The Patriots began the new decade with a familiar face as head coach. Rod Rust, who served as the team's defensive coordinator for five years between 1983-87, was officially named the 10th head coach in team history on Feb. 27. After their lackluster 5-11 season in 1989, the Patriots did little to win back fan support when they sent the third overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft to Seattle for two picks later in the first round. With those picks the Patriots selected linebacker Chris Singleton and defensive lineman Ray Agnew, neither of whom became impact players during their short stays in New England.
After dropping the last four games in 1989, a winless preseason did not exactly whet the fans' appetite for the start of the regular season, which did not get off to a pleasant start. Miami Dolphins running back Sammie Smith shredded New England for 159 yards on 23 carries in a 27-24 Miami victory on Opening Day at Foxboro. The Patriots led at one point in the game, 21-6, but with only 3:30 left to play, the lead was only 24-20. Miami quarterback Dan Marino led a final drive that culminated with the future Hall of Fame quarterback connecting with Tony Paige for a 7-yard score with less than a minute to play.
The team seemed to shrug off the tough, last second loss with a 16-14 road win at Indianapolis the following week. New England used a strong ball control attack to control the clock for more than 36 minutes. Patriots running back John Stephens gained 96 yards on the ground to pace the Patriots attack. Kicker Jason Staurovsky booted three field goals and veteran quarterback Steve Grogan (playing in his 16th and last NFL season) hit Hart Lee Dykes with a 27-yard scoring pass. It was the last bright spot in what became the worst season in franchise history.
After returning home, the team received unwanted national publicity when Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson was sexually harassed and verbally assaulted by several Patriots players in the team's locker room. The NFL initiated a two-month inquiry, and the investigation hovered over the team like a black cloud for two months. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue eventually fined the team $50,000 and fined Patriots tight end Zeke Mowatt $12,500, and wide receiver Michael Timpson and running back Robert Perryman $5,000 each.
Following the Olson incident, New England suffered a 41-17 setback in Cincinnati and returned home, only to receive a 37-13 shellacking at the hands of the hardly-formidable New York Jets. The Patriots went on to drop 14 straight games to finish the year at 1-15, the worst record in team history.
Whatever hopes New England had of turning their losing season around ended in Week Five against the Seattle Seahawks. New England had rallied from a 19-3 deficit to pull in front 20-19 early in the fourth quarter, but Seattle quarterback Dave Krieg hit Jeff Chadwick on a 45-yard scoring pass with just more than two minutes to play. The Seahawks added a clinching touchdown only seconds later to hand the Patriots what turned out to be a devastating 33-20 defeat.
By midseason, the Patriots hit rock bottom and a 13-10 loss in Indianapolis in Week 10 seemed to serve as a perfect illustration of the team's frustration. Despite limiting the Colts to five first downs in the entire game, the Patriots wasted a fine effort by third-year running back Marvin Allen, who was subbing for the injured Stephens. Allen's 160 yards of total offense went for naught as Colts quarterback Jeff George hit Billy Brooks from 26 yards away late in the fourth quarter to hand the Patriots the loss.
The season mercifully ended on Dec. 30 with a 13-10 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Before a sellout crowd of 60,410 in Foxborough, most of which were Giants fans, the Patriots battled the entire game, and had a chance to tie or win in the final minutes after recovering a Giants fumble. But the punchless New England offense failed to produce as Staurovsky missed a short field goal. With the loss, the Patriots failed to win a game at home all season for the first time in their history.
There was no individual area to fault for the club's fall to the dregs of the NFL in 1990. The offense was hopeless, scoring a single touchdown or less in 12 of the team's 16 games. The 181 points scored by New England were the fewest of any team since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978. The defense ranked 25th in the NFL, and allowed more than 30 points on six different occasions. The only bright spot for the Patriots was left tackle Bruce Armstrong earning his first of what would be six invitations to the Pro Bowl.
Rust and longtime general manager Patrick Sullivan were sent packing at the end of the season. The team decided to take a more corporate approach, as New England brought in Sam Jankovich as the new Chief Executive Officer. Jankovich had been Athletic Director at the University of Miami from 1982-90 and was thought to possess the ability to coral the finest college talent to help rebuild the now downtrodden Patriots.
One of Jankovich's first acts was to hire Syracuse Head Coach Dick MacPherson as the new Patriots boss