Welcome to the next installment of your favorite new/old series on Canal Street Chronicles - Who Dat History. In case you missed it, here's Who Dat History: An Introduction that will tell you all you need to know about this series.
Written by Ralph Malbrough and assisted by HansDat, we are proud to bring you Part Two of The 1979 Season, which consists of Ralph's awesome breakdown of the Saints-Raiders Monday Night Football debacle from Week 14 of the 1979 season.
Way back on February 19, at the end of Part One, you were promised a Part Two that would feature this game as well as the season finale against the Rams and a summary of the front office moves and locker room mess that led to the 1-15 trainwreck of a season that 1980 would turn out to be. However, in completing Part Two, Ralph and I have decided to drop the final Rams game recap as it just didn't feel very important to the 1979 season, and we will be moving the front office summary to our next episode, Who Dat History: The 1980 Season - This Can't Be Happening To Us.
So for now, make the jump to relive one of the most painful national television appearances the Saints have ever inflicted upon their fans and the rest of the NFL viewing public, as only Ralph can tell it. I know, I can hardly wait to see it myself, and I've already read it.
The New Orleans Saints Monday Night game against the Oakland Raiders on December 3, 1979, was the biggest game in the history of the franchise (box score). The Saints needed a win to move to 8-6 on the year, and remain in 1st place in the NFC West, and the NFL announced if the Saints beat the Raiders the team could print playoff tickets. This was the first time Monday Night Football was in New Orleans in five years.
In 1979, Monday Night Football was the sports equivalent of the Beatles. It was Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, and Frank Gifford in the booth. Monday Night Football in your town was a huge deal. If Howard Cosell and company were the Beatles and the traveling circus, then the Raiders were the kings of Monday Night. They had a sterling MNF record of 12-1-1 going into the Saints game. I guess that made the Saints the Klowns of Monday Night Football, having lost all three of their appearances by a combined score of 88-27.
Watch Dandy Don Meredith's obituary to get an idea of how big Monday Night Football was in the 1970's:
This was the Saints and Archie Manning's moment. They were going to show America that after 12 years, the Saints were legit. So let's get to it. The tape I got of this game had no commercials, but don't worry, there was still plenty of the 1970's to make fun of.
If you question how big this game was, here is all you need to know: Al Hirt played the national anthem. He was not only a famed New Orleans trumpeter, but a minority owner of the Saints and a kind of living mascot for the team.
If the Superdome crowd singing along with Al to our national anthem doesn't give you chills, you are a communist, fascist, and we can't be friends. Unlike Christina Aguilera, he nails it. GOD BLESS AMERICA. Also note that Ken Stabler couldn't look more like a homeless person if he crawled out of a box and asked you for money.
On the Raiders opening drive, Cosell drops a Book of Genesis reference about how we are at the beginning. He might have been an arrogant bastard, but for entertainment purposes no announcer can touch him. I'd say he was the biggest star in the NFL in the 70's. He had an opinion on everything and people listened even if they hated him.
Stabler started the game 6 for 6 and led the Raiders to an easy TD. Just like that, the Raiders lead 7-0. However, the Saints were about to drop a quarter's worth of destruction on them.
Chuck Muncie gets 9 carries for 60 yards on the Saints first scoring drive and has Cosell gushing about how Muncie can run, catch, throw the half back option, and if he plays hard he's a better all around back than Earl Campbell. If Andrew does a post with a poll on All-Time Wasted Talent by a Saints Player, Muncie gets my vote. The drugs, along with his hot and cold attitude on game day meant that he wasn't ever even going to come close to performing up to his potential. Tony Galbreath capped the drive with a TD run and we are tied up.
On the Raiders next drive, Saints corner Eric Felton intercepted Stabler and Don Meredith thought he would score. Felton got to the Raiders 19, and the Dome crowd is in a frenzy.
The camera shows a banner reading Satan's Flex Defense, which had a giant devil and was probably 15 feet long. Kids, before the NFL went corporate and crushed all original fan expression, the Dome was filled with funny, angry, and creative banners on game day. Howard mentions that the fans think this is the Saints Super Bowl. In a way it is.
Archie hits Wes Chandler for a score, but the referee calls him out. Totally blown call. THROW THE CHALLENGE FLAG, DICK NOLAN! Frank Gifford says that if the NFL used video replay it would be chaos, blood would run in the streets, and games would last all night! Imagine the insanity! The bad call doesn't matter, though, because Galbreath makes as sweet a one-handed TD catch you will ever see. Saints lead 14-7.
