Can the New England Patriots belatedly become a force in the National Football League this season? Such a question would have prompted derisive laughter a month of Sundays ago after they slumbered to a 45-0 whitewashing at the hands of the previously winless Green Bay Packers. If the same question were asked today, however, the answer would be a resounding ``yes.'' The Patriots, erstwhile orphans of neglect, are assuming a new personality both on and off the field.
In terms of performance, the Pats of mid-November are a far cry from the 2-4 team of the Packers debacle. They are 6-5 now, winners of four of their last five games, with the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals among their victims. Their players speak confidently of winning their remaining five games and earning a wild-card berth in the playoffs.
In the front office, the Patriots are also no longer orphans. They have a new owner, Victor Kiam, who oozes enthusiam over the team's attitude. He now wants first-class rights to a playing field, even if he has to move the team to another community.
What has transformed the Patriots from losers to winners?
Doug Flutie and John Stephens surely are part of the answer. Flutie is the legendary Boston College quarterback of five years ago whose lethal passing combined with an ability to come up with the big play lifted him to a Heisman Trophy. He started this season as the Pats' fourth-string quarterback, sticking with the team only because one quarterback was on the injured reserve list, but through a combination of circumstances has taken over the starting job and directed the offense throughout the current winning surge.
Stephens is the team's underpublicized first-round draft choice out of Northwestern State University (La.), a runner who has converted the ground game into a potent force. Two weeks ago he became the first New England back to gain more than 100 yards in three straight games, picking up 104 in 21 carries in a 27-10 triumph over the Miami Dolphins. The string was broken last Sunday, but he still gained 87 yards and scored the winning touchdown as the Pats edged the New York Jets, 14-13, to keep their playoff hopes burning.
Up to and including that embarassing defeat at the hands of the usually docile Packers, the Patriots were going nowhere fast. They had an unclear quarterback situation, a lackluster running attack, and ineffective special teams. Coach Raymond Barry sought the spark that would ignite their resolve to win.
The following week, however, they came alive with a 27-21 victory over the previously unbeaten Bengals, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The 5 ft. 10 in. Flutie has shown he's a ``giant'' of a team player. He subdues his flash, the dashing across the field with unplanned runs, the escaping of a pocket of blockers to throw a daring pass. This means humdrum statistics, trench football, and limited heroics. But it also means victories. And it spells praise from once-skeptical teammates.
``Each week he [Flutie] gets better and better,'' says Irving Fryar, the team's leading pass receiver and punt returner. `` We're winning, and we're running the ball. I think we can win on the road.''
That's a key, because until last Sunday the Patriots were winless away from Sullivan Stadium - and even now their 5-1 home record is counterbalanced by a 1-4 road mark heading into Sunday night's game at Miami.
Maybe the most enthusiastic Patriot of all is new owner Kiam. ``Coach Berry and his crew and his scouting staff have done a remarkable job of assimilating veterans and rookies,'' he told a press conference. ``The Pats have come alive, and it's wonderful.''
Off the field, the big question is whether Kiam will keep the team in Foxboro. He says the franchise will stay if he can arrange ``the best'' of football, facilities, and fun for the fans. If this can't be done, he is seeking viable alternatives - perhaps in Providence, R.I., or at least somewhere in New England.
Throughout the Patriots' existence they have had trouble finding a place to play. Their early adventures took them wherever fields were available - Boston University, Harvard, Fenway Park, and Boston College. Since 1971 they have had their own stadium here 20 miles south of Boston, but the facility has always had its problems - including massive traffic jams due to the lack of accessible roads. Currently, the stadium is in bankruptcy, and Kiam heads one of the organizations seeking to purchase it.
In this situation the battle is in the hands of lawyers, courts, and judges rather than coaches and players. Kiam reasons: ``If we can deal with Foxboro, that is our first hope. Our true goal is to keep the Patriots for the fans in New England. We are taking one step at a time.''