Rock-bottom is a foreign concept for an entire generation of Patriot fans


There was a time not so long ago when you would have scoffed at the suggestion that the Patriots were once considered second-rate.

Dick MacPherson
Patriots head coach Dick MacPherson, after a win in 1991. Bill Greene/The Boston Globe
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It’s been 30 years since the last time the New England Patriots began an NFL season looking this wretched. But please, don’t compare this substandard collection currently fronting as a professional football team to the memory of that 1993 team’s significance. That group had hope and promise, two traits that might as well be accountability and resilience since they don’t exist in this year’s squad. 

For these current-day Patriots, hope left the building somewhere around the time they kicked off in Dallas a fortnight ago. The slight scent of promise that hovered over quarterback Mac Jones following his (ahem, Pro Bowl) rookie season hasn’t been detected for more than a year. 

You really have to go back thirty one years to find a suitable franchise comp for this mess, which was head coach Dick MacPherson’s final campaign in New England, a 2-14 season that gave the Patriots the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft for the first time in nine years. That sorry season, only two years removed from Rod Rust’s 1-15 submission, marked the end of an era in Foxborough, where fans watched their team hit rock bottom — a real, true bedrock — for the final time. That’s because the team hit the reset button the following year and brought legitimacy in head coach Bill Parcells. Patriot fans finally had a franchise quarterback in Drew Bledsoe, selected out of Washington State with the first pick in the draft. It was all so exciting that the fans even looked over a complete identity redesign that nobody really wanted. 

Oh, and there was also the imminent threat of the team moving to St. Louis. It was a joy. 

It depends on your age, of course, but take it from someone staring at his fifth decade approaching in the passing lane; 30 years ain’t what it used to be. 

I was 11 when I saw “Back to the Future” for the first time in 1985. As far as I was concerned, the gap of time that existed between the 1950s and 80s might as well have been equal to the developments that took place between the Pleistocene Epoch and the day “Mork and Mindy” premiered. Thirty years is an eternity when your lone reference point is only one-third of that time. 

These days? I have an admittedly-tattered t-shirt from the 1991 U.S. Open that still escapes the dresser drawer every now and then. If pressed, I could find every grunge CD that I own in its original packaging within an hour. My favorite TV show of all time was only in its fifth season of existence in 1993. Thirty years later, “The Simpsons” may never get cancelled. The connection is a little easier to make. 

But an entire generation of Patriot fans has yet to experience the depths of inadequacies that used to define the franchise. We Gen-X’ers have prepared for the likelihood of this cycle returning for some time now (and quite frankly, also waited for you obnoxious trophy kids to get a little comeuppance). We had no idea how to predict when, a tribute to the quarterback that played here for a good stretch of time, but we expected this someday. You kids have known nothing but winning over a 20-year period. You don’t understand the complexities of losing, which may explain many of the emails I get. 

There was a time not so long ago when you would have scoffed at the geriatric suggestion that the Patriots were once considered second-rate among Boston sports. The Celtics were in the coattails of their Bird-era glory days when the Patriots were last in this position. The Red Sox were entering (and about to exit just as quickly) the Butch Hobson era. With Neely and Bourque, the Bruins were on the doorstep to an imminent Stanley Cup that only took another 18 years.

The Patriots were a laughingstock that couldn’t get their reputation out of the dumpster. It got so bad that they even sent Pat Patriot to sleep with some fishes in the Boston Harbor in favor of the flying Elvis. These were dark times. 

The franchise now synonymous with names like Brady, Belichick, and Kraft, titans of the NFL, was better-known for moments like Zeke Mowatt’s locker room cough check and which wide receivers were getting into fights at Club Shalimar.  Anyone under the age of 35 has witnessed occasional hiccups on the Patriots, but nothing resembling the floor completely falling out. 

Which brings us to today. 

That team in 1993 started way worse than the 1-5 mark that the current roster has been able to duplicate (so far). Those Patriots went 1-11 before picking up their second win of the season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 12. What followed was a three-game winning streak to close out a 5-11 season. You might have thought the team won all six of its Super Bowls during that stretch for all the excitement it generated in these parts. The terrible Patriots might actually turn into something? And this local guy with the wicked Boston accent is going to buy them and keep them here? 

It took another nine years for the first Lombardi Trophy, but that season was the turning point all the same. It marked an end for the franchise’s notable haplessness. 

By its very nature, the 2023 season can’t replicate itself like that one. Even if the team knocks off four wins in a row to end the season, it will come more with frustration that the team sacrificed its draft position than any sign of promise. There’s nothing to build toward with this edition of Patriots. The cycle is now complete. 

The Patriots just might be the worst team in the NFL. 

Seems like yesterday the last time we were able to say that.