After finding promise in a 6-8 1971 season, the Patriots endured a nightmarish 3-11 campaign in 1972. The sad story on the field often took a back seat to the the bickering in the front office, as an ongoing clash between the head coach and general manager resulted in dissension and division on the team. With such long-time Patriots as Jim Nance, Houston Antwine, Ron Sellers and Don Webb victims of a rebuilding program, the team lacked veteran leadership.
A deteriorating offensive line exposed second-year quarterback Jim Plunkett to severe punishment on a weekly basis. Plunkett's play suffered as a result, and his confidence level plummeted. The offense struggled to score points while the defense couldn't stop anyone, as the Patriots allowed a league-high and team record 446 points. By year's end the Patriots had major personnel problems, vacancies at both the head coach and general manager positions, and an eroding fan base.
Strangely enough, the season began on an exciting note with two improbable victories. After dropping the season opener against Cincinnati, the Patriots pulled off a pair of stunning upsets. The first came in Week Two against the Atlanta Falcons before a sellout crowd at Schaefer Stadium. New England rallied from a 20-7 fourth quarter deficit, to take a slim one-point lead and survived when the Falcons missed a 10-yard field goal at the end.
A field goal figured prominently again the next week as the Patriots upset the eventual NFC Champion Washington Redskins at Foxborough. Plunkett hit rookie Josh Ashton on a 24-yard scoring pass to help the Pats grab a 24-21 lead with just less than two minutes to play. The Redskins promptly marched deep into New England territory where Washington kicker Curt Knight booted home a 33-yard field goal to tie the score. But the Patriots were flagged for roughing the kicker, and Redskins coach George Allen opted to take the first down and remove the points from the scoreboard. Three plays later, Knight missed a 27-yard field goal attempt.
A nine-game losing streak followed during which Plunkett was benched for a time. The losing streak also brought the adversarial relationship between Head Coach John Mazur and General Manager Upton Bell to full boil. Bell, only 33 years old, was extremely bright, crafty, brash, and a media charmer, and continually dropped hints that he did not believe Mazur was head coach material. Mazur, a tough-minded ex-Marine represented the "old school" to Bell, and the Pats youthful general manager conveniently made him the fall guy for the team's plight.
The pressure of the losing streak took its toll on Mazur, who lost 30 pounds working day and night for weeks on end trying to pull his team out of the slide. After dropping a 24-17 decision at home to the Baltimore Colts in the club's first ever appearance on Monday Night Football, New England journeyed south to play the undefeated Miami Dolphins in Week Nine. Playing before the largest crowd (80,010) in their history, the Patriots were shellacked 52-0 in the worst defeat in the history of the franchise. After the loss, Mazur resigned in protest, saying he just couldn't continue on knowing his own general manager was secretly rooting for him to lose.
Needing a coach to finish out the remainder of the schedule, the Patriots brought in Phil Bengston, the former Green Bay Packers head coach who had been working as the San Diego Chargers head of personnel. With special permission from the Chargers to come to the Patriots, the 61-year-old Bengston brought order to the chaos in Foxborough.
One of his first moves was to suspend running back Carl Garrett, who had routinely missed practice sessions but had been protected under Mazur.
The Patriots managed one more victory in 1972 with a 17-10 triumph over the New Orleans Saints (one of only two teams with a worse record than the Patriots in 1972) in Week 13.
Several days before the New Orleans game, Bell had gotten the axe from team owner Billy Sullivan, who had grown to dislike Bell's adversarial working style.
With his club now lacking both a head coach and general manager, Sullivan was left to search for a new coach for the third time since Mike Holovak's departure in 1968. As it turned out the third time would be the charm.