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Robert F. Jones
November 29, 1976
With the emergence of the great Kahuna and some nifty football players, the long-suffering New England Patriots are making a run for a playoff berth
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November 29, 1976

These Pats Are Patsies No More

With the emergence of the great Kahuna and some nifty football players, the long-suffering New England Patriots are making a run for a playoff berth

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During training camp, Coach Chuck Fairbanks told his players that, for the first time since he took over as head coach and general manager on January 26, 1973, New England would be capable of fielding a competent man at every position. Then the taciturn Michigan-born and Oklahoma-steeled Fairbanks showed the depth of his trust by virtually ignoring the late cuts and free agents. That ended once and for all the New England football tradition of running players through camp like truckloads of scrod. Or so the Pats fans hoped.

In truth, Fairbanks' confidence is well founded. He has a sound offense, in pro football terms. One that runs before it passes and then doesn't try things beyond its talents, like passing deep. (You do that if you've got a Roger Carr to go with a Bert Jones, or a Cliff Branch to fit the reach of a Ken Stabler.) It is a team that can count on a Cunningham to produce an average of almost five yards per carry this season, or a Calhoun to step in and come up with similar statistics. One that has a quarterback like Grogan, a second-year man who knows his team's talents and drawbacks and who can run like a whitetail buck when he has to. One that has a tight end like 6'6", 240-pound Russell Ross Francis, late of Hawaii, who chants the "Kahuna" of the islands at the opposition and reduces them to so many Captain Cooks.

It helps to have an offensive line as well. Oakland Coach John Madden was slightly in awe after the Pats cleared his nose with a 48-17 early-season victory, the Raiders' only loss this year. "They have five offensive linemen who can block, a fullback who can block and a tight end who can block," Madden said. "It's like playing against a seven-man line all day. Devastating."

The offensive linemen—left to right, Leon Gray, John Hannah, Bill Lenkaitis, Sam Adams and Bob McKay—are one of those groups that gets attention only when a Juice runs behind it and it can be called an "Electric Company." Sam Bam, though, hasn't given his line any nickname to latch on to—not because of his lack of yardage, but because they're all a bit shy, just like most New England folks. Perhaps they should be called the "E. B. Whites," in honor of that other distinguished but reticent Down East talent. Or the "Samuel Eliot Morisons," to commemorate their courage in the face of waves.

Defensively, New England has a strong point and a weak point. The latter is its rush line, which sacked the immobile Namath only three times. Fairbanks favors the 3-4 defense, which he brought with him from Oklahoma, and as a result the linebackers have knocked down many more passers than the linemen—and many more passes. Steve Nelson, one of the inside linebackers, missed the Jets' game with a dislocated kneecap and may well be out next week, but the others were working hard as always. Steve Zabel recovered a fumble to set up a touchdown. Sam Hunt, a hard-hitter frequently accused of cheap shots, particularly in the most recent Buffalo and Baltimore games, plugged the middle along with Nelson's replacement, Jim Romaniszysn. And veterans Pete Barnes and George Webster handled things perfectly at the right side. Those men, plus the suddenly reliable cornerbacks and safeties, constitute New England's defensive strength. The two rookies, Haynes and Fox, start in a secondary that was burned like buttered lobster again and again last season. The 6'2", 189-pound Haynes was the first defensive back chosen in this year's draft—and the fifth choice overall. His college credentials (17 interceptions) held up against the Colts and Jets: he picked off two Bert Jones passes, two of Namath's and one of Todd's.

For fear of reviving those old Boston doubts, it's best not to talk about the failure of the three wide receivers—Stingley, Vataha and Marlin Briscoe—to catch more than 32 passes to date. Vataha, who had caught 167 passes for 2,863 yards and 22 touchdowns in his first five years with the Pats, has caught only nine.

That deficiency can be partly attributed to the fact that the Pats have developed a professionally balanced offense, relying more heavily on the run than the pass. It can also be explained by the fact that Jim Plunkett is now playing for San Francisco. In the words of one observer, Plunkett "liked to throw it up as long and far as he could and then giggle when he saw who caught it."

Steven James Grogan, 23 years old, 6'4", 200 pounds, out of Kansas and the cow country, became the New England quarterback almost by default after Plunkett was traded. Fairbanks, in keeping with his decision about the team's capability, accommodated Plunkett in a deal that required no small amount of confidence. Though both Denver and Los Angeles had offered alternatives to Plunkett—i.e., players who might have brought New England the instant flair the fans had been clamoring for since 1963—Fairbanks took the San Francisco deal with its many draft choices: two first-round picks this season (Brock and Fox), a first and second next year, plus Quarterback Tom Owen.

So Grogan came from the grasslands to the headlands. "I found out about the Plunkett trade from a reporter who called me back home," he says. "Nobody from the team ever told me about it." Later he learned that part of the deal included Owen, a sometime starter for the 49ers. It didn't seem to bother him. "We had a spring camp in late May," says Grogan, "and when I came in I was the only quarterback who had been here last year. So I was the only one who knew what was going on. I figured I was No. 1 until someone came up and told me to get out."

Grogan's statistics aren't overpowering: a completion rate of 49.4% and a 7.2% interception rate. But he has gained 358 yards this season on 47 runs, half of which were planned. He has no fear (yet) of scrambling. Of the Patriots' 35 touchdowns, Grogan has accounted for 24-15 in the air, and nine on the ground.

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