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Who Dat History: The 1987 Season - Same Old Saints?

By Ralph Malbrough and Hans Petersen Chapter One of Who Dat History: The 1987 Season takes us through the first six games of the year, which includes the famous "Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda" tirade from head coach Jim Mora.

This guy's last-second miss against the 49ers to drop the Saints to 3-3 in 1987 led to wonderful things.
This guy's last-second miss against the 49ers to drop the Saints to 3-3 in 1987 led to wonderful things.

Who Dat History: The 1987 Season

Chapter 1

Same Old Saints?

The Saints opened the season by hosting the Cleveland Browns, and the Saints won a thriller, 28-21, outlasting a Hail Mary attempt at the final gun (this script would be flipped 12 years later, in Ditka's final season with the team, but that's another story for another time.). This was a crazy win because the 1987 Browns were led by Bernie Kosar and would head to their second consecutive heart breaking defeat in the AFC championship in the playoffs. They were an elite team.

Oh, did I mention the Saints had only won three season openers before 1987? And that's despite 17 of those 20 games being HOME OPENERS. That's so pathetic, and is probably one reason the game didn't sell out and was blacked out locally. A crowd of 59,900 watched Bobby Hebert throw two scores to Hoby Brenner and the defense get two safeties.


The thing I remember most about this game was listening on the radio and thinking, "Two safeties!" Also, I can't prove it, but burned in my memory is Jim Henderson for a split second thinking Cleveland completed one of those Hail Marys and 11 year old me having a heart attack.

Good times.

Ralph, the video that follows is the actual debut of NFL Primetime on ESPN, but before I let you watch it, I need to say something about NFL Primetime.

1987 was the first year for this, ESPN's amazing Sunday night highlight show. Dig the clunky graphics, relatively uncluttered screen, and uncomplicated back-and-forth between Chris Berman and Tom Jackson. It's quaint and refreshing at the same time.

I didn't really watch the show in its first year, but for me, as a huge Saints fan who went away to college in Kentucky in 1988, in the pre-internet, pre-Sunday Ticket times, this show was my bread and butter of the football season. During those dark times, I didn't have WWL on the radio, or Saints road games on the TV, or to check on scores and stats throughout the day. I was forced to sit in the dorm lounge (and then my fraternity's living room) and watch either the Cincinnati Bengals or some other large-market NFC team on one of the local channels in the afternoon, while trying to catch a score update from the announcers, or a blip of the score that would appear intermittently on the screen, or maybe a highlight (yes, MAYBE ONE HIGHLIGHT - if I was lucky) at halftime. Remember, this was before they had the scores and fantasy stats scrolling across the crawl at the bottom, or rotating in the top right corner of the screen at all times. I had almost NO idea of what was happening in the Saints games in real time. Things did get better on this front in the 90s, but without fail, every Sunday night, I'd absorb the hour-long prime time recap of all the games, anxiously awaiting the Saints segment, and it was glorious. I LOVED WATCHING THIS SHOW. At the time, Chris Berman wasn't overblown and annoying yet, and I enjoyed the chemistry between him and Tom Jackson.

As for this particular broadcast, the Saints-Browns segment starts at about 23:40, and here are some bullets of what to watch for:

  • An "In the grasp" rule discussion because of the safety on Kosar in the 4th quarter that gave the Saints a 23-21 lead.
  • Rickey Jackson knocks a Brian Hansen punt over to Vaughn Johnson on the 1-yd line to save a touchback. Starting pro-bowler LBs on punt return team!!
  • At the end of the game, with the Saints up 28-21, the Browns get a Hail Mary chance to tie, and the Saints deny them. Berman talks like they had two chances, and they show two clips of a Hail Mary attempt, but to me, it looked like the exact same play just shown twice.
  • At the end of the Saints clip package, they talk about "could this be their year?" while a Faith, Hope, and the Pope banner is shown on screen. Berman says, "Jim Mora and company look like they know what they're doing down there." I know it's hindsight, but hearing him say that actually sent some chills up and down my spine.
  • Side note - 20:18 mark - Coverage of Atlanta-Tampa Bay game (not division rivals yet, but still...) Bucs won 48-10 - ouch.

