Joe Montana and Bill Walsh. Those two names still send shivers up the spines and cause nightmares for older Saints fans to this day. The future Hall of Fame quarterback and coaching icons would spend a decade torturing the New Orleans Saints as members of the San Francisco 49ers. As great as those two were though, it very nearly never happened for what would come to be known as the team of the '80's. San Francisco was coming off of their second straight 2-14 finish as they entered the 1980 season. In 1979, the 49ers would hire Walsh, who had been a moderately successful coach at Stanford. Walsh used a 3rd round pick in the 1979 draft to select Joe Montana out of Notre Dame, a frail-looking and sometimes underwhelming quarterback. Montana started just one game in the '79 season, a loss, and Walsh's 49ers stumbled to a 2-14 record. Walsh began the 1980 season on the hot seat, and although Montana appeared in nearly every game that year, he was only a sporadic starter with unimpressive results. The Niners started the year with three consecutive wins, including a season-opening victory at New Orleans, but then lost eight in a row. They entered the 14th game of the 1980 season with a home rematch against New Orleans having won two in a row, including Montana's first career win as a starter, but sitting just 1 loss away from their fourth consecutive losing season and 7th of the last eight.
The New Orleans Saints entered the 1980 season with much higher expectations than their NFC West counterparts in San Francisco. They were favored by many to make a push for the playoffs for the first time in their fourteen year history. The Saints were coming off 7-9 and 8-8 seasons in 1978 and '79 (their first non-losing season in franchise history), and possessed one of the more explosive offenses in the NFC. Quarterback Archie Manning keyed a high octane attack that boasted a magnificent duo at running back with Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath, along with a dynamic trio of pass catchers in wideouts Wes Chandler, Ike Harris, and tight end Henry Childs. The 1980 season quickly disintegrated into disaster for the Saints though. An opening day upset at home to the 49ers plummeted into 13 straight losses without a win, even causing New Orleans to become a punchline of national talk show hosts. A turnover plagued offense was only overshadowed by a defense helpless to stop even the most pedestrian offenses. A 27-7 Monday night home loss to the Los Angeles Rams not only cost head coach Dick Nolan his job, but also revealed a faction of disgruntled fans who donned paper bags over their heads in front of a national television audience. The infamous nickname of the 'Aints would follow the franchise for years after the disastrous season. A tragic season would perhaps hit an even lower point in the season's 14th week, when the Saints would travel to San Francisco for a rematch against their division rivals.
December 7, 1980
Candlestick Park, San Francisco, Ca
New Orleans came out of the gate fast against their NFC West foe. Archie Manning threw two first quarter touchdown passes, the first a 33-yd. strike to Ike Harris down the left sideline, then connecting with Henry Childs for a 21-yd. score later in the period. Running back Jack Holmes extended the New Orleans lead to 21-0 early in the second quarter, and the Saints last-ranked defense was making life miserable for the home team. San Francisco managed only 21 total first half yards and just two first downs, scoring only on a 57-yd. punt return by Freddie Solomon to close the gap to 21-7. That momentum was short-lived, with Holmes scoring on another short touchdown run a short time later. Ike Harris then took a late first half pass from Manning for a brilliant 41-yd. touchdown to extend the Saints lead to an apparently insurmountable 35-7 advantage heading into halftime.
San Francisco finally began to show signs of life on their first possession of the second half, with Joe Montana culminating the drive with a one yard scoring run. A short time later, wide receiver Dwight Clark took a short Montana pass on the right side, broke two feeble tackle attempts, and outraced Saints defenders for a 71-yd. touchdown to close the New Orleans lead to 35-21. Manning would answer Montana with a couple of pinpoint passes to Wes Chandler to put his team on the move. Unfortunately, Henry Childs fumbled the ball away near the San Francisco 10 after an impressive reception to squelch momentum. Another sharp New Orleans drive would end deep in San Francisco territory as the 3rd turned into the 4th quarter, this time with a Jimmy Rogers fumble inside the 49er 20-yd. line. The 49ers offense had taken control of the game by now, mixing accurate Montana passes with powerful runs by Lenvil Elliott, who finished with 125 rushing yards and a score. The 49ers would roll up 408 second half yards and 22 first downs, and pulled to within a touchdown with a 14-yd. Montana pass to Solomon after the Rogers' fumble.
The New Orleans offense had peppered the 49ers defense, particularly over the first three quarters, but would stall in the final period. The Saints finished with 519 yards, led by 377 passing from Manning, who found Chandler and Harris for 131 yards and Childs for 144 yards on 8 completions. What seemed unthinkable at halftime now became a painful and inevitable reality for New Orleans though, as the 49ers tied the game at 35 on Elliott's 7-yd. TD run late in the 4th quarter. San Francisco would put the exclamation mark on an amazing second half with their first possession of overtime, when kicker Ray Wersching sent a 36-yd. field goal through the uprights for a 38-35 49er win.
The 1980 New Orleans Saints did manage to avoid becoming the first team to go 0-16 in a season, defeating the New York Jets on the road in week 15, although they did become the first franchise to lose 15 games in a single season. The Saints would begin to pick up the pieces after the 1980 debacle. First, they hired Bum Phillips as head coach, then selected Heisman Trophy winning running back George Rogers from South Carolina with the first overall pick in the 1981 draft. The Saints '81 draft would turn out to be among the better ones in the history of the franchise. In addition to Rogers, New Orleans also added linebacker Rickey Jackson with a 2nd round pick (51st overall), tight end Hoby Brenner (3rd), defensive ends Frank Warren (3rd) and Jim Wilks (12th), defensive back Johnnie Poe (6th), and running back Hokie Gajan. The draft class was headlined by Jackson, who would be the foundation to one of the NFL's best defenses in a Hall of Fame career, but he, Rogers, Brenner, Warren, and Wilks would all eventually wind up in the Saints Hall of Fame.
While New Orleans would begin to build a contender through the 1981 draft, the rise to the top was much faster and more successful for San Francisco. Following a 6-10 finish in 1980, Montana's 49ers would win Super Bowl XV following the 1981 season. It was their first of four championships with him at the helm through 1990, three with Walsh as head coach. December 7, 1980 was Joe Montana's first start against the New Orleans Saints. He would go on to torture them twice a year for what seemed like an eternity for Saints fans. Montana would have a 15-4 record against New Orleans as starting quarterback for San Francisco, and his teams were often the biggest roadblocks in the Saints own pursuit of championship aspirations.
Montana was credited with 31 4th quarter come from behind victories over his Hall of Fame career. Five of those would come against the Saints, more than any other team, with that December afternoon being the first comeback of his storied career. The 28 point comeback remains the largest in NFL regular season history, and is surpassed all-time only by the 32-point comeback by the Buffalo Bills against the Houston Oilers in a 1993 wild card playoff game. December 7, 1980 would not only jumpstart the 49ers dynasty, but also mark one of the darkest moments in the history of the New Orleans Saints.