June 11, 2003
A Generation Ago, Grogs Led The Way
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
Honk if you can find a Patriot fan who believed that Jim Plunkett was destined to become the biggest Patriot since Paul Revere.
By 1975, Plunkett was less popular than King George III. The former top draft pick, of whom so much had been expected, had been reduced to a bench warmer in the wake of mediocre play and lousy offensive line play in front of him (so the "experts" say; that means that they are calling Leon Gray, John Hannah, Bill Lenkaitis and Tom Neville "lousy" as well). The man who had been expected to lead the Patriots from the scrap heap to the top of the heap had lost his starting job to some unknown buck from Kansas State. A year later, Plunkett would be traded for what should have been the missing ingredients for about three Super Bowl wins to ride out the decade.
Who was this young buck? Drop the Manhattan, Kansas school to Patriot fans today and they will dutifully reply with "Oh, yeah, Michael Bishop!" Others will scoff and spit at the mere mention of Chris Canty. Simply stated, the K-State Wildcats mean about as much to most Patriot fans as traffic jams and clogged toilets.
Steve Grogan's arrival in 1975 was met with little fanfare. He was drafted in the fifth round, the 116th player selected overall. He was perhaps the Kliff Kingsbury of his day. That is, until Plunkett went down with an injury in October. Almost immediately, Grogan became the Tom Brady of his day.
Grogan will honoured this week at the Sports Museum in Boston. The author of Grogan's Grades, a weekly feature on PatsFans.com in the fall which features incredibly insightful analysis of the previous week's Patriots game, will be honored along with Red Auerbach, Phil Esposito, Don Gillis, Tom Heinsohn, Tim Horgan, Mary Pratt, and Luis Tiant. The event will be held on June 12th at the FleetCenter.
Grogan made his NFL debut on October 19th at Schaefer Stadium against Baltimore. He replaced the injured Plunkett and rallied his team, winless in four previous games, to a 21-10 victory. The next week, Grogan got the start against San Francisco at home. As this writer watched from the stands, Grogan made the most of his first pro start with a 24-16 win over the 49ers (this would be the only victory over this franchise for the Patriots until the Pete Carroll Era).
Grogan would win three of his first four appearances, but the Patriots of 1975 were a team in transition. The Patriots would drop their last six games to finish at 3-11. But Grogan established himself as the quarterback of the future, and Plunkett became expendable.
Grogan took the starting job away from Plunkett for keeps largely because of his incredible arm, his running skills, and his fiery leadership persona. His pick total was high that year, as it would be throughout his career (18 picks in 1975 which came out to 6.6 percent and lowered his passer rating to 60.2). But the Patriots had themselves a true leader, something that Plunkett never managed to become in his five inglorious seasons in Foxborough.
Plunkett was dealt in 1976 for four draft picks that were supposed to form the cornerstone of many great years for the Patriots that lie ahead. Sure enough, with Mike Haynes and Tim Fox on board in 1976, and with Grogan at the helm, the Patriots romped to an 11-3 mark and their first NFL playoff berth. Grogan managed to succeed with much the same offensive line which Plunkett suffered with. With a formidable rushing attack led by Sam Cunningham, Andy Johnson and Don Calhoun, and with Grogan himself setting an NFL record for most rushing touchdowns for a quarterback, the Patriots found themselves in rarefied air, and a newfound status that they had never known in their history.
Grogan succeeded because of his leadership and his rushing, and not so much because of his passing. His 397 rushing yards were fourth on the team, and he averaged 6.6 yards per carry. His passer rating was not much different from 1975 thanks to the high interception total. But he had the knack for making big throws when he had to, and his teammates played to higher levels by following his example.
As Grogan and other Patriots will tell you, the team would have dominated the NFL for several years and would have won two or three Super Bowls if they had managed to get by Oakland in that infamous playoff game ruined by Ben Dreith's horrid call. The Patriots were on the cusp of true greatness, but never got back to the level they were at in 1976. Grogan believes that the Patriots would have gone on to win a few more titles if they had somehow managed to win Super Bowl XI.
The rest of Grogan's Patriot career was a mishmash of injuries, picks, a love-hate relationship with fans, and other pretenders who tried to wrest the starting quarterback job from its rightful owner. When Grogan's 15-year Patriot career ended in 1990, he left the team as one of the most beloved Patriots in team history.
If 1976 was one defining moment in Grogan's career, the other was Super Bowl XX. Grogan spent the 1985 season either rallying his team and saving the season or sitting on the sidelines and watching Tony Eason somehow win games he had no right to win. The Patriots made it to Super Bowl XX with three road playoff wins, but the real horses in those wins were Craig James and an opportunistic defense which forced 17 turnovers in three games. All Eason did was toss a few short touchdown passes here and there, but did precious little to impact the Patriots on their way to their January 26, 1986 date with Da Bears in New Orleans.
It came out later that the Patriots were angry and beside themselves that Eason was permitted to start the Super Bowl despite Grogan being healthy enough to start. Eason looked totally freaked out in a hail of Richard Dent and William Perry and their buds. Grogan did play most of the game, but had no chance with his team already down 23-3. Most players believe that the Patriots would have had a chance if Grogan had been allowed to start the game.
To this day, Grogan remains in the area, owner of a sporting goods store, and still fiercely loyal to his Patriots. He is seen often on television, and has been a contributor to PatsFans.com for several years now. He is a member of the Patriot Hall Of Fame, and he remains, with Drew Bledsoe now gone to Buffalo, the most popular quarterback in Patriot history.
Simply stated, for those who saw Grogan play, it was some of the best times and moments to be a Patriot fan. Between 1976 and 1980, despite the team showing the same underachieving tendencies of the Red Sox, Grogan was at the epicenter of some of the finest moments in Patriot history. His popularity never waned as long as he wore the Patriot uniform, and he was the favorite of the fans even through all the booing which followed his interceptions. Grogan can perhaps take comfort in that this booing is much the same way that Carl Yastrzemski was treated up at Fenway.
Today, Grogan is booed no more.
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