The Saints defense holds with a nice third down pass break up by Clarence Chapman. The offense stalls but Saints punter Rick Partridge makes a nudge by a Raider look like assault and draws a roughing penalty. Muncie resumes his destruction of the Oakland defense. He's up to 13 carries for 105 yards and looks fantastic wearing the Buddy Holly black rim glasses.
Muncie finds the endzone to make it 21-7. Instead of playing Stand Up & Get Crunk after Saints scores, the Dome plays what sounds like a car alarm. NICE.
Manning is now 6-9, 101 yards, with two TDs. The cameras are showing fans dressed up in costumes (even though Halloween was over a month ago) and Chuck Muncie just said "Hi!" to his momma.
Stabler leads the Raiders down to the Saints goal line aided by a questionable pass interference call and then Oakland coach Tom Flores makes a huge gamble. With four seconds left in the half, he goes for the touchdown instead of the field goal. The Raiders punch it in and it's 28-14.
* * *
The Saints defense begins the second half strong, but Tommy Myers drops a sure Pick-Six (only they didn't call them Pick Sixes back then). The Saints secondary might have given up huge amounts of points and yards but they came into the game with league-leading 22 interceptions.
The Saints offense continues right where it left off, marching down the field. But unfortunately, they stall out at the Raiders 32-yard line.
Nolan bypasses a 49-yard field goal, and the decision turns out to be a good one because the punt pins the Raiders inside their own 3-yard line, which leads to a Saints defensive score. (If you listen to stories, the Saints lost this game because the defense collapsed. While it's true that the defense gave up some huge plays, it was actually the offense, with its failure to sustain and finish drives in the second half that, in my opinion, actually cost the Saints this game.)
This stalled drive, sadly enough, ended up being the Saints' best offensive possession of a second half in which the Saints only mustered 68 yards of offense. It wasn't because they got too conservative, but almost the exact opposite. Muncie didn't get nearly enough carries and Chandler wouldn't catch a pass all night. GUH.
With the Raiders backed up in the shadow of their own end zone, Ken Stabler makes another ill-advised throw (in a few years, we'd see plenty of these from him in a Saints uniform). Ken Bordelon from LSU jumps up, tips the pass to himself, then rambles to Poydras Street.
At this point, it's 35-14 midway through the 3rd quarter, and cameras are showing Jim Plunkett warming up. The Saints defense is by no means great, but it's making stops, it just put a TD on the board, and the Raiders defense has no answers for the Saints offense.
The Dome was a party, but the fans had no idea the ceiling was about to fall in on them like the poor, snow-filled Metrodome roof in 2010.
The Raiders get the ball and are driving. They convert a 4th down at the Saints 23, find pay dirt, and that makes it 35-21, with four minutes left in the 3rd quarter.
The Saints follow the Raiders TD by going three and out, and then Ken Stabler hits Derrick Ramsey for a TD to cut the lead down to one score, 35-28. Uh oh.
Watching the game again, I can actually feel all the fear, horror, and panic in the Dome reaching out and grabbing me 30 years later. The crowd has gone from jubilation to panic, and after the Saints shank a punt, we're well past desperation and into absolute FREAK OUT mode.
Like any Superdome crowd, though, they throw themselves behind the Saints defense with the Raiders facing a huge third down. The cameras are shaking and Frank Gifford even gives the crowd props:
...for being sophisticated fans who are applauding the nickel pass defense entering the game and getting loud at this key moment.
Ken Stabler goes back to pass and Saints fans favorite cocaine dealer, Don Reese, sacks him! YEAH! Dick Nolan just gave the fist pump. Can you say playoffs?
The Saints offense comes on the field and the Saints run a reverse to Ike Harris straight out of the Sean Payton "really clever play at the worst possible time" playbook. On this play, Harris, as Chris Tucker is fond of saying, "Got knocked the #$% out." He's literally carried from the field. ABC has a nice shot of Gumbo drinking Gatorade and reminds viewers to tune into Nightline for Day 30 of the Iran hostage situation. (Saints fans were in Year 12 of the John Mecom hostage situation, but I digress.)
This offensive series that started off so well (sarcasm font) is capped off by a horrid interception by Manning. It's his first pick in 100 throws, but still he was late and threw into double coverage. Someone should have reminded the Saints that Wes Chandler was still on the team, or did Iran take him hostage too?
The Saints defense then holds the Raiders to a long field goal try which is wide.
With that, the Saints offense is given the ball with 5:46 left in the game, and the lead. History says the Saints defense was the reason these teams never made the playoffs but on this night the offense went bust in the second half.
A stat just flashed on the screen:
Saints offensive yards
First half: 212
Second half: 68
If Da Chronic was around in 1979, coldpizza would have written a 10,000 word novel on how Muncie didn't get enough carries in the second half and he would have gotten at least 200 comments of:
Damn @#%^ Right!
