Living today in the Belichick era, it may be hard to believe there was a time when the Patriots put the ink in stink or when New England was indifferent about them. On Columbus Day 1973 we went to get tickets for a game later in the season. The season was almost over already since the Pats were 1-4 to nobody’s surprise. We got tickets for the last home game against the lowly San Diego Chargers.
After getting tickets. we were able to go onto the field and play ball as players were leaving practice. I met quarterback Jim Plunkett in the parking lot. No security – why would be there? Who would come to see the Patriots?
At the same time, however, this was the first year of the Chuck Fairbanks era and the 1973 team included elements of the team that would become perennial contenders in a few years.
The Patriots came into the game 4-7 having just beat Green Bay and Houston which was only the fourth time that the Pats won consecutive games over the last 6 seasons. The San Diego Chargers were even worse at 2-8-1 and had benched aging Hall-of-Famer Johnny Unitas in favor of rookie Dan Fouts and Wayne Clarke.
The Game: After mistakes gave the Chargers an early 14-3 lead, the Patriots came back with four touchdowns to win 30-14.
There were three big surprises for us at the game. The first was the discovery that we bought tickets in the one section of the stadium that got zero sun, a point that hit us pretty quickly with wind-chill in the 20’s as we sat on the cold aluminum seats.
The second surprise was 5 foot-5 inch Mini-Mack Herron who ran a kick-off back 92-yards for a touchdown – the first in Patriot history – to close the gap to 14-9. The next year he would set an NFL record for all-purpose yardage. Oddly enough, a few years later we saw Mike Haynes return the first punt for a touchdown.
The third surprise is that you would think a game featuring Jim Plunkett v. Dan Fouts would be a passing duel, but instead it was quite the opposite. The Chargers completed 10 of 15 attempts for only 76 yards (0 TDs, 2 INT), while Plunkett threw 13-27 for 186 yards (1 TD, 2 INT). Instead, Plunkett who only scored 14 rushing touchdowns in his 15-year career – scored 2 of them on that day for the final two touchdowns.
The Rest of the Story: The Patriots lost the remaining two games of the season at Buffalo and Baltimore. In the Buffalo game, O.J. Simpson ran for 219 yards putting him within striking distance of breaking the 2,000 yard mark (which he did against the Jets in the season finale).
The Patriots opened the 1974 season 5-0 and then went 5-18 to finish 7-7 in 1974 (first non-losing season since 1966) and 3-11 in 1975. It would not be until 1976 that the Patriots would emerge going from 3-11 to 11-3. They faced the Oakland Raiders (13-1) in the first round of the playoffs, having given the Raiders their only loss of the season (48-17. )The Patriots were en route to beating the Oakland Raiders again when a controversial roughing the passer call saved the Raiders from defeat, paving the way for their ultimate Super Bowl victory.
From Wikipedia: Despite the playoff loss, the team has been considered one of the most talented in Patriots history; in 2004, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who was an assistant coach for the Detroit Lions in 1976, called this Patriots team “loaded,” a “who’s who team.”
The Patriots, however, would not reach the Super Bowl until 1985 and would not win until 2001.
MACK HERRON HIGHLIGHTS