While there was reason for optimism heading into the season opener for the 1996 New England Patriots, the team still had a lot to prove. Their head coach wasted no opportunity to remind them that their 3-1 preseason record was meaningless once the regular season started. In addition, no veteran of the 1995 season needed to be reminded that 6-10 wasn’t acceptable. With so much to play for, with so much to prove, not to mention where the season would ultimately take them, it’s all the more vexing the way things started for the Patriots in 1996.
The Dolphins had questions that needed answering as well. The team finished 9-7 in 1995, yet still managed to fall short of expectations and were embarrassed in the playoffs by the Buffalo Bills. The ignominious exit from the playoffs led to a contentious meeting between owner Wayne Huizenga and Don Shula, on the legendary coach’s 66th birthday no less, during which Huizenga ordered Shula to make widespread changes to his coaching and personnel staffs. Shula ultimately chose to retire rather than acquiesce to Huizenga’s demands, thus ending a 33-year career during which Shula won more games than any coach in NFL history.
In stepped Jimmy Johnson, who had spent the previous two season in television after having a power struggle of his own with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Huizenga had lured Johnson back onto the sideline with a four-year, $8 million deal, which made him the highest-paid head coach in the league, and complete control over personnel and coaching decisions.
So as 71, 542 fans settled into their seats at Pro Player Park, in the 93-degree heat under the South Florida sun, two teams with plenty to prove prepared to square off, both hoping to use the other to rid themselves of the disappointing aftertaste of the 1995 NFL season. Unfortunately for the Patriots, it didn’t take long for the Dolphins to do just that.
Things started promisingly enough for the Patriots. New England’s Dave Meggett returned the opening kickoff 41 yards to the New England 48. The Patriots then drove the ball to the Miami 32, where they faced a third down with just over eleven minutes remaining in the quarter. Drew Bledsoe took a shotgun snap and threw a strike to Dolphins’ safety Louis Oliver, who was wide open at the Miami 30-yard line. “I’d never seen that type of coverage before by the safety,” Bledsoe said. “They were sitting on our pass routes.”
Oliver returned the interception 60 yards before fumbling, but the ball was picked up and advanced into the end zone by fellow Dolphins’ defensive back Sean Hill. A Joe Nedney extra point made it 7-0, and the Dolphins never looked back, outgaining the Patriots 322 yards to 230 in a 24-10 win.
While Dan Marino only threw for 176 yards, the Dolphins’ rookie running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown. In contrast, Curtis Martin was held to just 23 yards on 11 carries and the Patriots converted only two of ten third downs.
Shawn Jefferson, who signed a $1.4 million deal with the Patriots in the offseason, had a particularly rough day. After fumbling twice earlier in the game, Jefferson was hit hard by Dolphins rookie linebacker Zach Thomas. Jefferson suffered a concussion on the play and was carted off the field on a stretcher.
Drew Bledsoe, who completed 19 of 38 passes for 221 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, bore the brunt of the blame for New England’s offensive woes. At least one Dolphin defender asserted Bledsoe, who was sacked four times, wasn’t up to the challenge presented by Miami’s defense. “You could see him get rattled,” said Miami defensive tackle Tim Bowens, “and once he did the ball seemed to float out there.”
The Patriots’ head coach was blunt in his assessment of his team’s performance. “We got whipped very, very soundly,” Parcells said, “and I know that wasn’t our best.” Willie McGinest, who wasn’t much of a factor defensively, indicated there were lessons in the loss. “In a way this is good,” he said. “This showed our team that the preseason doesn’t mean anything. Now they count and we’re 0-1.”
The Patriots soon turned their focus to Buffalo, hoping the Miami game was an aberration rather than a harbinger for things to come. Bills’ head coach Marv Levy wasn’t willing to overlook the Patriots. “They had one of those games where everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” Levy said, “and then it got worse as the game progressed.”
Levy had reason to be concerned about a Patriots visit to Buffalo. “The Patriots have outplayed us in three straight games and beat us the last two up here,” said Levy, “and our players know that. This is a division game, which always has more importance. We know this game is very important to us.”
The Bills took care of business at home, ending the Patriots winning streak against them with a 17-10 win in front of 78, 104 at Rich Stadium. Jim Kelly broke a 10-10 tie in the fourth quarter with a 63-yard touchdown pass to Quinn Early. Drew Bledsoe drove the Patriots to the Buffalo 38, but was sacked by Bruce Smith on fourth down with just over two minutes remaining.
Next time we’ll take a closer look at the Patriots’ loss to Buffalo. We’ll also look ahead to New England’s week three matchup against the Arizona Cardinals.