In a year the Patriots were expected to challenge for the NFL title, they instead firmly established their reputation as underachievers that lacked both character and heart. Despite possessing what many believed to be one of the most talented rosters in football, New England crumbled like a house of cards during the season's second half and tumbled to a 9-7 finish to miss out on the playoffs for the second time in three years.
The future of Patriots Head Coach Chuck Fairbanks dominated the Boston sports scene during the offseason. The Fairbanks Fiasco dragged on in the courts for months before a settlement was reached on April 2, whereby the University of Colorado agreed to compensate the Patriots for releasing their head coach from his contract. Patriots owner Billy Sullivan named assistant coach Ron "Fargo" Erhardt as the new head coach and installed Bucko Kilroy as the team's new general manager. One of the new regime's first moves proved to be a shocker when New England shipped All-Pro tackle Leon Gray to the Houston Oilers for two draft picks and cash considerations.
The Patriots gambled that Gray's skills were in decline and that Dwight "Wimpy" Wheeler could replace the veteran at left tackle. Gray had the last laugh as he turned in several more All-Pro seasons while Wheeler never approached Gray's performance level.
The Patriots opened the 1979 season against the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers before a national television audience on "Monday Night Football." The game marked the return of Darryl Stingley to New England, as the paralyzed Patriots star receiver was introduced to the Foxboro crowd during the second quarter. The game was interrupted for several minutes with a prolonged standing ovation for Stingley. Unfortunately the emotion generated by the sellout crowd did not carry over to their team, as the Patriots dropped a 16-13 decision to the Steelers in overtime. Wheeler's poor play and the Patriots unfortunate penchant for committing key penalties at inopportune times were particularly disturbing elements of the loss, and both proved to be problems that continued to plague New England all year long.
The following week the Patriots took out their frustration on the New York Jets, recording the biggest-margin of victory in club history with a 56-3 demolition of their division rivals. In all, the Patriots broke or tied 27 team and individual records. The New England defense sacked Jets quarterback Richard Todd nine times while the Patriots offense roared into high gear. Steve Grogan enjoyed the finest game of his career, throwing five touchdowns to tie Babe Parilli's single-game team record.
Erhardt promised to open up the Patriots offense in 1979, and the game against the Jets unveiled the new big-game passing attack. Unlike years past where the Patriots were content to run the ball down their opponent's throat, they relied on the pass to break down the opposition in 1979. Grogan led the NFL with 28 touchdown passes and had two of the finest wide receivers in all of football to work with in Harold Jackson and Stanley Morgan.
By season's end Jackson and Morgan were the first pair of teammates to each surpass the 1,000-yard mark for receptions in a season in 12 years. Morgan earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl in his third pro season thanks to a year in which he established a new club record for touchdowns in a season with an even dozen.
The Patriots were sporting a three-game winning streak when they arrived in Green Bay for a Monday Night battle with the Packers in Week Five. Playing under a full moon, strange things happened as New England dropped a 27-14 decision to the upset-minded Packers. New England lost three starters to injury during the game, the most serious a season-ending knee injury suffered by running back Andy Johnson. This was only the first in a series of injuries that hampered the quartet of runners that set the NFL rushing record in 1978. Combined, New England running backs missed 21 games due to injury in 1979, forcing Grogan to rely on the pass more than he had in any previous season.
When Grogan was good he was very, very good, but when he was off the fans were unmerciful in unleashing their full fury on him. After suffering a three-interception game against the Packers, Grogan was pulled from a game for the first time in his career the following week in a game against the Detroit Lions after a woeful first half performance. Reserve quarterback Tom Owen rallied the Pats to a 24-17 comeback victory, which only fanned the flames in the Patriots latest quarterback controversy.
The big comeback win seemed to ignite the Patriots flagging spirits, as they went on to win their next two games in convincing fashion to gain sole possession of the AFC East with an impressive 6-2 record at midseason.
The second half of the season saw the Patriots become a Jekyll and Hyde team, overwhelming their helpless opponents one week and then looking totally inept against a supposedly beatable foe the following Sunday. New England started the second half dropping a 31-26 decision to the mediocre Colts in Baltimore.
After an easy win in Buffalo, they were humiliated by the Broncos in Denver, 45-10, the worst defeat suffered by a Patriots team in seven years. The following week New England took out their frustrations by pummeling the Colts 50-21 in Foxboro, a win that helped them reclaim first place in the division. But any hopes of a division title dissipated with three consecutive losses.
A 16-13 loss in overtime to the Buffalo Bills in Foxborough started the slide. Three nights later the Patriots staggered into Miami for a first-place showdown with the Dolphins in a nationally-televised Thursday night game. After taking a 17-13 lead into halftime, the Patriots allowed 26 consecutive Miami points in falling to the Dolphins 39-24.
With chances for the division title now all but gone, New England still clung to the hope of capturing a wild card berth with wins in their final two games. That hope faded quickly the following week when the Jets applied the crusher, gaining revenge for the Patriots blowout victory in Week Two with a 27-26 win at Shea Stadium. Playing only for pride in the season finale at Foxboro, the Patriots rallied to defeat the Minnesota Vikings 27-23 to finish with a disappointing 9-7 record.