The 1996 New England Patriots Week 5 #theweekthatwas by @profwyatttaylor

 

1996-pats-bledsoe
Image courtesy of Bleacher Report

When Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Tom Coughlin addressed the media following his team’s 28-25 loss to the New England Patriots, there was no talk of a Massachusetts homecoming or his days as the head football coach at Boston College.[1]  Coughlin was still searching for answers.

 

1996-pats-parcells-coughlin
Image courtesy of Yahoo Sports

 

“Unbelievable,” Coughlin said.  “I don’t know how to explain it.”[2]

His team had started slowly, trailing the Patriots 22-0 with seconds remaining in the first half.  A successful Hail Mary then ignited the Jaguars, who rallied in the second half to tie New England at 25.  With seconds remaining in the game, Jacksonville miraculously completed a second Hail Mary, though wide receiver Willie Jackson fell short of the endzone.  A foot short, to be exact.

“I do know one thing,” Coughlin said of his team’s effort. “We fought and battled and made so many different things happen. There is no question about the fight in these players.”[3]

Regardless of Coughlin’s pride in his team’s effort, their season was threatening to slip away.  So the Jaguars headed south to try and salvage it.  The Patriots had clawed their way back to .500, and now had a bye week to prepare for the Baltimore Ravens.  A week off for New England seemed a fitting follow-up for a game full of so many ups and downs.

The Patriots dominated the Jaguars early, then barely hung on late.  The New England defense, especially Willie McGinest, hounded Mark Brunell as it held the Jacksonville offense in check for nearly two quarters.  The Jaguars’ massive offensive line then began to assert itself in the second half.  Once he had time to throw, the left-handed Brunell began lighting up the Patriots.  After completing the 51-yard Hail Mary to Jimmy Smith, Brunell was 15 of 23 for 315 yards.  Jacksonville outgained New England 442-353 in total yards while running only 52 plays to the Patriots’ 79.[4]  As hot as Brunell was, the Jaguars managed only 29 yards rushing on 11 carries.

Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri experienced his own share of highs and lows against Jacksonville, much as he had the entire season.  While he made five field goals, including the game winner, he also missed a 44-yarder and had an extra point blocked.  It marked the second game in a row in which the Patriots’ kicker missed a PAT.  He also missed four consecutive field goal attempts over a two-game stretch against Buffalo and Arizona.[5]

Vinatieri was booed after missing the 44-yard field goal attempt, which came at a point when Jacksonville had momentum and was clawing their way back into the football game.  Vinatieri was asked after the game if he had heard the boos.  “To be honest, I don’t really hear what people are saying or pay too much attention to what they are yelling,” he said. “I thought maybe they were saying, ‘Drew’.”[6]

When Vinatieri trotted out in overtime to try and win the game for the Patriots, confidence in the young kicker wasn’t nearly as high as it would be later in his career.  There were some who wondered if Vinatieri was perhaps kicking for his professional life.[7]  “You’re always kicking for your job,” he acknowledged later. “The day you stop kicking well, they look for someone else who can do your job.”[8]

 

1996-pats-vinatieri-parcells
Image courtesy of Pro Football Talk

According to New York sports radio fixture Mike Francessa, a long-time friend of Bill Parcells, the Patriots head coach nearly cut Vinatieri after the win over Arizona.  After Vinatieri missed his first field goal attempt and an extra point attempt against the Cardinals, Parcells allegedly approached the rookie in the fourth quarter with the Patriots leading 28-0.   Parcells told Vinatieri that he was going to go into the game to attempt a 31-yard field goal and if he missed, he was getting cut. Fortunately for Vinatieri, and the Patriots, he made the kick.[9]

New England won the overtime coin toss and drove 49 yards to the Jaguars 21-yard line.  The majority of that yardage came on one play, a 32-yard pass from Drew Bledsoe to Terry Glenn.  After Bledsoe was sacked on third and 10, Vinatieri was sent out to try and win it.

“I knew it was going to come down to one of the kickers,” Vinatieri said after the game. “You just have to go out and block everything out. They tried to ice me by calling timeout. I needed to thank them after the game, I got to patch up the field a little bit and have a better kicking surface.”[10]

After the timeout, Vinatieri kicked it right down the middle to give New England the win.

