For the first 20 years of their existence, the New Orleans Saints did not have a winning season, let alone a berth into the NFL postseason. Year after year would end with the same refrain being repeated by those around or affiliated with the team: 'Wait Til Next Year'. Yet, as long-time fans of the Saints can attest, "next year" never came.
The 1978 and '79 Saints came close with a powerful offensive attack. The '82-'84 Saints came close again, this time with a more defensive approach, filled with veterans that had experienced success elsewhere. No matter what the team did with it's roster, approach, or philosophy, the best that the Saints could manage was an 8-8 record only twice in it's two decade history.
Another new philosophy came to town in 1986, when Jim Mora was hired to coach the Saints. Mora brought with him a championship pedigree, having won 2 titles in the USFL with the Philadelphia and Baltimore Stars. His goal was to transform New Orleans into a tough and physical team, and his primary focus was on team discipline. He also brought with him a new quarterback, Bobby Hebert, two new running backs (Reuben Mayes and Dalton Hilliard), as well as two hard-nosed linebackers in Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson from the USFL to go along with 3rd round draft pick Pat Swilling and the established Rickey Jackson. The first Mora team showed promise, but a 5-1 stretch at midseason was sandwiched by 1-4 records at the beginning and end to leave the Saints with a losing record once again.
The Saints began the 1987 season by splitting their first two games. Then, a player strike forced the league to cancel one game and caused NFL squads to play 3 games with replacement players until the dispute was settled. The Saints first game back from the strike was at home against the rival San Francisco 49ers. Despite having ample opportunity for victory, New Orleans lost a close contest, 24-22. That would prompt an angry postgame outburst by their coach. Mora's rant, that would come to be known as "Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda", helped spur his team on to four straight victories, including a win in a rematch against the 49ers. Sitting at a record of 7-3 with five games remaining, the Saints needed only 1 more win to clinch that 1st winning season that had alluded them for so long. Their first chance for this would come on a trip north in late November against one of the most respected franchises in the NFL.
The date was Sunday, November 29, 1987.
The Saints were stepping into Three Rivers Stadium to play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thanksgiving weekend. The Steelers were long removed from the historically powerful team that had won 4 Super Bowls. Gone were Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, and Mel Blount. Pittsburgh still had Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, who led a hard-nosed group with a still talented defense that was especially hard to beat in front of their rowdy fans at home. The Steelers themselves entered the game with a 6-4, still very much alive for a playoff spot in the AFC.
As expected, the game was a defensive slugfest. The powerful New Orleans defense got the better of Pittsburgh most of the day, forcing six Steeler turnovers and holding them to 335 yards of total offense. Outside linebackers Jackson and Swilling were the biggest stars, and had 2 sacks each. The Saints carried a 3-0 lead into the 2nd quarter when Pittsburgh's defense struck back, returning an interception for a touchdown and holding the New Orleans offense in check to take a 14-3 halftime advantage. The Saints regrouped in the second half, as a touchdown run by Reuben Mayes and a touchdown strike from Bobby Hebert to Eric Martin put New Orleans back on top. After a Morten Anderson field goal widened the Saints lead to 20-14, New Orleans would leave hopes of victory on the shoulders of it's fine defense.
Pittsburgh drove down the field and put itself in position for the go-ahead touchdown, with a 1st Down and Goal at the Saints 4-yd. line with less than four minutes to go in the game. On first down, the Steelers smartly ran behind their future Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, but could only gain 2 yards. They attempted the same strategy on 2nd Down, but this time were stuffed after only a few inches at the 1-yard line. On 3rd Down, Steelers quarterback Mark Malone rolled to his right, eying up an open running back (Frank Pollard) in the end zone.
Linebacker Rickey Jackson made another spectacular play, batting down Malone's pass while chasing him down and setting up a pivotal 4th Down. With 2 minutes and 21 seconds remaining, Pollard took a short pitch to the left side and immediately cut upfield towards the end zone. He was met at the line of scrimmage first by Saints safety Brett Maxie, then by defensive end Jim Wilks and linebacker Sam Mills. The ensuing collision stopped Pollard cold short of the goal line, and sent the Saints players and the entire Gulf Coast region into celebration. For the first time in their history, the New Orleans Saints would have a winning season!
New Orleans would clinch a playoff spot for the first time with a victory the following week against Tampa Bay. They would end the 1987 season with 9 consecutive victories after that Week 7 loss to the 49ers, but their dream season would come to an end with a first round playoff loss to Minnesota. Despite that, the 1987 season will always be a treasured memory in the minds of Saints fans, as will the victory over Pittsburgh that clinched a first in franchise history.