The casual football fan may or may not remember when the NFL had a period where the NFC won 13 Super Bowls in a row. True free agency didn’t come to the NFL until the 1993 season yet the disparity between the two conferences in terms of physicality was pronounced.
Or at least it had been leading up to the mid 1990s. However a series of long time NFC Head Coaches started to switch conferences beginning with Bill Parcells. Coaches look to sign players they are most familiar with.
The ’96 Patriots roster was populated by players from the NFC. Keith Byars (Eagles), S Willie Clay (Lions), CB Ricky Reynolds (Bucs), DE Mike Jones (Cardinals), DT Mark Wheeler (Bucs), and starting G William Roberts with reserve G Bob Kratch from the New York Giants respectively.
Then you had third down back / kick returner Dave Meggett (Giants) who made the Pro Bowl, CB Otis Smith (Eagles) and reserve CB Michael McGruder (49ers). They drafted NFC style players in LB Chris Slade and DE / LB Willie McGinest. Defensive Coordinator Bill Belichick platooned his personnel based on individual strengths from week to week. McGinest was their only defensive Pro Bowl performer. Their stats didn’t wow you, finishing 19th overall, they seemed to always come up with key stops.
Before there was the draft question of Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning in ’98, the first was Drew Bledsoe or Rick Mirer in 1993. Bledsoe, the #1 overall selection, had come into his own leading the Patriots to the playoffs in just his 2nd season in 1994. Now in his 4th season he threw for 4,086 yards and 27 touchdowns leading New England to the Super Bowl.
However the Patriots in ’96 had 2nd year runner Curtis Martin. During the season they forgot to give him the football as his stats fell from 368 carries for 1,487 yards to 314 attempts gaining 1,152. This trend continued in the Super Bowl as Martin had just 11 rushes for 42 yards in the game. One of which was the 18 yard touchdown in the 3rd quarter where he broke 4 tackles.
This touchdown set up Desmond Howard’s 99 yard kick return to ice the game for the Packers. New England could have won had they fed Martin the ball. This would have kept Bledsoe’s passing lanes open. Instead Bledsoe’s 4 interceptions, 3 in the 2nd half sealed New England’s fate.
How different would Bledsoe’s career and legacy been had New England won Super Bowl XXXI?