Given that the Patriots already are assured of finishing with a winning record for a 16th consecutive season, the opportunity to reach .500 in something may not seem to carry much magnitude. But with history and context considered, it should. With a victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Foxborough, the Patriots will have at last broken even on “Monday Night Football” — they enter this, their 48th game on the seminal prime-time football show that premiered in 1970, with 23 wins and 24 losses.
The achievement of finally getting even would serve a dual purpose: It offers further affirmation of the transcendence-in-progress success of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. (Brady is 14-6 on Monday nights, and the Patriots are 11-3 since the broadcast moved from ABC to ESPN for the 2006 season.) And it’s a reminder of how far the franchise had to come from its early appearances on “Monday Night Football,” when the team rarely won and yet it had to be considered a small victory if the evening ended in mere embarrassment rather than tragedy.
The Patriots won just two of their first 13 “Monday Night Football” appearances. There was a somewhat justifiable reason for that drought, though — the franchise was banished from playing home games on “Monday Night Football” for 14 years (1981-95) because of habitually unruly behavior of the Foxborough crowds.
In a sense, the Patriots’ success runs opposite to the importance of “Monday Night Football.” Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden form a stellar broadcast pairing, and the stage does still matter to this generation of players. “I’ve always enjoyed it, man, because of the magnitude,’’ said former Patriots receiver Randy Moss, a player who knew how to seize the prime-time spotlight. “Everybody’s watching . . . I’ve always tried to embrace it and enjoyed doing it.”
But it has been usurped by NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” — the top-rated fall prime-time television program the past five years — as the preeminent and most prestigious NFL broadcast. “Monday Night Football” matters, but it can never again be what it used to be in its ’70s heyday, when its charismatic, bantering broadcast team — fronted by Howard Cosell, a bombastic human thesaurus topped off with a toupee — became a genuine cultural phenomenon.
Cosell was a raging and unapologetic egomaniac, which made some viewers love him, others hate him, and all of them notice him. In previewing the Patriots’ first “Monday Night Football” appearance, an eventual 24-17 loss to the Colts on Nov. 6, 1972, Globe columnist Ray Fitzgerald wrote: “The winner will be in great field position in the AFC East, at least five games behind Miami. The loser drops into the Continental League. There is also the incentive of national television and a chance to look good in front of Howard Cosell, who invented pro football four or five years ago.’’
Those were the good old days for “Monday Night Football.” These are the good old days for the Patriots. Here is a look back at the highs and lows of the 47 times the television franchise and football franchise have intersected before tonight.
Let’s start with Brady
Let’s begin with the Patriots’ greatest Monday night performer. Brady has 44 career touchdown passes on Monday night, fourth-most all time, and enough highlights to singlehandedly fill a weekend’s worth of NFL Network programming.
His greatest statistical performance came on the opening night of the 2011 season, when he was 32 of 48 for 517 yards and four touchdown passes in a 38-24 road victory over the Dolphins. His first Monday night performance, in the kickoff of the 2002 season, was another gem for many reasons. The Patriots christened Gillette Stadium and raised their first Super Bowl banner — amid periodic stadium-wide sing-a-longs of “We Are The Champions” — with a 30-14 victory over the Steelers, their ungracious opponent during the previous postseason’s AFC Championship game.
An even more satisfying Monday night victory might have been the one secured against the Ravens in the 12th game of the 2007 season. The Patriots entered 11-0 and, with Brady and Moss leading a record-setting offense, had long since been generating buzz about going undefeated. But the brash Ravens led late in the fourth quarter, and the defense appeared to stop Brady on a fourth-down quarterback sneak that would have all but secured the victory.
Then, a reprieve: The play was nullified by a last-second timeout by defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. A couple of converted first downs and a few Baltimore penalties later, and Brady found Jabar Gaffney for the winning touchdown in a 27-24 win that kept them undefeated en route to a 16-0 regular season. “That’s when Bart Scott lost his mind,’’ former Patriots center Dan Koppen said recently, referencing the then-Ravens linebacker’s decision to fling a referee’s penalty flag into the stands in the final seconds. “That was good for a laugh, to see them melt down like that.”
