The NFL season is just five weeks old, and it’s already one of the most noteworthy in Patriots history: positive COVID-19 tests from the most valuable offensive and defensive players on the team, the rescheduling of two games, Bill Belichick dealing with the death of his mother, a roster still finding its footing in the first season of the post-Tom Brady era, all set against the backdrop of a league dealing with a pandemic.
The franchise, however, is no stranger to drama, having shown an uncanny knack for navigating life at the center of the NFL storm on many occasions.
But when you’re talking about a full-tilt crazy season, how does 2020 match up with some previous years — at least so far? We tried to find full years that featured a variety of wild off-the-field events coupled with notable on-field activity.
If 2020 lands somewhere in the top 10, here are the nine other seasons that should join it on the list, in chronological order:
▪ 1978: In the preseason, wide receiver Darryl Stingley was paralyzed following a hit from Oakland safety Jack Tatum. A sudden and shocking moment, one that would rock most teams. But the Patriots went 11-5, and following their near-miss in 1976, they appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough.
But on the eve of the regular-season finale in Miami, owner Billy Sullivan suspended coach Chuck Fairbanks after it was discovered that Fairbanks had accepted a contract to become the new coach at the University of Colorado.
Fairbanks eventually was reinstated in New England, but the second-seeded Patriots were upset by the fifth-seeded Oilers and Earl Campbell, 31-14, in the first round at Foxborough.
The team sued Fairbanks for breach of contract, but the matter was resolved and he left for Colorado.
▪ 1985 and 1986: We’re grouping a variety of events under a single umbrella here. Taken individually, they probably don’t rise to the level of other years, but collectively, they’re noteworthy enough to mention.
After a slow start, the 1985 Patriots made it all the way to Super Bowl XX before they were vaporized by the Bears, 46-10. That playoff run featured an on-field brawl between Patriots general manager Patrick Sullivan and Raiders linebacker Matt Millen. After the season, a Globe report revealed there were multiple players on the roster with drug issues.
The following season, wide receiver Irving Fryar separated his shoulder during a game, but instead of staying at the stadium with his teammates, he got in his car and left . . . … and got into an accident on the way home while listening to the game on the radio.
▪ 1990: Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson was sexually harassed in the Patriots locker room. The incident sparked a firestorm that focused on the NFL’s treatment of female journalists.
The 1990 team might have been the worst in franchise history, finishing 1-15, including a 14-game losing skid to end the season. It marked the end of a two-year period in which they went 6-26. They weren’t only God-awful, but wildly unlikable as well.
▪ 1996: Bill Parcells’s final year in New England was just as dramatic on the field as off it. He led the team to its second Super Bowl appearance, a quest that ended with a loss to the Packers.
He then left shortly after the season to take the head coaching job with the Jets, citing a desire to not only “cook the dinner” but also “shop for the groceries,” meaning he wanted more input in personnel decisions.
Some reports said Parcells had been laying the groundwork for a return to North Jersey for a number of seasons. But the “will he or won’t he?” drama and the on-field run to a Super Bowl are enough to land this season on our list.
▪ 2001: The season started with the unexpected death of quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein, the horror of Sept. 11, and a scary injury to Drew Bledsoe. Backup Tom Brady was installed as the starter, but soon after Bledsoe was pronounced good to go, the specter of a quarterback controversy loomed.
One of the most underrated story lines from this season was that Bledsoe could have really divided the locker room if he had made more of a public stink than he did.
Brady was the guy under center most of the rest of the way, and it all ended with Adam Vinatieri connecting at the end of Super Bowl XXXVI to send everyone home happy.
That was my first season on the beat, and I remember after I had filed my last story, standing on the floor of the Superdome and thinking I’d never see another year that crazy. Man, was I wrong.
▪ 2007: The drama started with Spygate and continued to build over the course of an undefeated regular season, which included a series of blowouts and one six-game stretch with an average margin of victory of 26 points.
As the Patriots aimed for the first 19-0 season in NFL history, the postseason culminated with a dramatic 17-14 loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Even though they couldn’t finish the job, it remains one of the more remarkable seasons in NFL history for a few reasons, the least of which was that it felt like every game after Thanksgiving was an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil. Who was good and who was evil? It depended on whom you were rooting for.
▪ 2013: Most of the noteworthy stuff took place before the season, but we’ll include it. In one three-month-plus period, there was the departure of veteran wide receiver Wes Welker in free agency, the signing of Tim Tebow, and the arrest of Aaron Hernandez.
The season had its share of ups and downs, including a dramatic comeback win over the Saints, but the Patriots ran out of gas against the Broncos in Denver in the AFC title game.
It probably wasn’t as eventful when it came to on-field action as some of the other years on this list, but the offseason leading up to the campaign was as dramatic as it gets.
▪ 2014: After the acquisition of all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis in the spring, the Patriots started slowly, but a shellacking in Kansas City led into the “on to Cincinnati” week and a stretch of 10 wins in 11 games.
From an on-field standpoint, the real reason this year is on the list is the postseason. There was the underrated classic against the Ravens in the divisional round that featured a double-digit second-half comeback, the blowout of the Colts that sparked the birth of Deflategate, and a Super Bowl XLIX win that came down to Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception.
▪ 2016: After a protracted legal battle, Brady was suspended for the first four games of the season. The Patriots would emerge from that stretch 3-1, but later in the season they were drawn into the political arena when a red cap was spotted in Brady’s locker, and it was revealed that Belichick had written a letter of support to presidential candidate Donald Trump.
For a couple of weeks, Gillette Stadium felt like the nexus of American sports and politics. The Patriots ended up capturing the first overtime win in Super Bowl history, bouncing back from a 28-3 deficit to beat the Falcons.
Christopher Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.