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Who Dat History: The 1987 Season - Prologue

By Ralph Malbrough and Hans Petersen - Time for a history lesson on the 1987 New Orleans Saints. CSC Summer School is now in session, but don't worry, there are no grades.

It took a Pope's blessing in 1987 to get a Saints playoff game in this building.
It took a Pope's blessing in 1987 to get a Saints playoff game in this building.

Welcome to the much-anticipated next installment of the series that is sweeping the nation - Who Dat History.

At the end of our previous episode, we promised you a look at the 1980 Saints, who completely s*** the bed with a 1-15 disaster of a season. This would have been bad enough on its own, but their fans had just spent the previous two years slowly beginning to believe that our Saints were actually becoming a respectable team, as they went from 7-9 to 8-8. Archie Manning even mentioned how heartbreaking that time of his career was in his Saints Mount Rushmore phone interview with PFT earlier this week.

Well, after some executive decidering amongst ourselves, we decided we're not doing that anymore. Why? Because since that last WDH post, we saw an OUTSTANDING campaign in 2011 (that had us thinking Super Bowl) completely unravel in the final seconds out in San Francisco, followed by the downhill slide into Bountys*** and the resultant catastrophic waste of a season in 2012.

Enough focusing on the bad times, because girls just want to have fun, amirite???? Sean Payton's back, he's got a brand spankin' new Twitter account, and we are ready to live high off the hog again in 2013, with our eyes on the playoffs and more.

So, it seems very apropos to look back at the first seriously fun season - 1987, the year that saw the Saints earn their first-ever winning season and playoff berth. It was a magical ride that will NEVER be forgotten by those of us who experienced it.

We have broken up this 1987 history book into four chapters (the first of which you are reading right now):

Prologue - What Dreams May Come

Chapter One - Same Old Saints?

Chapter Two - Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda...Did

Chapter Three - The Promised Land

Kick back on your couch or recliner with a beverage and snack of your choice, clean the lenses of those reading glasses, charge up your iPad/laptop, and ignore your spouse/significant other/boss for the next half hour as you settle in for some summer reading that's going to knock your socks off!!

What Dreams May Come

There are eight teams in New Orleans Saints history that stick out above all the rest; 1980, 1983, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2011 and, of course, 1987.

(We're keeping it to on-field exploits, so the 2012 year without Sean Payton doesn't make it.)

This List is based on a totally made up criteria of "can you describe it in three words or less and have any Saints fan nod?"

1980: One and Fifteen
1983: Mike F****** Lansford
2005: Katrina
2006: Steve Gleason Magic
2009: Super Bowl
2011: Alex ‘#$^&&' Smith

And 1987 is known as Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda.

If you are a Saints fan over 35 years old, just the words "'87 Saints" should make you smile and give you chills. If you are under 35, you might be thinking, "I hear the '87 Saints mentioned all the time by my family, friends, old farts on CSC, and announcers. I know it was the first winning season in team history but besides that I really have no idea."

We are here to give a history lesson, laughs, and enough You Tube videos that you should bookmark this article and use it to waste ALL your time at work today. Hans seriously outdid himself. The man dug up gold people. GOLD.

I love history, and people who don't know it always frustrate me. The 1987 Saints were awesome in ways that will make you rethink everything you thought you know about Jim Mora. The 1987 season will also shatter a couple of stories you've heard from Dad or Grandpa.

Before Jim Mora and Jim Finks arrived in 1986, if you weren't around to experience Saints football or really know the team history it's hard to understand how awful the Saints were, but I'm going to try.

You might know the franchise went 20 years without a winning season, but did you also know...

  • The Saints won more than five games only four times in the 19 seasons before 1986.
  • They got outscored by more than 100 points in nine different seasons.
  • By informal estimation, they only played seven games in December with any playoff implications, and four of those were in 1983.
  • They hadn't had consecutive sellouts in the Superdome since it opened in 1975.

Did that last little nugget surprise you? It might have if you believe the myth that Saints fans have filled the stadium in spite of the Saints being atrocious before 1987. At one time, the Saints were literally the laughingstock of football and probably the entire pro sports world. If you think the Jim Haslett post-2000 Saints were hard to watch, you don't know what suffering is. Haslett's 7-9 and 8-8 seasons would have seemed like manna from heaven to Saints fans of the 1970's and early 80's.

Now if you want to tell me that considering how awful the Saints were, they were lucky anybody showed up at all, I'd agree with you. Just don't tell me Saints fans filled Tulane Stadium and the Superdome every season, week in and week out, because Saints fans are the best and most loyal fans on earth. It's wrong. Saints fans are a lot of great things, but after the bloom fell off the rose of the expansion team, they really didn't fill the stadium again until 1987. By 1987, the Saints had a hard core base of season ticket holders in the low 30K range but most of New Orleans wasn't going to games and were sort of exhausted from all the losing.

In 1987, I was 11 years old, but I can tell you the majority of kids my age that watched football weren't Saints fans. Probably 45% were Saints fans but most kids' favorite team was NOT the Saints. Having 20 years with no fun seasons makes it really hard to grow a fan base. Kids under the age of 12 are the biggest bandwagon fans on earth, and the Saints bandwagon was usually engulfed in flames, causing mass casualties and a public safety hazard.

But heading into 1987, there actually was a ton of optimism about the Saints. The year before they had gone 7-9, which, by Saints standards, was worthy of a parade. They had the offensive rookie of the year in running back Reuben Mayes, carried a winning record through mid-November (6-5), and played most of the year starting their backup QB.

The Saints had drafted a class in 1986 that produced on the field like no other for the Saints: Jim Dombrowski, Pat Swilling, Rueben Mayes, Dalton Hillard, Barry Word, and Reggie Sutton were the headliners, and the feeling was that Jim Finks knew what he was doing and with a couple more drafts like that would have the Saints well on their way.