It was also Brady, of course, who punctuated one of the boldest decisions of Bill Belichick’s career, in November 2003. He found David Givens for the winning 18-yard touchdown reception in a 30-26 victory over the Broncos, a win made possible by Belichick’s successful decision to take a safety late in the game in hopes of getting the ball back in better field position.
But none of those wins rate as Brady’s greatest Monday night comeback, at least in a macro sense. In the 2009 season opener — Brady’s first game since blowing out his knee in the first quarter of the first game of the 2008 season — he threw for a reassuring 378 yards while rallying the Patriots from an 11-point deficit in the final 5 minutes and 25 seconds for a 25-24 win over the Bills. With a rebuilt knee, he still looked like his pre-injury self. New England could exhale.
Tragedy, death, and banishment
The saddest and most surreal moment in “Monday Night Football” history occurred during a Patriots game. It had nothing to do with football. On Dec. 8, 1980, the Patriots and Dolphins were tied, 13-13, with three seconds remaining at the Orange Bowl. Patriots kicker John Smith was lining up to attempt a winning field goal when Cosell told the world of a terribly cruel loss.
“Remember this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses,’’ he said. “An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous perhaps, of all of the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival.’’
Smith’s kick was blocked, and the Dolphins won in overtime, 16-13. Have to imagine that few fans cared. There was something infinitely more devastating than the outcome of a football game to mourn in the morning. But while Lennon’s death is the most public tragedy ancillary related to the Patriots’ “Monday Night Football” experience, it is not the only tragedy.
During its six visits to Schaefer Stadium (renamed Sullivan Stadium in 1983, and then Foxboro Stadium in ’87) from 1972 to ’81, “Monday Night Football” might as well have been billed as Anarchy Night in Foxborough. In their third “Monday Night Football” appearance on Oct. 18, 1976, the Patriots made an excellent impression on the field. In a 41-7 rout of the Jets, the Patriots ran for a staggering 330 yards on 47 carries, with second-year quarterback Steve Grogan picking up 103 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. Wrote Will McDonough in Tuesday’s Globe: “. . . [the Patriots] smashed the Jets from start to finish.”
Unfortunately for the franchise’s image, the Jets weren’t the only thing that was smashed. Reports at the time indicated there were at least 60 arrests that night at the stadium. Fans threw bottles and cherry bombs onto the field during the game. Others ran on the field and interrupted play throughout the second half. Distracted by the blowout, Cosell began commenting on the bouts in the crowd on the broadcast.
“In a game like that, where you have the outcome in control early, as a player you become more aware of the crowd,’’ said Grogan recently. “And when you hear the crowd making noise where there shouldn’t be any noise being made, you look around and see what’s going on, you start seeing the ruckus. When you found out what had really happened, it was truly scary.”
One fan had been stabbed in the parking lot. A fan stole an injured policeman’s gun and began waving it around, yelling, “Come and get me.” In the chaos, two men died of heart attacks. In his column later in the week, the Globe’s Leigh Montville shared an anecdote detailing a particularly reprehensible scene.
“While one of the victims was dying, an ambulance attendant gave him mouth to mouth resuscitation in the stands,’’ he wrote. “The attendant reported that while he worked, someone urinated on him from behind.”
A similar outbreak of chaos marred the Patriots’ 23-14 win over the Broncos on Sept. 29, 1980, with fights inside and outside of the stadium and at least 49 arrests. When the Dallas Cowboys came to Foxborough in September 1981 on a Monday night, the town’s board of selectmen preemptively attempted to have kickoff moved up to 8 p.m. before ceding to the Patriots’ (and presumably ABC’s) wishes to keep it at 9 p.m. The scene surrounding the Cowboys’ 35-21 win was another brawl-addled mess, including a stabbing and an assault on a police officer.
