In many ways, 1971 was a season of new beginnings for the Patriots. For starters, since the team was no longer playing in Boston, it decided to adopt a new name. After briefly toying with the name "Bay State Patriots" (the realization quickly set in that the B.S. Patriots would not look good in the headlines) the designation of 'New England Patriots' was officially announced on March 22.
Additionally, the Patriots had a new 60,000 seat stadium to play in — their first permanent home in franchise history. They also had a new quarterback to lead them, thanks in no small part to their lackluster 2-12 campaign in 1970.
The Patriots last-place finish the previous year had one redeeming feature in that New England was awarded the No. 1 overall pick in the 1971 NFL draft.
After several years of drafting futility, the Patriots landed a winner in Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett from Stanford. A 6-3, 220-pound strong, mobile quarterback who had a cannon for an arm, the talented Plunkett possessed the ability to become the franchise player the Patriots had sought for so long.
In the second round New England selected Julius Adams, a defensive lineman from Texas Southern, who later became the club's all-time leader in games played when he retired 14 years later.
With their phenom quarterback and a host of new faces in town, New England christened its new home at Schaefer Stadium with a 20-14 exhibition win over the New York Giants on Aug. 15. The game turned into a nightmare for fans driving to the stadium that evening. Thousands were late due to a horrific traffic jam on Route 1; thousands more didn't get into the game at all.
Gino Cappelletti scored the first-ever points at the Patriots new home with a 36-yard field goal, but the 11-year veteran would not make the final cut and ended up retiring from football. In tribute, the Patriots retired Cappelletti's No. 20 jersey (the first Patriot to be so honored) at the end of the season during halftime at the club's last home game. Cappelletti moved to the broadcasting booth, then served as a special teams coach for the Patriots before settling back into the radio booth where he has remained to the present day.
Head Coach John Mazur brought Plunkett along slowly, spoon feeding him the offense at a gradual pace. By the time the season opener arrived on Sept. 19, Plunkett was ready. The rookie's much anticipated debut was a surprising success, as New England upset the heavily favored Oakland Raiders, 20-6.
Oakland fumbled six times and Plunkett tossed two scoring passes in the amazing victory. The win began a roller-coaster season for the Patriots. After losing its next two games in one-sided affairs, New England rose up to shut out the Namath-less New York Jets, 20-0.
A big key to the Patriots new-found success on defense was the addition of linebacker Steve Kiner, who was acquired from the Dallas Cowboys for a fourth-round draft choice. A free spirit who played like a wild man on the field, Kiner led the club with 6.5 sacks in 1971 and was given the Unsung Hero Award by the Patriots Booster Club. But Kiner had a drug habit that saw his play and behavior deteriorate rapidly, and New England dealt him away a year later.
Three consecutive losses followed the shutout of the Jets, but New England started November with back-to-back victories. Plunkett turned in the best game of his rookie season in a 38-33 win over the Buffalo Bills in Week Nine.
Despite playing with a pulled hamstring, the rookie passer completed 9-of-16 passes for 318 yards and a career high four touchdown passes.
With a 4-7 record no one expected the Patriots to do much damage in their remaining three games, but their surprising play ended up deciding the AFC East Division championship. New England shocked the heavily favored Miami Dolphins in Week 12, 34-13.
After falling behind 17-7 in the first quarter, the Patriots ran off 17 unanswered points against the stunned Dolphins. Plunkett celebrated his 24th birthday in magnificent style, completing 16-of-23 for 233 yards and two touchdowns. Both scoring tosses went to rookie wide receiver Randy "The Rabbit" Vataha, Plunkett's college teammate at Stanford.
At only 5-10, 170 pounds, Vataha was thought to be too small to play in the NFL, but the Patriots acquired him (at Plunkett's request) after the Los Angeles Rams cut him during the preseason. Vataha came through with a marvelous season, tying the club's season record for receptions with 51 in 1971. The Plunkett-to-Vataha connection became a featured staple of the Patriots attack for several years and helped end the 1971 season on a high note.
Nursing a narrow 14-10 lead over the defending World Champion Colts in the season finale at Baltimore, the Patriots faced a seemingly desperate third-and-11 situation at their own 12-yard line with three minutes left to play. But Plunkett hit Vataha on a deep post pattern that resulted in an 88-yard, game-clinching touchdown. The play was the longest in team history and not only wrapped up a season-ending 21-17 upset win over the Colts but also gave Mazur a one-year reprieve.
The new Patriots general manager, Upton Bell, had been lobbying to fire Mazur all season long. But after guiding the Patriots to a 6-8 record, which included impressive wins over several of the NFL's elite teams, team owner Billy Sullivan felt Mazur earned another season. All in all, it was one of the most enjoyable seasons the team had turned in for many years. But any illusions that the Patriots were on their way to being a consistent winner would again be painfully shattered the following season.
A new stadium hardly propelled them to success, but along with Plunkett's arrival, it provided hope and a sense of pride.
This was the first in a series of historical stories recapping every year the Patriots played at Schaefer/Sullivan/Foxboro Stadium. It is part of our tribute to the Final Season at the old stadium.