The first truly "Golden Era" of New Orleans Saints football had it's foundation first laid in the second round of the 1981 NFL draft. The Saints used the 51st overall selection that year, obtained from the San Diego Chargers in exchange for running back Chuck Muncie, to draft Rickey Jackson from Pitt. Jackson was an almost immediate star, and would make four consecutive Pro Bowls from 1983-86, when he'd have 44 sacks. Jackson would have a formidable defensive line in front of him, but in 1986 the team would add some additional defensive pieces that would affect NFL history. That offseason, the Saints brought on linebackers Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson from the defunct United States Football League, and use a 2nd round draft pick on Pat Swilling from Georgia Tech. Jackson, Swilling, Mills, and Johnson would come to be known as the Dome Patrol, arguably the most intimidating group of linebackers that the NFL has ever seen. New Orleans also hired defensive minded Jim Mora as head coach in '86, who won championships in two of the three U.S.F.L. seasons. The Saints finished 7-9 in 1986, their first season together. A four week player strike in 1987 would force the cancellation of one game altogether, and force most teams to play with replacement players for three games. The Saints replacement players would go 2-1 during the strike after a 1-1 start by the team prior to the stoppage. When regular play resumed, New Orleans would embark on a stretch never before experienced in franchise history.
New Orleans came out of the 1987 player strike with a last minute 24-22 loss on the road to the San Francisco 49ers. The defeat infuriated Mora, and motivated his team. The Saints responded by winning nine consecutive games to finish the season, including a 26-24 win in a rematch over the division rival 49ers in week ten. It took 21 years of NFL football, but the New Orleans Saints would finally finish a season with a winning record for the first time, and also qualify for a postseason berth. Although New Orleans would have an offense that scored the second most points in the league (28.1), most of the team's success was built through an intimidating and opportunistic defense. Mora's 4th ranked defense led the league with 48 forced turnovers, and had a top five ranking against both the pass and run as well as points allowed. The team's linebacking foursome of Jackson, Swilling, Mills, and Johnson first gained notoriety as a group that year. The unit was responsible for 24 of the team's 47 sacks, 9 forced fumbles, 7 fumble recoveries, and 4 interceptions. Swilling and Jackson led the Saints in sacks, with 10.5 and 9.5 respectively, while Mills was voted to the Pro Bowl. New Orleans finished second to the 49ers in the NFC West standings, but entered the playoffs with the second best record in the league at 12-3, giving many fans hopes that their dreams of a Super Bowl berth may finally become reality.
New Orleans would host the upstart Minnesota Vikings in a wild card matchup on January 3, 1988. The Saints got their home crowd into a frenzy early, when quarterback Bobby Hebert opened the game's scoring with a 10 yard touchdown pass to Eric Martin. Unfortunately, that was the last thing New Orleans fans had to cheer about all afternoon. Multiple breakdowns in all three phases of the game doomed the Saints. Their offense would total just 149 yards on the day, and the team fell victim to six turnovers, including 4 interceptions. Even the Saints stout defense uncharacteristically struggled, allowing 417 yards despite forcing two turnovers of their own, and giving up a back-breaking 44-yd. hail mary touchdown reception to Haasan Jones at the end of the half to essentially clinch the game. The Saints fell to the Vikings 44-10, ending their heavenly season in disappointment.
New Orleans began the 1988 season with high hopes, and as one of the NFC's Super Bowl darkhorses. After opening the year with a frustrating one point home loss to the 49ers, an often recurring theme during the Mora era, the Saints would roll off seven straight wins. A 9-3 record heading into final month of the season had the team in great postseason positioning, but the team crumbled down the stretch. New Orleans lost three of their last four games, averaging a paltry 13 points per game, and would miss the playoffs despite a 10-6 record. The collapse squandered an otherwise good season, with a defense that allowed just 17.7 points per game, including 42-0 pounding of the defending AFC champion Denver Broncos. Mills would again get a Pro Bowl bid, but the overall numbers from the linebacking corps were a bit down from the previous year. The Dome Patrol combined for 16 sacks, led by 7 each from Jackson and Swilling, along with forcing five fumbles, recovering five more, and intercepting two passes. Coming up short in big moments was another recurring theme during this otherwise exciting era of Saints football.