Foxborough decided that “Monday Night Football” would not return to the town, and for 14 years — a span covering the entirety of Hall of Fame linebacker Andre Tippett’s career — ABC obliged.
When Foxborough and “Monday Night Football” finally put an end to their mutual hiatus in 1995, times had changed at Patriots games. There were stricter limits on beer sales. Robert Kraft, a 23-year season ticket-holder who purchased the team in 1994, began systematically cracking down on the disruptive behavior, pulling season tickets from fans who caused trouble. Foxboro Stadium didn’t necessarily become gentrified, but its creaky metal bleachers were no longer magnets for trouble.
As the culture of the franchise changed, so did the Patriots’ fortunes on Monday night. In a win-or-go-home finale at Miami in December 1986 — the Patriots did play four road Monday night games during their banishment — Grogan orchestrated one of the most satisfying victories in franchise history to that point, throwing a 30-yard touchdown pass to Stanley Morgan with 44 seconds remaining to defeat the Dolphins, 34-27. The Patriots had broken an 18-game losing streak at the Orange Bowl — local sports anchor Bob Lobel liked to joke they hadn’t won there since the world was flat — during the AFC Championship game the previous season. This thriller was the final Dolphins game played at the Orange Bowl. “It was kind of nice to keep the string of two going forever,’’ said Grogan.
But if a particular game can be pinpointed as to when the Patriots became both an appealing and trustworthy participant in “Monday Night Football,” one might turn toward Nov. 23, 1998, and a Patriots home showdown with the Dolphins. If the crowd had showed up in a foul mood, it would have been understandable. Just a few days previous, news broke that Kraft had agreed to a stadium deal in Hartford for the 2001 season. It wasn’t a potential powder-keg like the old days, but the situation was tense. Fans showed up with signs disparaging Kraft and Massachusetts Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran, a longtime opponent of a new stadium in the state. But, as Al Michaels recalls, there was room for laughter.
“I’m down on the field before the game, talking to the players and et cetera,’’ said Michaels, who joined “Monday Night Football” in 1986 and for the last 11 years has been the play-by-play voice of “Sunday Night Football.” “About an hour before kickoff, I start to walk back to the booth through the passageway where the locker rooms were. That passageway went past the stands, and there were fans gathered in the grandstand, yelling at the players, trying to get autographs, you know the scene. It’s probably 150 people, it’s raucous.
“And then I hear a guy with a bellowing voice, he’s about 15 rows up. He goes, ‘Hey Al! Hey Al! When you’re on the air tonight, blast Finneran! Blast Finneran!’ It’s obvious I can hear him, I have to respond to him, and I know who he’s talking about. To acknowledge him, I go, ‘How do you spell it?’ Without missing a beat, he yells back, ‘Starts with an A! Ends with a [the final letters of an expletive]!’ Everybody exploded in laughter. That was classic.’’
That defusing pregame scene was a precursor to one of the more satisfying victories of that Patriots era. Despite breaking his index finger on his throwing hand earlier in the 1998 game, Drew Bledsoe threw for 423 yards, including a touchdown pass to Shawn Jefferson with 34 seconds left to give the Patriots a 26-23 win. Patriots fans feared their team would be leaving for a new stadium in a new city soon. But they left the stadium that Monday night feeling good about the team they had.
“Back in the old days, I’m not sure they would have won that game,’’ summarized Michaels, “I’m not sure the crowd would have been as welcoming. And come to think of it, I’m not sure we even would have been there.’’
Related: Patriots’ top performances on Monday Night Football
Related: Patriots’ most memorable Monday Night Football moments
|9/26/77||Browns||30-27 (OT), L|
|9/3/79||Steelers||16-13 (OT), L|
|12/8/80||Dolphins||16-13 (OT), L|
Chad Finn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.