Before free agency took off in the 90s, NFL teams usually built slow and methodically, and didn't go from train wreck to playoffs in one or two years. It was usually a three- or four- year project. Hap Glaudi, who did the Saints post game radio show in the 80's, in the Times Picayune Season Preview Special summed up what the legitimate goal was for 1987, "Flip 7-9 to 9-7 and finally have a winner." This was part of what made 1987 with its nine-game winning streak, 12-3 overall record, and home playoff game so amazingly special - it exceeded EVERYONE'S WILDEST EXPECTATIONS IN EVERY POSSIBLE WAY.

Another aspect of the 1987 season that makes it so noteworthy was the looming possibility of the players going on strike. QUICK-LOOK CITATION (it's really worth a look, even if only for the story's paragraphic bumper of an autographed John Fourcade Topps football card.) But more on this and how it impacted the Saints later...

The 1987 Saints also had an unlikely secret weapon working for them...God. Not J1000, even BETTER. Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans in the summer of 1987 and during a youth rally at the Superdome asked the good lord to ‘bless the Dome for the other Saints that are here on Sundays.'



His Holiness just gave word to the big guy to MAKE IT HAPPEN. The Pope also visited St. Louis in 1999 and the Rams won a Super Bowl. The Lesson? Even God couldn't get the 1980s Saints a Lombardi Trophy. Still the 1987 Saints were about to deliver New Orleans a reason to love their football team the way the city had always been wanting to.

Thanks, Pope.

* * *

Before going into the games themselves, let's look at some important stat and other related touchstone points in regard to this team.

CLICK HERE to look at the Saints 1987 season stats for yourself.

If you have ever heard an older Saints fan rant about Jim Mora it probably involves something along the lines of, "Carl Smith was a horrible offensive coordinator, they were too conservative, they loved field goals and never won a playoff game."

All of it was true, eventually, but in 1987 the Saints were an offensive machine as they scored 422 points (2nd in the NFL). Surprised? I sure was. Looking back, the 1987 Saints were Jim Mora's deepest offensive team. He had Reuben Mayes and Dalton Hilliard at running back, Eric Martin at receiver and a nice tight end combo of Hoby Brenner and John Tice. The NFL in 1987 wasn't the offensive "pass-happy" league it is now, so with a competent Bobby Hebert, that was good enough. The Saints also had Mel Gray, who was the best punt and kick returner in football.

What no one could have known in 1987 was the Saints would never come close to having as good a running game (truly a 'ground and pound' team attack: 569 carries for 2190 yards - that's almost 38 rushes per game, people!!) again under Jim Mora. Mayes would never again be as good as he was in 1986-87 and Hilliard injured his knee in 1990, which knocked him down a peg.

The Saints in 1991 and 1992 had Fred McAfee and Vaughn Dunbar at running back for playoff games. I'm guessing the Pro Bowl versions of Mayes and Hilliard would have made a difference.

The 1987 Saints led the league in time of possession at 34 minutes per game and led the league in turnover margin with a +20 mark. Impressive.

Now I'd like to thank Hans for confirming a stat that is mind blowing and if it happened today Dave would write 4000 words trying to explain it and have 340 GIFs celebrating it.

The 1987 Saints blocked 8 kicks in 15 games and scored 3 touchdowns on runbacks of them. In a 15-game season that's an average of one blocked kick every other week. My friends, that is insanity.

Morten Andersen led the league in touchbacks in 1987. Thirty-eight of his 76 kickoffs never even came out of the end zone. Imagine Thomas Morstead if Morstead kicked field goals and made 80% of them, and then turned around and booted the ball out of the back of the end zone half the time. Due to the state of kicking in the NFL at that time, Morten was an absolute freak, so there was Morten and then there was every other kicker in the league. He was that good.

Ralph, I don't think that word means what you think it means. Morten was a great kicker, but not as elite as you or I used to think...he was drafted in 1982 and came into his own at the very beginning of the rise of the more accurate kicker in the league era (which has steadily filled the league with kickers who are more accurate than ever, even to this day) and definitely, with his accuracy and range, he was 1000x better and more reliable than any kicker in team history to that point (Russell Exleben, Toni Fritsch, Benny Ricardo, Garo Yepremian, Steve Mike-Meyer, etc. I won't continue because it'd take up the whole rest of the post) but he did miss his share of kicks over his career, both big and small, and his legend is a bit greater than reality.

Hans, you ignorant slut. I'll grant you that your points are fair. My only thing is that Morten was the first kicker where he was converting 80%, bombing them in from 50 yards out, and getting touchbacks. Now, if a kicker is 75% overall and making only 80% inside 40 he's likely to get cut. But in 1987, Morten was sort of the dawn of the modern kicker. Make sense?

It's like in 10 years explaining the iPhone to my future kid. He will be all like, "the iPhone is like every other phone" and I will be like, " yeah, it is now, but in 2007 the iPhone blew people's mind because we had never seen anything like it."

Ralph, I think we're kind of saying the same thing...shades of meaning of a perception here, my friend, and since we're not on a 24-hour cable news channel, I'm not going to shout at you on camera for ratings.

So, with a surprisingly potent Saints offense matched up with the Dome Patrol and a Saints defense just starting to make a name for itself, along with some special teams magic, the brew was just right to make the Saints a force to be reckoned with during the 1987 season.

* * *

This concludes our prologue to Who Dat History: The 1987 Season. Come back tomorrow morning to check in on how the first part of the season went in Chapter One: Same Old Saints?

What are your recollections of the 1987 offseason, and the hype heading into Finks and Mora's second season?