Archie, as he does in most of the Saints crushing losses, has gone completely cold. He misses a wide-open Tony Galbreath on third down. Manning would end up missing on his final six passes of the game. He started 6-9 but then went 6-14 to finish up 12 of 23 overall. Brutal.
Someone please call the New Orleans Fire Department, because Cliff Branch just burned the entire Saints secondary to the ground, and I'm pretty sure that kind of arson is illegal. He took a slant pass, juked two guys, and raced untouched up the sideline for 66 yards and a TD. Tie game.
Lesson #34576: Leaning on a bad defense to bail you out is as good a strategy as using Jack Daniels to put out a grease fire. It can work but if it doesn't you'll likely need a skin graft. Class, are you writing these down? These lessons will be on your final Who Dat History exam.
Saints get the ball back and finally decide maybe we should give the ball to Muncie because you know he's been fantastic, except now he's not. Muncie fumbles, Raiders recover, and Branch scores the go-ahead TD.
The Saints had led the Raiders 35-14 earlier in the game, and the offense failed to score in the second half and didn't even cross midfield in the fourth quarter.
The Saints now trail, but have timeouts and plenty of time. They promptly get a holding penalty, Archie gets sacked, and Don Meredith is singing.
If you enjoy torture, then watch the Saints meltdown in condensed form right here:
* * *
Howard Cosell and Meredith talk about how it sounds hokey, but you have to learn how to win and it takes time. They mention how Tampa was the first team to have a losing record, and then make the playoffs.
In the 1970's teams didn't have the quick turnaround like they do now. Teams built on a 4-5 year plan, but unfortunately for the Saints, this was their high point, as 1980 would make this Monday night failure look positively glorious.
* * *
Watching the Saints blow this game, the only equivalent I can think of is someone freezing to death in the forest. Like any great football tragedy it was slow, painful, and could have been avoided by doing one thing differently.
The guy who was found half-naked, dead in the snow could have lived if he had just stopped, gotten his bearings, and made a fire.
The Saints could have won this game if their offense had been able to manage just one decent scoring drive in the second half. Archie's one real chance to lead a team to the playoffs as a Saint was over, and as he shivered to death in the cold, he probably thought, "How the hell did this go so wrong?"
* * *
Here is where this article might get really uncomfortable for anyone who believes the myth passed down from parents and the NOLA sports media that Archie Manning was a great quarterback, and the Saints were a dysfunctional organization and Archie never had a chance to be on a winner.
WRONG. Archie was a good quarterback, who was streaky as hell. The Saints front office was a joke but I'd argue that in 1978-79, which were the two best teams Archie was on, in the Saints biggest games, he is as equally to blame as the defense.
Archie Manning's window to be a winner might have been really small because the Saints made bad decisions as often as Charlie Sheen grants interviews, but in ‘79 the chance was there for the Saints and Manning. In every big game that year Archie had the ball late with a chance to win or tie, and he didn't deliver.
- In a close loss at Denver, the offense managed only 3 points while the defense held Denver to 10.
- In the opener against the Falcons, the offense had the ball in overtime at the Falcons 45-yard line, and we lost.
- Against the Raiders, the Saints led 35-14, but the offense didn't score in the second half.
- In one of the Saints biggest games of the year, against the Rams in the Superdome, Archie threw five interceptions.
Saints fans have bought into the myth that Archie Manning was a martyr, sentenced to football hell and whose greatness was ruined by John Mecom's incompetence. The reality is Archie was a decent quarterback who had three good years (78-80), and came up short in every big moment on the one decent team he was on.
The Saints in the 1970's were pretty much about as bad as you can get as a football team. They would start the 1980's even worse, and as fans we want to look back at that time and find something great about it even if we have to rewrite the history. Archie Manning was that something.
Don't take this idea too far - Archie was great in many ways - he completely embraced New Orleans, never made excuses, and wanted the Saints to win as much as the fans did. It's a much more enjoyable story to tell that Archie was special and it was the Saints defense that kept him from being one of the truly great NFL quarterbacks then to say what he actually was.
We love Archie, so we believe in what he should have been, and not what he was and that's ok. History as we want it to be is better sometimes than what it actually was.
* * *
The 1979 Saints were so very close to the Promised Land. They beat the Rams in the season finale to finish 8-8 and seemed just one good draft from breaking through.
What no one knew was that this loss to Oakland was the beginning of a crash so hard, fast, and far, that it gave birth to the Bagheads, Aint's, and brought in a Bum to try and save the day. We'll discuss that next time in Who Dat History.