The 1989 season began just the opposite of the way the '88 campaign started for New Orleans. An opening day 28-0 whitewashing of the Dallas Cowboys appeared like the team would come out of the gate strongly. Four straight losses after that though, would put them in a hole from which they would not recover. The Saints would respond to the early slump by winning five of six games through midseason to claw their way back into contention. Defensive breakdowns during a week 12 home loss to the division rival Los Angeles Rams would insure that the team would miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season though. During the 20-17 overtime loss, New Orleans would sack Rams quarterback Jim Everett six times and force 3 turnovers. Everett would throw for 454 yards in the game though, allowing an NFL-record 336 receiving yards on 15 receptions to wideout Flipper Anderson. The Dome Patrol would have 28 combined sacks on the year, forcing 12 fumbles and recovering 3 while adding an interception. Pat Swilling led the way with 16.5 qb takedowns and five forced fumbles, and was joined by Vaughan Johnson in the Pro Bowl. The Saints would finish 9-7 on the season, with all seven losses coming to conference opponents, causing them to lose out on tiebreakers and thus, the playoffs. An offense that was fifth in the league in scoring would often come up short in big moments, and shortcomings in the defensive secondary would overshadow their talented front seven.
The Saints offensive plight would take a turn for the worse in 1990, when starting quarterback Bobby Hebert elected to sit out the season due to a contract dispute. The offense was anemic behind quarterbacks Steve Walsh and John Fourcade, averaging just 17 points per game and finishing near the bottom of the league in total yardage and passing output. The defense would respond to the extra added pressure, led by their star linebackers. They surrendered just 17.2 points per game in 1990, and the Dome Patrol had a combined 18.5 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, and 9 fumbles recovered. Swilling's 11 sacks earned him another Pro Bowl nod, where he would again be joined by Johnson. Though never able to string together more than two straight wins all season, New Orleans would win their final two to sneak into the playoffs with an 8-8 record, the worst under Mora since his first season. That earned them a wild card game on the road against the Chicago Bears on January 6, 1991. The defense played adequately against the pass against the Bears, but struggled to get off the field consistently because of 189 rush yards surrendered. A punchless offense offered no help for the Saints this day. Fourcade and Walsh combined for just 11 completions on 36 attempts, and turned the ball over three times in a 16-6 postseason defeat.
Hebert returned to the team in 1991, and the offense would vault back to the top half of the league in production. The New Orleans defense would reach historically dominant levels though, leading the league in points allowed (13.2/game), and finishing 2nd against the pass, run, and total yards. They also forced an incredible 48 turnovers in 1991, which would be the most forced by any team in the 1990's. Their dominance would result in an 11-5 record and the franchise's first ever NFC West championship. Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson would return to the Pro Bowl, while Rickey Jackson (11.5 sacks) continued his underrated play on the outside. The linebacking corps accounted for 29.5 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, 8 fumbles recovered, and 4 interceptions. Pat Swilling was the best of the best in 1991 though. Swilling would lead the league with 17 sacks, forcing six fumbles and scoring a touchdown on an interception return on his way to All-Pro honors and NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
On December 28, 1991, New Orleans would host their bitter division rival, the Atlanta Falcons, in a wild card playoff matchup. The Saints would flex their defensive muscle in the first half, and take a narrow 13-10 lead into the break. A few major second half breakdowns by the team's secondary would once again doom their postseason hopes. Twice Falcons quarterback Chris Miller found receiver Michael Haynes for long touchdowns, including a 61-yd. score late in the 4th quarter, to send the Saints tumbling to a bitter 27-20 defeat against their rival.
New Orleans would again establish defensive dominance during the 1992 season. The Saints would allow less points than any other team during the 1990's (202), surrendering just 12.6/game. They forced 38 turnovers, scoring six defensive touchdowns themselves, while finishing second in total yards and first against the pass. Swilling again earned All-Pro recognition, and was joined in the Pro Bowl by his Dome Patrol teammates Jackson, Mills, and Johnson. It was the first time in NFL history that every starting member of a unit would earn Pro Bowl honors. The four men totaled 16 fumbles forced, 7 fumbles recovered, an interception, along with 28 of the team's 57 sacks, led by 13.5 from Jackson and 10.5 from Swilling. The Saints opened the year by losing a defensive slugfest to the Philadelphia Eagles, but mostly rolled through the rest of their schedule. Unfortunately, a season sweep at the hands of division rival and nemesis San Francisco would again relegate them to a wild card playoff spot, even with a 12-4 record.
