone singing during the loss “Goodbye Chuck, Goodbye Chuckie, Goodbye Chuck, we’re glad to see you go…..” Believe it or not it seemed like the entire stadium was singing that to me at my age. But perhaps it was just my section. I don’t remember.

    I do remember the Patriots being expected to win and Earl Campbell running all over them. I think I first learned to love football that day, despite the loss. I started going to the game regularly with my dad in ’79….another year thought got off to a good start but ended in disappointing fashion.

  5. I remember Bill Arnsburger (Don Shula’s Defensive Coordinator) doing this in ’71 or ’72 when he lost 2 defensive linemen and had a mobile LB named Bob Matheson (acquired that off season from Cleveland for a 2nd round draft choice) that he moved in to a position as a cover LB or rush DE. By the way, it was called the 53 back then. Bob Matheson’s jersey number – 53,

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