Tales from the Patriots Sideline by Michael Felger
Review by C. Douglas Baker
Michael Felger provides a mini-history of the New England Patriots through a series of chapters, ordered mostly chronologically, that details many of the woes, and a few of the highlights, of this historically inept team. Being a Patriots fan, this was a very nostalgic book. Unfortunately, many of the memories are bad ones. While this is not an in-depth detailed team history, Felger hits all the key events. The book is organized into a series of very readable chapters that cover many of the laughable and the few laudable stories in the team’s history.
There is a very consistent theme that runs throughout the book. The New England Patriots have historically been a comically bad team, primarily because of four interrelated aspects —cash strapped or inept ownership, poor organizational structure, poor coaching, and poor quarterbacks. The recent success of the team, on the other hand, is a result of the opposite—excellent ownership, excellent organizational structure, excellent coaching, and a good quarterback.
The first couple of chapters in the book cover the team’s founding and early history as the Sullivans struggled to field competitive teams. It’s a wonder the team didn’t fold within the first few years of its existence. William Sullivan bought the Patriots franchise in 1959, joining the new American Football League, which competed, unevenly, with the well-established National Football League.
From its inception the organization was very cash strapped, which at times lead to tragi-comic episodes of penny pinching. One story related in the book is how the team was told not to get under the covers at a hotel where they were resting before a game because it would cost extra money. Moreover, they played in poor stadiums and eventually their home stadium was one of the more miserly in the league. Sullivan isn’t viewed as necessarily a terrible owner, he just never had the cash to compete evenly with other teams.
In fact, under the Sullivans, the team eventually became one of the better teams in the NFL. Unfortunately, Sullivan’s son Pat, through a terrible investment, ran the family’s business into the ground, forcing the family to sell the Patriots. The team went through some very lousy owners until it was eventually bought by current owner Robert Kraft, who has resurrected the franchise into a model sports organization.
The book moves quickly to what may have been the best Patriots team ever—even better than the Super Bowl winning teams—the 1976 New England Patriots. This team certainly featured some of the best individual players in team history, including Hall of Fame guard John Hannah, Sam “Bam” Cunningham at tailback, Leon Gray (T), Russ Francis (TE), Hall of Fame cornerback Michael Haynes, Steve Nelson (LB), Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton (DE), and of course QB Steve Grogan.
This is the team that should have won the Super Bowl but for an egregiously bad roughing the passer penalty on Ray Hamilton in their first round playoff game against the Oakland Raiders during the 1977 playoffs. This game and that penalty will live in infamy for New England fans. We got our payback in 2001.
There are also a lot of players profiled in the book. Entire chapters are devoted to Darryl Stingley, who was tragically paralyzed in a preseason game on a hit by Jack Tatum in 1978, and John Hannah, considered by some to be the best offensive lineman in NFL history.
Of course throughout the book we meet numerous players from Gino Cappelletti in the 1960’s to Drew Bledsoe, the Patriots long-time quarterback now with the Buffalo Bills. A chapter toward the end of the book is devoted to the primary quarterbacks through New England’s history: Jim Plunkett, Steve Grogan, Tony Eason, and Drew Bledsoe.
Later chapters discuss the revitalized New England Patriots of the 1980’s. This is a team that underachieved when it had good talent and overachieved when it reached Super Bowl XX as a Wild Card team after the 1985 season. Unfortunately, they went on to be crushed by the Chicago Bears in that Super Bowl in a painful game to watch for Patriots fans.
The team eventually imploded—accusations of drug use tore apart the locker room and coach Raymond Berry soon departed, the Sullivan’s eventually sold the team and it went through a period of horrible owners, coaches, and mismanagement. On top of that, there were several incidents of poor behavior by the players, topped off by the sexual harassment of Lisa Olson, a Boston Herald sports reporter, in 1990. This is a period of time when I was embarrassed to be a New England Patriots fan.
And finally there is a chapter on the Kraft Era—which shows how Kraft bought the team and struggled a bit to learn how to be an owner. The first few years of ownership were a learning period that eventually led to the hiring of Bill Belichick and the establishment of a solid organization that gives the coaches and players the best chance to win.
It took some time for Kraft to find his legs, but he did it. And the reward: a two-time Super Bowl champion team as of this writing and a successful structure that should allow the Patriots to be a top-tier competitive team for years to come.
There are two drawbacks to this book. First, it basically stops after the 1996 season and treats the Super Bowl winning teams in a postscript. Felger could have taken more time to round out the story through at least the first Super Bowl winning team in 2002 (the 2001 season). Secondly, there really isn’t anything completely new here.
Most Patriots fans will be already aware of nearly all the stories and events described in this book. Nevertheless, there are personal touches with commentary and perspectives from players throughout the team’s history and it’s well organized and written.
Overall I would highly recommend this book for Patriots fans. Very avid football fans would probably find it interesting. It’s a fast read. Casual football fans I doubt would find anything compelling here.