After their disastrous 1-15 campaign in 1990 it seemed the only direction the Patriots could go was up in 1991. The task of reshaping this disorganized band of players fell to the 60-year-old MacPherson. After a successful 10-year tenure as head coach of Syracuse University, it was felt that MacPherson's rah-rah college approach would help bring the team the discipline it so sorely lacked. MacPherson could bark like a drill sergeant but also possessed the heart of a chaplain. As it turned out MacPherson's honest and infectious spirit spread throughout his young team, inspiring them to play hard and often over their heads.
Both the team and Foxboro Stadium had taken on a new look when the Patriots opened the 1991 season against the Indianapolis Colts. Foxboro Stadium had taken on a brand new appearance with the installation of a natural grass-playing surface. The Patriots posted an impressive 16-7 road victory over the Colts in the season opener, snapping a franchise-record 14-game losing streak and helped shake off the bitter memories of the dismal 1990 campaign.
Over the next two weeks the Patriots failed to score a single touchdown, prompting MacPherson to replace starting quarterback Tommy Hodson with four-year veteran Hugh Millen. The move brought immediate results, as Millen hit wide receiver Greg McMurtry with a game-winning 34-yard touchdown pass with only six seconds remaining to give the Patriots a pulsating 24-20 upset victory over Houston in Week Four. The win was the Patriots first against a team other than Indianapolis in 25 games.
While Millen was far from spectacular, the four-year veteran from Washington helped keep New England competitive in every game for the remainder of the season. He found a steady target in tight end Marv Cook, who though small in stature for his position went on to shatter the club record for receptions. Cook recorded 82 catches in 1991, a feat that earned him a berth in the Pro Bowl. Rookie first-round draft pick Leonard Russell from Arizona State came on to supplant Stephens in the Patriots backfield. Russell led the team in rushing with 959 yards and was named the Associated Press Rookie of the Year.
In Week Eight, the Patriots stunned the Minnesota Vikings with a 26-23 overtime win in Foxborough. Millen torched the Vikings secondary for 300 yards through the air, connecting with veteran wide receiver Irving Fryar nine times for 161 yards. After blowing a 10-point lead in the final minutes, the Patriots pulled the game out on the last play of the overtime session when Jason Staurovsky nailed a 42-yard field goal to send the crowd of 45,367 home happy.
Unfortunately Millen proved to be all too human the following week against the Denver Broncos. Despite limiting the Broncos to only three field goals and holding Denver quarterback John Elway to a mere 154 yards through the air, the Patriots fell, 9-6. Millen drove his club deep into Denver territory in the final seconds but then took off on an ill-advised scramble that saw him brought down well short of the end zone. With no timeouts remaining, the clock ticked off the final seconds, giving the Patriots no chance to attempt a game-tying field goal.
One of the keys to the Patriots improved play was the suddenly stubborn play of a young defensive unit that surprised everyone. The Patriots allowed 141 fewer points in 1991 thanks in part to the linebacking tandem of veteran Andre Tippett and his protégé, Vincent Brown. Together the pair terrorized opposing quarterbacks and ball carriers in 1991, with Tippett leading the team in sacks for the fourth time in his career with 8.5. Brown led the club in tackles with 117.
The Patriots newfound success was evident in a 16-13 Week 13 upset over the defending AFC champion Buffalo Bills. The Patriots celebrated that day on two fronts, first honoring former quarterback Steve Grogan at halftime by naming him in the Patriots Hall of Fame. The Patriots also celebrated on the field by sacking Bills quarterback Jim Kelly four times and picking off four of his passes.
Two weeks later New England posted its second overtime victory of the season (a feat no Patriots club has since matched) when it rallied from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the Colts, 17-17. Millen's 2-yard scoring pass to rookie tight end Ben Coates with seven seconds remaining sent the game into overtime. In the extra session, Millen connected with Michael Timpson on a perfectly executed play action pass that resulted in a 45-yard touchdown. A 6-3 win over the Jets the following week enabled the Patriots to finish the season with three wins in their last five games.
Their late season success led many to believe the team turned the corner and was on its way back to respectability under MacPherson. But the marginal improvement and 6-10 record only served to mask the many deficiencies. Despite high hopes it would soon become apparent to everyone how much work still needed to be done. The Patriots would endure many more bumps on their climb back to respectability.