There’s a sharp divide among New England Patriots fans.
No, not between those who say that Coach Bill Belichick is a genius and those who maintain just as emphatically that he’s a freaking genius.
It’s a generational divide among those who believe an annual trip to the Super Bowl is a birthright and those who can remember when the Patriots weren’t a playoff cinch every year. Heck, some years they didn’t even rise to the level of bad, such as in 1990, when they went 1-15.
Nowadays, “I expect at least the playoffs” every year, said Bert Clement, 17, of South Portland.
Clement claims he “goes way back” with the Pats, but when asked if he remembers the team’s first Super Bowl win in 2002, he admits: “Not that far.”
But Bert’s father, Bill Clement, 57, remembers. He also can recall a much different era.
“They played like a college team more than a pro team,” he said. “They were an easy win for the other teams.”
Bill Clement also remembers when the team, now a model of a professional organization, was a sports franchise in search of a home. Before a stadium was built in Foxborough in the early 1970s, the then-Boston Patriots, an original member of the American Football League, played its games at Boston University, Fenway Park, Harvard Stadium and Boston College’s Alumni Field, among other locales. They even played “home” games in Birmingham, Ala., and San Diego.
“I remember then not being good — so bad I don’t remember watching them,” said Erin Maguire, of Portland, who calls herself a lifelong fan and, at 31, a bridge between the generational divide.
There was a time when the Patriots played so poorly that people found other things to do on autumn Sunday afternoons rather than to watch them line up. The team made the playoffs so infrequently that choosing between watching a game and engaging in some other activity on winter Sundays didn’t even merit a discussion.
“We were the generation of ‘maybe next year,'” said Claire Barclay, 58, of Auburn.
Ask an older Patriot fan about the pre-Belichick/Brady years and a few names come up again and again.
“Steve Grogan, Tony Eason and that other guy, the one they traded,” recites Barclay’s son, Marc Robicheau, 36, of Auburn, who leaves no question about who he roots for. Robicheau and Barclay were at the Maine Mall on Friday, Robicheau decked out in a Patriots T-shirt, jacket and hat.
The name he’s searching for is Jim Plunkett, the Pats’ quarterback before they drafted Steve Grogan in 1975. The next year, the Pats decided to go with Grogan as the starter and traded Plunkett to the Oakland Raiders, where he proceeded to help them win two Super Bowls.
Grogan had an injury-plagued 15-year career with the Pats, much of it spent embroiled in a quarterback controversy about whether he or Tony Eason should be the starter.
But mention quarterback controversy to younger fans and they’re likely to think it’s about whether UGGS are really a good look for Tom Brady.
Since Brady became the starting quarterback in 2001, even non-Patriot fans figure the team will still be on the field when the calendar turns to January and February.
“I expect them to be in the playoffs every year, and I expect them to have a first-round bye every year,” said Kris King, of South Portland, who works at a kiosk at the mall selling Boston sports memorabilia, even though he’s a Washington Redskins fan. “Every year, going into the season, I expect them to dominate.”
King, who said his job is “awkward,” considering he’s also a fan of the Major League Baseball powerhouse New York Yankees, said Patriots stuff sells well, but mostly when they make an appearance in the Super Bowl, which they’ve done five times since 2001.
Sometimes framed pictures of players with conference championship T-shirts will be rushed to the kiosk, but a lot of fans wait until the Super Bowl to decide whether to put up another picture to go with the three other NFL title shots.
Clement said younger fans such as his son are spoiled and don’t remember what it’s like to endure a playoff drought lasting longer than a year.
“You’re almost expecting it now,” he said of the team’s regular appearances in the Super Bowl. “That’s what the younger generation is figuring that’s going to happen. It’s automatic for them.”
Those younger fans might think the good times will last forever, but those with a little more experience expect that the Pats, like any other high-flying team, eventually will fall back to Earth.
“I think they would lose a lot of fans if they stopped playing well all of sudden,” Maguire said. “How long until Brady retires?”