In the first of our new series coined ‘Historic Heroes’, we take a look at the career of quarterback Steve Grogan and his impact on the NFL’s relatively new organization, the New England Patriots. On a team struggling to make an impact, Grogan pushed the Patriots to new heights despite constant hardships. This is the career of arguably the Patriots’ best player prior to Tom Brady, only matched by the legendary John Hannah. While his stats may not show it, he embodied what it means to be a Patriot.
The first sign of Grogan’s potential greatness came in his standout prep career Ottawa High School in Kansas. He displayed an athleticism that would later help him become an elite dual threat in an era full of QB’s who preferred staying in the pocket. Steve led his team to state titles in track in 1970, basketball in 1971, and a state runner-up in football in 1970.
At the conclusion of Grogan’s impactful high school career, he began his collegiate career at Kansas State University. After not playing his freshman year, and limited reps in his sophomore year, he began starting at Quarterback for his junior and senior years. As a Junior he showed off his potential as both a passer and rusher. Steve had a 1,000 yard passing season (which was third in the Big 8) and four passing touchdowns (seventh in Big 8), but with a division high 15 interceptions. On the ground, he rushed for five touchdowns (10th in Big 8) and, combined with his passing yards, he had the fourth most total yards in the Big 8.
While Steve’s passing yards dropped by roughly 200, he saw increases in touchdown passes and completion percentage with a decrease from 15 interceptions to six. This earned him an overall passer rating increase from 87.4 to 100.6, while remaining near the top on all divisional passing leaderboards. To further show his athleticism, he punted 7 times for 279 yards (near 40 yard average), and even caught one touchdown pass of 22 yards. The Patriots decided to take a chance on him in the fifth round of the 1975 NFL draft, and would later double down by trading away former QB Jim Plunkett for a large bounty of picks.
Battle in the NFL
Despite constant struggles with injuries, Grogan was able to lead the Patriots to places they had yet to visit. Although he would start every game for four consecutive seasons early in his career, he would later constantly battle injuries and other quarterbacks for the job. His second through his fifth season were the only times he would start every game in a season. In those four years, though, the Pats would make it to the NFL playoffs for the first two times in their history. But thats getting a bit ahead of the story.
In Steve’s first season, he played in 13 games out of the then 14 game season. He threw for 1,976 yards, with 11 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, which sat him relatively middle of the pack in the NFL, despite being the youngest starter. The Patriots finished with a 3-11 record, Grogan being their best player.
The Patriots 1976 season brought a change of fortunes, as Grogan led the Patriots to an 11-3 record and the franchise’s first NFL playoff birth since the merger. The eleven wins even set a franchise record for wins in a season, and Grogan remained roughly the same talent-wise. Highlights of the season included the Patriots defeating the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, giving the Raiders their only regular season loss by a 48-17 score line, and rushing for 12 touchdowns, which would stand until 2011. In the playoffs, the Raiders would have their revenge in the divisional round, scraping by 24-21. But Grogan’s leadership would continue to give them more opportunities further down the line.
After Grogan’s best season, which had the Pats just missing the playoffs in 1977, they would find themselves right back in the race the following year. Grogan once again led the Patriots to an 11-5 record, a division title and the organization’s first ever home playoff game. The success was thanks in part to the 25-year-old QB finally getting a star target, in second year wideout Stanley Morgan. The Pats would also once again set a rushing record, this time the single season team rushing record with 3,156 yards. That record still stands to this day. But once again, their success would get spoiled in the divisional round, this time with a defeat to the Houston Oilers.
What looked like a bright future would only lead to one wildcard appearance over the next six years. Grogan would continue to suffer injury after injury, with solid play whenever he was in game. With an injury prone 30-year-old QB, the Patriots formed a backup plan, drafting Tony Eason in the first round of the 1983 Draft.
By 1984, Eason became New England’s best passer, and was top three in the league only behind Montana and Marino. But it would not come out to anything special, as they would once again miss the playoffs.
The following season, Head Coach Raymond Berry would end up benching Eason in favor of Grogan. The Patriots would then go on a fantastic run, winning six straight games behind their old QB. But misfortune would once again befall the Pats, with the streak ending due to the loss of Grogan after suffering a broken leg in Week 12. Back as a starter, Eason’s Patriots went 3-2 in their remaining five games. Finishing the season with an 11-5 record, the Patriots earned a wild card berth and fought their way to the Super Bowl. The Patriots did everything in their power to win, even switching between the two QB’s, but they still fell to the Bears 46-10 loss.
While Grogan would remain in the league for another five years, he would only play 28 games (22 starts). After 1978 Grogan slowed down, but clearly remained a strong leader. He was impactful in the Super Bowl when he was finally let in, which begs the question: if he started, would he be able to give the Pats a strong enough start to conquer the star-studded Bears? While it may sound foolish given the final scoreline, it was only a 10 point game after the first quarter. Who’s to say his leadership would’t close that gap by at least a touchdown? After that, the momentum could’ve completely changed. Maybe fans wouldn’t have had to wait till the 2000s for a title.
Records & Injuries
At the time of his retirement Grogan led the franchise as the all-time leader in passing yards (26,886) and passing touchdowns (182). He still is third in passing yards and passing touchdowns behind Brady and Bledsoe, but a case could easily be made for Steve being a better Patriot than Bledsoe. Grogan’s criminally underrated and forgotten rushing talent still has its place in Patriots record books as well. He rushed for 2,176 yards (4.9 per carry) and 35 touchdowns during his career. His career yards per carry is highest among Patriots with at least 200 attempts, and his rushing touchdowns currently places fourth with the Pats.
Grogan’s injuries and his ability to fight back to the field even furthers his legacy. The list of injuries includes five knee surgeries; a snapped fibula, two ruptured disks in his neck, a broken left hand, two separated shoulders, an unattached tendon in his throwing elbow, and three concussions. He played through much of those injuries, and not terribly either.
Steve will forever symbolize what it means to be a Patriot, and we must make sure his contributions to the early Patriots franchise will never be forgotten. Without all those injuries, Grogan’s development would’ve never slowed down, and maybe he would be in the hall today. But to put aside all of the speculation, all we know for sure is there will never be another Steve Grogan.