New Orleans would host the Eagles in a wild card matchup on January 3, 1993. It was a rematch of the season opener, and a showdown between the league's two best defenses. Saints receiver Quinn Early capped a standout first half with a touchdown reception that sent the home team into halftime with a 17-7 lead. When kicker Morten Anderson extended that to a 20-7 advantage early in the 3rd, most fans who felt this was coach Jim Mora's best team hoped this might finally be the year New Orleans would notch a postseason victory. Unfortunately, shocking defensive breakdowns and an offense that failed them in the biggest moments would curse them yet again. Eagles receiver Fred Barnett scored his second long touchdown of the game early in the 4th quarter, and running back Heath Sherman ran for 105 yards and the go-ahead score later in the final quarter. The Saints offense disappeared in the second half, turning the ball over four times and giving up a fourth quarter safety. Philadelphia would put up 26 unanswered points in the 4th quarter, capped by a Bobby Hebert interception return for a touchdown by Eric Allen to seal the 36-20 Eagle win.
The '91 and '92 seasons signified the high water mark of the Mora regime. General manager Jim Finks, who had built this talented roster alongside Mora and owner Tom Benson, was diagnosed with lung cancer and would eventually resign his position during the 1993 offseason. Starting quarterback Bobby Hebert left as a free agent, signing with bitter rival Atlanta. The Saints also pulled the trigger on a trade that sent All-Pro linebacker Pat Swilling to the Detroit Lions in exchange for 1st and 4th round draft picks. New Orleans would ultimately draft future Hall of Fame tackle Willie Roaf and Pro bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal with the picks, but the Swilling deal marked the end of the most dominant linebacking units in league history. Rickey Jackson and Vaughan Johnson would each depart after the '93 season. Johnson joined the Eagles, and Jackson would sign on with longtime nemesis San Francisco, where he would earn a Super Bowl ring following the 1994 campaign. Sam Mills, the final holdover from this vaunted unit, signed with the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995, where he would be an All-Pro and eventually be inducted into that team's ring of honor as well.
Jim Mora had a 167-93 record from 1986-96 as head coach of the Saints. His teams would go 62-93 from '87-92, winning 65% of their games and qualifying for the playoffs four times in a six year span. Despite a 5-0 start to 1993, offensive deficiencies without Hebert would cause New Orleans to fall to 8-8 and miss the playoffs for the first time in four years. A trade for former Rams quarterback Jim Everett in 1994 would give the Saints a prolific passing attack in '94 and '95, but a once proud defense was crumbling, leading to 7-9 finishes each season. A decaying roster led Mora to resign midway through the 1996 season in the midst of a 3-13 finish, perhaps tarnishing his legacy with the franchise. Mora put together some teams that were among the finest in the NFL. In the end, overly conservative offensive gameplans, baffling defensive failings, and playing during an era with the powerful 49ers would stonewall the Saints championship hopes.
The Dome Patrol members combined for 14 Pro Bowls during their seven seasons together. They'd compile 158 sacks (Swilling with 76.5, Jackson with 66), 14 interceptions, 66 forced fumbles, 41 fumbles recovered, and scored two touchdowns. New Orleans had plenty of talent on both sides of the ball during this era. Hebert, running backs Reuben Mayes and Dalton Hilliard, receiver Eric Martin, and a powerful offensive line keyed an underrated (but conservative) offense, while an extremely talented defensive line complimented the linebackers to form one of the league's best defenses. Rickey Jackson would eventually be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an honor that both Pat Swilling and Sam Mills are worthy of, but have thus far been overlooked. Every member of the Dome Patrol is in the Saints Hall of Fame, along with their head coach Mora. The group ushered in the first successful era in New Orleans Saints football, one that should always be held in high reverence by fans. One that unfortunately, is perhaps just as remembered for near misses and coming up short in the biggest moments.
What was the toughest playoff loss of the Jim Mora era?
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1988 wild card vs. Vikings
1991 wild card at Bears
1991 wild card vs. Falcons
1992 wild card vs. Eagles