One of the 20,131 fans in attendance at Foxboro Stadium leans back and watches as the New England Patriots face the Indianapolis Colts in 1991. Empty seats frequently outnumbered fans in that era. AP Photo/Stephen Sevoia

It could be worse.

Maybe you had a rough day at work. Maybe the drive-thru screwed up your order. Maybe you had an argument with a family member. And maybe someone responded to your woes with those four little words:

It could be worse.

Take this year’s Patriots (please). The coach is past his prime, the quarterback is going to need years of counseling and the rest of the team might not win in the XFL.

But yes, it could be worse. Trust me, it was.

Few teams in the 104-year history of the NFL were as inept as the Patriots of 1990-92, when they fumbled, stumbled and bumbled to nine wins over three years.  


How bad was it? I was in high school in that era, and you weren’t considered a real football fan unless you had a copy of the “Tecmo Super Bowl” Nintendo game. And you weren’t considered any good at it unless you could win the Super Bowl with the Patriots. (And yes I did, now where’s my trophy?)

How bad was it? The Pats burned through three coaches, two owners and six starting quarterbacks.

How bad was it? The Pats drew fewer than 30,000 fans six times to decrepit Foxboro Stadium, and one of the rare sellouts was the 1990 finale against the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants — only because G-Men rooters from Connecticut and New York bought out the place.

How bad was it? As bad as the dream was on the field, the news off the field was even worse.  These disasters alone were from the 1990 season:

* Three Patriots allegedly sexually harassed Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson, which set off a national firestorm both in the sports and journalism worlds. (Believe it or not, it was the first time these teenage ears ever heard the phrase “sexual harassment.”)

* Owner/doofus Victor Kiam made a bad situation worse by allegedly referring to Olson as a “classic bitch,” and later made a wisecrack about Olson and Patriot missiles during the Persian Gulf War, which started a few weeks after the Pats’ season ended.


* Receivers Irving Fryar and Hart Lee Dykes were involved in a fight outside a Rhode Island bar. 

“Every time it seems the Patriots have hit rock bottom, they chisel out a new lower level,” the Associated Press said late in the season, when the Pats finished with the worst record in the league at 1-15.

Not too many Patriots fans were happy to see owner Victor Kiam by the time his tenure in New England ended.  AP

All of a sudden, a scandal over a few puffs of air in some footballs doesn’t sound that bad, eh?

As for the coaches, Rod Rust was one-and-done in ’90 and replaced by Old Town’s Dick MacPherson, who somehow coaxed six wins out of the ’91 bunch before he missed several games in 1992 with an intestinal condition. His fill-in? Assistant Dante Scarnecchia — yes, that Dante Scarnecchia, who was later a valued aide during the Patriots’ 21st-century dynasty. 

But the ’92 Pats, described by former Portland Press Herald columnist Geoff Hobson as being “stamped by futility, signed by ineptitude and sent by oops rather than UPS” after a holiday-season loss to the Bengals, finished 2-14. 

By then, the team had changed QBs as often as New Englanders have to sweep out the leaves. The victims: past-his prime Steve Grogan (bulldozed into retirement by Buddy Ryan’s Eagles); never-had-a-prime Marc Wilson (10 starts, zero wins in New England); LSU legend Tommy Hodson; journeyman Hugh Millen; future radio icon Scott Zolak (who QB’d the Pats to their only two wins in ’92); and Jeff Carlson, who I believe played one of the Hanson brothers in “Slap Shot.”


Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan’s 16-year career came to an inglorious end with a 48-20 loss to the Eagles in 1990. AP

Needless to say, Canton’s not calling on these guys. Remember the high-flying 2007 Patriots, who scored 589 points? That’s only eight points fewer than what the 1990-92 teams scored combined.

The Pats seemed to have even fewer fans than points scored. Remember those red-white-and-blue seats along the main grandstand at Foxboro Stadium? Many a time those seats were in clear view of the audience during a game, since, well, no one was using them. By 1992, the attendance situation was so bad the team offered 10,000 seats for the home opener at only $10 a pop.

But all nightmares end, right? After the ’92 season, team CEO Sam Jankovich fired coach MacPherson … only to resign himself the next day. That paved the way for Bill Parcells to arrive, clean house and draft a new QB (Drew Bledsoe, who started the next eight seasons, until whatshisname came along in 2001).

By 1996, New England was on its way to the Super Bowl, using several excellent players — Bruce Armstrong, Sam Gash and Ben Coates, among others — who toiled on those early ’90s debacles.

One last thing. In 1992, investment councilor James Busch Orthwein bought the team from the disgraced, broke Victor Kiam. But here’s the catch: Orthwein also was looking to bring an NFL expansion franchise to St. Louis, as the league was planning to add two teams in 1995. 

It was considered a fait accompli that if the fine people of St. Looie didn’t get an expansion team (spoiler alert: they didn’t), then Orthwein would simply move the Pats to the Midwest.


In a 2002 Sports Illustrated retrospective on the Pats’ rather bizarre history, Leigh Montville recalled a 1992 article he wrote for SI on the sorry state of the team. 

The Patriots had a unique situation in that Foxboro Stadium was owned by neither the team nor the government — it was operated by a third-party private entity. Montville asked the stadium owner why he didn’t attempt to buy the team, since he seemed to have the wherewithal and the team could stay put.

The stadium owner replied that owning an NFL team would be too expensive and too much of a gamble, and he was satisfied by concentrating on game-day popcorn sales.

“I thank Bob Kraft for his time,”  Montville wrote. 

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