After the Saints lost to the Eagles in Week 2, the players' union enacted the strike and the owners used replacement players to crush the union. The 1987 strike could be its own column, but in regard to the 1987 Saints, Jim Finks found Jim Mora a good roster of scab football players. This was key because the three replacement games counted in the standings, and some teams did not find enough competent players and had their season ruined because of it. The Saints went 2-1 (beating the Los Scab-eles Rams and Chi-scab-o Bears, while losing to the Scab Louis Cardinals) and it didn't hurt them.

Ralph, the following video is a six-minute feature story on the "scab" players of 1987 from NFL Films. It contains an appearance by none other than Chicago Bears scab quarterback Sean Payton. How fun is that?

That was great fun, Hans.

The thing I remember most about the replacement games is that 29,000 showed up to the Dome to watch the Saints beat the Rams 37-10 in the first scab game. John Fourcade hit TE Mike Waters for a then team record 82-yard TD pass. The fans chanted, "Who Dat say dey gonna beat them Scabs!" Seriously, it happened. In 1987, when the Saints beat anybody 37-10, New Orleans was happy even if it was just the scabs.

The next big game in my memory came in Week 6 against the San Francisco 49ers. It was the first game with the regular players back after the strike was settled, and it wasn't a sellout. Fans having to watch replacement players and being mad about the strike might have had something to do with it.

The Saints lost a knife-twisting game, to the division-leading 49ers, 24-22.


Listening on the radio, the memories that still are with me are Rueben Mayes running wild (29 carries/144 yards) but also getting stuffed inside the 20 yard line in the 3rd quarter. Morten Andersen kicked 5 field goals including two 19-yarders. GUH!

Morten also missed a 52-yard FG at the gun that would have won it. I thought it was a much longer try at the time, but still definitely in Morten's range. Tough, but doable in the Dome for sure.

Ralph, after the game THIS happened, and I have the video and audio to prove it. Just watch this...

Thanks, Hans. That was sweet. Looking back, it really was the absolute perfect moment to drop this on the team and the city of New Orleans.

It had major surprise factor going for it. Hell, the Saints were 3-3 and had just fought an elite NFL team to the wire so there really wasn't any obvious reason for the Saints coach to go off. He could have just pulled a Boring Belichick and said, "Tough loss. We got out played, out coached, and we will try to regroup next week. Next question."

Nope. Ron Swoboda asked him a question about the playoffs and Jim wasn't having any of it.

It was huge deal locally. The Saints always lead the Sunday newscast anyway but people were saying, "Wow, this Mora guy, he's different." The Saints before Mora/Finks/Benson never really felt serious. They were owner John Mecom's toy and if they won, great and if they lost, but the game was entertaining, well that was ok, too.

Not anymore.

I remember my Dad watching Mora's rant on the news and saying to me, "This guy will either get the Saints winning or they'll kill him and he will die during the game."

Jim Mora always said that he didn't think his ‘Coulda Woulda Shoulda' speech was as big a factor in 1987 as everyone wants to believe. I'm not a coach so I can't win an argument with Mora on that point. What I can say is that history is about connecting one event to another and Mora's epic post-game rant is one of the greatest moments in Saints history. It's as big a non-game related moment as you can find. I'd argue the only more important off field things bigger were Drew Brees signing, Sean Payton's hiring, Tom Benson buying the team, and maybe Jim Finks being hired.

You can literally divide Saints history pre- and post- Mora's speech. Before, they were a football joke even in New Orleans with fans who loved them. Everything worth watching, though, the Saints did after ‘Coulda Shoulda Woulda', and the story of the New Orleans Saints can't be told without it.

I can't prove the speech was the reason for what came after it. What I can tell you is it's the exact moment when everything about the Saints changed.

Here's how the NFC West looked following that Week 6 loss.

NFC Western Division






San Francisco








New Orleans
















LA Rams








In case you're interested in the overall standings, here's how the whole league stood after Week 6.

What no one knew was that the city that care forgot and never needed a reason to party was about to have a nine-week extended Mardi Gras. We will get to that next time, in Chapter 2 of Who Dat History: The 1987 Season - Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda...Did.

Hans roll that thing one more time...I love Jim Mora...(ok, Ralph, enjoy!!)

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