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On 25th anniversary of Patriots’ first Super Bowl, disappointment still lingers, but so does unity

01.26.11 at 9:41 am ET
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As WEEI.com pays tribute to the Patriots’ 1986 Super Bowl team, we remember what a tremendous year 1986 was in Boston sports. Check out our LEEInks list of the most memorable moments from that year.

Irving Fryar celebrates the Patriots' lone touchdown of Super Bowl XX vs. the Bears. (AP)

Twenty-five years ago Wednesday, the Patriots made their first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. The game against the Bears at the Louisiana Superdome got off to a promising start for New England when linebacker Larry McGrew recovered a Walter Payton fumble just two plays in to set up a Tony Franklin 36-year field goal that gave the Pats a 3-0 lead.

But things quickly went downhill from there. On their final six drives of the first half, the Pats turned the ball over twice and had to punt four times, including three three-and-outs. They finished the half with minus-19 total offensive yards, two pass completions and one first down.

Meanwhile, the Bears, who were set up with great field position throughout the half, scored 23 straight points to take a commanding 23-3 lead into halftime.

“Once the snowball started rolling downhill, we just couldn’t stop it,” Pro Bowl wide receiver Irving Fryar recalled Tuesday. “They were too good of a team to make mistakes against. Once we started making mistakes and they started capitalizing on the mistakes and got a lead, there was no way we were going to stop the train from running.”

The Pats never threatened a comeback in the second half and ultimately lost the game 46-10, making it the most lopsided Super Bowl in history at the time. They set Super Bowl records for most sacks allowed (7 — of both starter Tony Eason and Steve Grogan) and fewest rushing yards gained (7), and their 123 total yards were the second-lowest total in Super Bowl history.

Today, the loss still stings for the players on that team.

“It was sad,” said Hall of Fame offensive guard John Hannah, who played his final game in that Super Bowl. “It was a really long day and it was very embarrassing. … Just the frustration of getting there and performing so, so poorly, it just really hurt.”

But the 1985 squad still has a special place in Patriots history. It was the first team in franchise history to reach the Super Bowl and it posted the best regular-season record (11-5) since 1978.

“That experience to be able to get to the Super Bowl was great, being the first team in the history of the Patriots to make it there,” said safety Fred Marion, who was also a Pro Bowler that year. “No one expected us to be there but ourselves.”

That belief in themselves began when Raymond Berry took over as head coach midway through the 1984 season. Hannah said the most important thing Berry brought to the table was a winning attitude, which the team desperately needed.

“In ’82, ’83, ’84, all we ever heard as players was how bad we were, how we weren’t that good, how we were a bunch of losers,” Hannah said. “All of a sudden Raymond came in and he said, ‘Hey, you guys are great athletes. You can win this thing. It’s just a matter of correcting some errors. If you correct the errors, you’ll be winners.’ ”

Coach Ray Berry (in red, alongside Patriots owner Billy Sullivan) answered the call and led the Pats to their first Super Bowl appearance. (AP)

Berry also got the team to give 100 percent every play by forcing players to grade themselves.

“I remember he went around to each guy and said, ‘I want you to grade yourself from the time the ball is snapped until the whistle blows and find out whether or not you gave it everything you had,’ ” Hannah said. “He said, ‘I’m not worried if you beat the man in front of you or if he beats you, but whether you’ve given it everything you’ve got.’ When you grade yourself that way, you realize how much more you could give.”

Despite the positive attitude and commitment to effort, the 1985 season got off to a slow start. The Pats lost three of their first five games, culminating in a 24-20 loss at Cleveland, a game the team thought it should have won. That game became a pivotal turning point.

“I remember that locker room, and it was not a fun locker room to be in,” Hannah said. “We were really angry and upset with ourselves and with each other. When we got back, we kind of buckled down and said, ‘You know what, it’s time to put this thing together and show people what we’ve got.’ I think that was a turning point because we were totally embarrassed. We should’ve won that game. We were better than them. And I think deep down inside, we realized that we were better than our record at that point.”

The Pats won their next six games and nine of their final 11 to earn a wild card spot in the playoffs. The team’s biggest strength was its defense. Led by Marion’s team-leading seven interceptions and Hall of Fame linebacker Andre Tippett’s AFC-leading 16.5 sacks, the Pats ranked fifth in the NFL in defense.

“Defensively, we wanted to be challenged,” Marion said. “Rod Rust probably doesn’t get enough credit. … He was a wonderful defensive coordinator, and we were prepared. We knew that if they came in a certain offense or formation or did something totally different, we were prepared to meet the challenge. We had a very aggressive defense with Tippett on one side and [Don] Blackmon on the other side. We were set to do business.”

The Pats opened the playoffs on the road against the archrival Jets. Leading up to the game, the team had to practice on half a field because the other half was covered in ice and there was no indoor facility like there is today. At one point, Fryar recalled, Berry actually had the team practice on the ice just in case the field at Giants Stadium happened to be icy. The preparation paid off with a 26-14 win.

“I think once we won that first playoff game, things kind of started looking different to us,” Fryar said. “Our perspective changed a little bit and we realized that we’re pretty close to the Super Bowl. If we just keep working hard and keep playing hard, we’re going to have a legitimate chance to get there.”

And they did. The Pats beat the Raiders in Los Angeles the next week and then triumphed over the division rival Dolphins in Miami in the AFC championship game, making them the first team in NFL history to win three playoff games on the road.

Although the blowout loss in the Super Bowl two weeks later will always stand out to players and fans alike, Fryar said that what he remembers about that team 25 years ago was how special and how united it was.

“There was a camaraderie that existed that I wasn’t able to capture again throughout my career,” Fryar said. “We had a unity amongst the players that just didn’t exist on other teams I played for. It’s not that there was something wrong with those other teams. It was just that we had a cohesiveness that was rare. That’s what I remember most about it.”

Read More: 1986 Super Bowl, Fred Marion, Irving Fryar, John Hannah Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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