Any hopes the Patriots harbored for a return to the postseason in 1989 vanished on Sept. 1. On that Friday evening in the last exhibition game, the Patriots lost three key defensive starters to season-ending injuries. Defensive end Garin Veris, Tippett and defensive back Ronnie Lippett all went down in the first half against the Green Bay Packers, and in one 30-minute span the Patriots defense suffered a blow from which they couldn't recover.
Despite the tremendous setback the Patriots pulled out a 27-24 road victory against the New York Jets in the season opener. Running back Reggie Dupard scored on a 4-yard touchdown run with 1:55 left to play to give the Patriots a come-from-behind victory. New England had built a 21-0 halftime lead on two Tony Eason touchdown passes and a 1-yard run by Stephens. But the depleted New England defense squandered the lead in the second half. After limiting the Jets to a mere 52 yards on eight plays in the first half, the Patriots allowed the Jets more than 250 yards and 24 points in the second half.
The season soured quickly after the euphoria over the victory in the season opener. The Patriots offense managed only a total of 23 points over the next three weeks as New England dropped three games in succession. The Patriots finally snapped the losing streak in Week Five at home against the playoff-bound Houston Oilers.
Grogan took over the quarterbacking duties in Week Seven (replacing both Eason and Flutie) and the lackluster Patriots offense started to become productive. With second-year running back Stephens leading a strong ground attack and Grogan throwing to a receiving corps that included tight end Eric Sievers (a team-leading 54 receptions) and wide receivers Hart Lee Dykes and Cedric Jones, the Patriots remained competitive in each of their next seven games. But New England managed to go only 2-5 over that stretch, which assured them of their first losing season in eight years.
In a year in which the Patriots struggled on defense, Maurice Hurst and linebacker Johnny Rembert performed magnificently. Rembert earned his second straight Pro Bowl invitation in only his second year as a starter and, along with the play of Ed Reynolds and Vincent Brown, helped to alleviate the loss of the injured Tippett from the Patriot linebacking corp.
Defensive end Brent Williams turned in another fine year, leading the team in sacks with eight for the second straight season. But despite the fine individual efforts of a select few the Patriots were not able to recover from the devastating injuries to their trio of defensive stalwarts. New England sunk to 23rd in the NFL in defense, a sad cry from their great defensive teams of the mid-1980s.
The big surprise over the winter came with Berry's dismissal as head coach. He was expected to be retained despite the club's mediocre 5-11 season, but when Berry refused to go outside of his own staff for new offensive and defensive coordinators, he was fired.
Berry's replacement was Rod Rust, who had put in five seasons as the Patriots defensive coordinator between 1983-87. But no one realized how far the talent-level had dropped on the team, and what was in store for the club over the next several seasons. The dark ages were about to return to the franchise.