Patriots: high spots, holdouts, a history of letdowns

It has always been considered somewhat unwise to become too confident about the staying power of the New England Patriots, even though their current personnel suggest otherwise. Invariably the Patriots seem to find a way to disappoint their followers.

After a fast 6-2 start last season under new head coach Ron Erhardt, New England skidded to a 3-5 finish that left the Patriots one game behind the division-winning Miami Dolphins in the AFC East.

A high number of injuries to key players was given as the reason for New England's collapse, but as one club official told me recently:

"I'm tired of hearing us tell people that we lost because of injuries. Other teams had people hurt and got to the playoffs, and that's my point. Good teams somehow find a way to overcome their problems, and we didn't."

One thing that may help the Patriots this season is that the Dolphins are in a kind of transition period -- strong but into a program that has them relying heavily on several young players without much experience. This could cost Miami some of its usual stability early in the season, although head coach Don Shula is so good at disguising weaknesses that it may make no difference at all.

The New York Jets, who started to come of age last season with an 8-8 record, now think they have the offense that can do the job, although the defense is still in the process of proving itself. Like the Patriots, the Jets have sometimes been known to self-destruct.

The Buffalo Bills should continue to improve under head coach Chuck Knox, who may not be a fast builder but is certainly a competent one. fans are warned not to take too seriously a rumor that Los Angeles Rams QB Pat Haden will be traded to Buffalo.

The Baltimore Colts are going to win a few because of the great individual talents of QB Bert Jones. But changes in the Colts' running game may be more cosmetic than anything else, and there is no guarantee that their new 3-4 defense will be any better than their old 4-3.

supposedly weak opposition within its own division is why several national magazines have picked New England to win at least 10 games with an offense that was already the second best in the National Football League last season.

Defensively, the Patriots still have to show they can do the job consistently for all four periods.But if one were to suggest that coach Erhardt and his staff have borrowed some of the principles of the Dallas Cowboys' flex defense, he wouldn't be far wrong.

"Part of our defensive problem last year was that we gave up too much easy yardage." Erhardt explained. "That means two things, both bad. You aren't making the opposition pay enough of a physical price for its ground, and it's tough to score when the other team has the football.

"We'll do some things differently on defense, but mostly we'll just be trying to do them better," Ron continued. "Invariably you make adjustments every week, because against some teams you need zone coverage and against others you can't get by without a lot of man-to-man."

Also complicating the situation are the still-unresolved contract negotiations involving the so-called "Gang of Four" represented by agent Howard Slusher -- running back Sam Cunningham, defensive back Mike Haynes, backup quarterback Tom Owen, and defensive lineman Richard Bishop -- all of whom missed the entire exhibition season and were still unsigned virtually on the eve of the regular season opener.

One position that Erhardt doesn't have to worry about is quarterback, where Steve Grogan has 65 regular-season starts behind him and where Matt Cavanaugh, a third-year pro out of Pittsburgh, has shown remarkable poise.

Cavanaugh could probably start for quite a few NFL teams and, if he doesn't eventually win the job outright from Grogan, may push Steve to new heights of effectiveness. Although Grogan threw 28 touchdown passes last season, he also had 20 interceptions.

New England has some quality hands in Pro Bowl wide receiver Stanley Morgan ( 44 catches for more than 1,000 yards) and Harold Jackson, who also went over the 1,000 mark. Then there is tight end Russ Francis, who, at 6 ft. 6 in. and 240 pounds, not only catches passes but has been known to block with all the authority of a Sherman tank.

Perhaps the two biggest new games on the Patriots are fullback chuck Foreman (acquired in a trade with Minnesota) and rookie runner Vagas Ferguson of Notre Dame, whose outside speed could be a big plus.

On paper, none of its rivals beat out New England in the AFC East. What worries management is that the Patriots have looked equally good before.

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