The most imaginative Hollywood writer could not have scripted the Patriots 1978 season. New England overcame a tragic preseason injury to wide receiver Darryl Stingley to post an 11-5 record and capture their first AFC East championship. But the excitement over hosting the first playoff game in franchise history took a backseat to the Chuck Fairbanks saga. The head coach was suspended before the regular season finale only to be reinstated for the postseason.
An undefeated preseason meant little due to Stingley's devastating injury. The six-year veteran from Purdue was permanently paralyzed on a hit by Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum in mid-August, and the specter of his catastrophic injury seemed to hang over the club through the early part of the season.
The Patriots dropped the season opener to the Washington Redskins, 16-14, in a loss that also cost them the services of defensive end Julius Adams and punter Mike Patrick for the remainder of the season. The Patriots broke into the win column the following week but lost place-kicker John Smith for the rest of the year in a 16-6 victory over the Cardinals in St. Louis.
A 34-27 loss to the Baltimore Colts in a driving rainstorm saddled the Patriots with a mediocre 1-2 start for the second straight season. But an emotional 21-14 victory on a Sunday evening the following week in Oakland seemed to pull the Patriots out of their collective funk.
Trailing 14-0 in the first quarter the Patriots rallied to tie the score, then pushed across the game-winning touchdown on a Sam Cunningham dive over the top in the final minute. The victory was the start of a seven-game winning streak that vaulted New England to the top of the division, a spot where they remained for the rest of the season.
Despite the presence of outstanding receivers in veteran Harold Jackson (obtained from the Rams shortly after the injury to Stingley), second-year speedster Stanley Morgan, and All-World tight end Russ Francis, the success the Patriot offense enjoyed in 1978 was due mostly to a record-setting ground attack. A powerful offensive line consisting of center Bill Lenkaitis, tackles Gray and Shelby Jordan, and guards Hannah and Sam Adams, paved the way for a corps of runners who set an all-time NFL rushing record with 3,165 yards.
Although the Patriots did not boast a 1,000-yard rusher, they did claim four different runners with more than 500 yards. Cunningham led the way for the fourth straight season with 768 yards, while second-year back Horace Ivory averaged more than 5 yards per carry and scored a team-high 11 touchdowns.
Consecutive victories over division rivals at midseason put the Patriots in a position to claim their first division title since joining the NFL in 1970. New England took over sole possession of first place with an impressive 33-24 victory over the Miami Dolphins in Week Eight. The following week they tied or set nine team records in annihilating the New York Jets, 55-21. New England scored on its first seven possessions of the game without the benefit of a turnover, a feat that drew accusations of signal stealing from an irate Jets coaching staff after the game. In all, the Pats rolled up 529 yards of well-balanced offense (240 rushing, 289 passing) in the highest scoring game in club history.
New England won three of its next five to put itself in a position to clinch its initial (yet elusive) division crown in Week 15 against the Buffalo Bills. On a cold and snowy December Sunday afternoon in Foxborough the two long-time rivals battled to the final seconds in a tight, back-and-forth contest. Patriots kicker David Posey booted a 34-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining to give New England a 26-24 win and the division title. The fans stormed the field and tore down the goalposts in the first-ever postgame celebration at Schaefer Stadium.
The euphoria over the big win lasted only a week, as rumors about Fairbanks leaving for the University of Colorado turned into fact just hours before the start of the club's season finale in Miami. Fairbanks had grown unhappy with the growing encroachment of his general manager duties and longed to divorce himself from the Sullivan family. Enraged, team owner Billy Sullivan suspended Fairbanks on the spot, creating a bizarre situation where assistant coaches Ron Erhardt and Hank Bullough each shared the coaching duties against the Dolphins. The result was a lackluster 23-3 loss made notable only for the knee sprain sustained by Grogan in the second quarter.
After several days of legal tactics, Fairbanks was re-instated for the Patriots home playoff game against the Houston Oilers. Unfortunately the disarray that dominated the entire affair spilled over to the team's play on the field. After fighting the Oilers to a scoreless draw through the first quarter, the Patriots fell apart. Grogan's balky knee gave way in the second quarter and the proud warrior was forced to the sidelines as Houston pushed across three successive touchdowns to take a 21-0 halftime lead.
Reserve quarterback Tom Owen came off the bench to rally the Patriots for two second half touchdowns, but the furious comeback effort fell short as New England bowed 31-14. Fairbanks was showered with boos as he walked off the field in Foxborough for the final time, as the fans took out their frustrations on the most obvious target.
Although their season had ended on a sour note the Patriots had much to be proud of in 1978. New England placed five players on the AFC Pro Bowl squad, its most since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The team captured its first division title as a member of the NFL and hosted its first-ever home playoff game. It also established a new team rushing record — one that has gone unchallenged since.