1996-pats-vinatieri
Image courtesy of the Boston Globe

“It felt good when I kicked it,” the rookie said. “But I had to look up and make sure it was going before I breathed a sigh of relief.”[11]

Somewhere along his odyssey toward the NFL and the New England Patriots, which began in South Dakota and included stops at South Dakota State and Amsterdam (the Amsterdam Admirals of the World League), Vinatieri developed an ability to handle high-pressure situations.  New England legend Gino Cappelletti, who knows a thing or two about kicking, as he holds the Patriots record with six field goals in a game, said, “This kid seems to have the right temperament for it. He looks like he doesn’t get too high or too low. That’s the way to be. You never want them to know how you’re feeling.”[12]

Vinatieri’s comments after the game underscored Cappelletti’s assessment of the rookie kicker.  “You’re going to have days when you can’t miss a field goal and you’re going to have days when you can’t make a field goal,” he said.  “But if you think negatively, it can carry over to the next week. Today I missed one. I was less than perfect. I would like to have had another one.”  Vinatieri went on to say that “as a kicker, you live for chances like this. As this game went on, I knew it was going to come down to a field goal. The extra point I missed came back to haunt us, but I got a chance to redeem myself.”[13]

The Patriots as a team had also redeemed themselves by crawling out of the 0-2 hole they had dug to start the season.  The dominant win over Arizona had sent hopes soaring, while the second half collapse against Jacksonville had left many scratching their heads.  Like it or not, New England would have to wait a week to find out if they could generate any momentum from the win over the Jaguars.

Their head coach, an admitted opponent of the NFL’s bye week policy, would have preferred to play on September 29.  “You win a couple in a row, you would like to keep going,” Parcells said. “I would really like to keep going. But you know, this is the way it is. What am I gonna do about it?”[14]

The Patriots didn’t have any major injuries with which a bye week might have helped.  However, Parcells seemed to indicate the time off might do his team some good.  “If you look at this,” he said, “this is almost halfway through the actual football-playing season. It’s not through the chronological league season. From the time you start {mid-July} and the number of practices, you’re pretty much halfway. So this is a time to back off some things.”[15]

 

1996-pats-parcells-press-conference
Image courtesy of New York Daily News

 

It didn’t mean Parcells wasn’t going to make his players work.  “We’re going to do a lot more running this week,” he said, “but we’re not going to beat them up too much. We’re in fairly good health now. You’re torn between trying to keep your timing and staying sharp with what you’re doing well with breaking the routine a little bit.”[16]

Parcells did maintain a normal work week for his team, with practices on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday following the win over the Jaguars.  The coach hoped to use the extra time afforded by the bye to fine tune certain areas.  “I have specific things I want to do. We’re going to take a look at some of the problems we’re having. We’re going to put them on training reels. We’re going to try to get the point across.”[17]

The fact that the Patriots were coming off a win would make things a bit easier.  “I think you can call attention to these things and be more specific when you win than when you lose,” Parcells said. “When you lose and do it, they say, ‘Oh, he’s picking on me and this and that.’  You got a better chance to unload on them and let them know exactly what you think when you win.[18]

That’s it for this week in 1996.  Next time we’ll follow the Patriots out of the bye week as they head south to take on the Ravens in Baltimore on October 6.

 

1996-pats-ravens
Image courtesy of the Baltimore Sun

[1] Allen Lessels, “Close call for Coughlin,” The Boston Globe, September 23, 1996, accessed October 15, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nick Cafarado, “KICK SAVE Vinatieri rescues Patriots in overtime,” The Boston Globe, September 23, 1996, accessed October 17, 2016.

[5] Dan Shaughnessy, “Rookis is riding high – for now,” The Boston Globe, September 23, 1996, accessed October 18, 2016.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Michael David Smith, “Adam Vinatieri was on kick away from getting cut in 1996,” Pro Football Talk, May 17, 2016, accessed October 18, 2016.

[10] Cafarado, “KICK SAVE,” The Boston Globe.

[11] Shaughnessy, “Rookis is riding high – for now,” The Boston Globe.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Nick Cafarado, “Parcells hopes it will be a good bye,” The Boston Globe, September 25, 1996, accessed October 19, 2016.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

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