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What if the Saints never hired Bum Phillips?

There was more to ol’ Bum than just his big cowboy hat.

Oilers Bum Phillips Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

For current Saints fans who have been spoiled by the last 14 seasons of the LooPay/Brees era, this is a “What if?” which will probably bring out your inner Scooby Doo.

You’re probably wondering why anyone would care if some coach who never had a winning season in New Orleans was hired or not. Didn’t he simply lose games like all the other coaches who came before Payton and Mora? What? Did he acquire the rights to Drew Brees as a baby and that’s how Payton actually snatched him away from Nick Saban & Miami? And that shoulder thingy was just a cover story?

Oh okay, cool. Let’s hear it!

No. That’s not what this is about. But yeah, that would be a cool story.

You see, compared to what came before, Bum Phillips was BY FAR the most successful coach of the John Mecom era. Which on the surface doesn’t seem like much considering the dumpster fire of an organization the Saints were with Mecom as owner. But Bum’s success is not merely limited to the brief time he was able to get more wins than any of the previous coaches who had losing seasons with the Saints.

His place in Saints history is cemented by the legacy he created with his draft picks. A legacy which had a direct effect on the Saints having their first winning season and playoff appearance in franchise history.

Bum Phillips was more than just some old dude who took over the Saints for a little while and immediately traded away the face of the franchise (Archie Manning) for a bag of lima beans, and then later traded away a 1st round pick for a broken down Earl Campbell and a box of milk duds. Bum was so happy with that deal he then dumped the team’s overall #1 pick from 1981 (Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers) in the offseason so Campbell could be the team’s feature back from his wheelchair. Along with shipping out Rogers, Bum threw in 5th, 10th, and 11th round draft picks to sweeten the pot in the trade to the Redskins for their 1st round pick.

After the Redskins hauled in a 26 year old former Heisman Trophy winner who had rushed for over a 1000+ yards twice in the NFL in his 4 year career (missing out on a third by 86 yards) and set the NFL record for rushing yards in a season by a rookie, along with THREE EXTRA DRAFT PICKS, and have that RB gain over 1000+ yards two seasons in a row, and then be the leading rusher during the strike shortened season in which their team won the Super Bowl, you’d think they’d be grateful.

Nah. They wouldn’t even throw in any milk duds. Or lima beans.

Wait…. I got to rambling again, huh?

Where was I? Oh yeah, Bum Phillip’s legacy and the effect he had on the Saints becoming winners.

In 1981 Bum took over a team that was 1-15 the previous season and immediately had one of the greatest drafts in team history which produced 11 starters (yeah, you read that right, from ONE draft) along with a future NFL Hall-of-Famer. They started out slow with a 4-12 record in their first season but then became a competitive football team for three straight years.

1982: 4-5 (strike year)

1983: 8-8

1984: 7-9

Some of you are probably looking at those very modest records and doing the Scooby Doo thing again? Fans who were not around during that time and are completely spoiled by the success of the Payton era can never understand the joy for Saints fans during that period simply because we knew that whenever the Saints lined up to play someone, they actually had a real chance of winning the game. No matter who they played.

That was nice. Finally.

Yeah, sure, they lost more than they won. But it sure was fun watching them battle Landry’s Cowboys all the way to the final whistle instead of just getting mud-stomped for 60 minutes. And this was despite Ken Stabler’s awful pass/fumble into the ground.

(Note: had to backspace/delete several paragraphs of Ken Stabler/Richard Todd ramblings and rants)

During this period Bum continued to add players via the draft or trade. The wheels came off in 1985 as the Saints started out with a 4-8 record and Bum resigned. He was 62 years old and burned out after 30 years of coaching football. He was never going to be the coach who could stick around long enough to finally make the Saints winners. Especially, under John Mecom.

But, the important part and the reason for this “What if?”, is that the cupboard was not bare when Benson bought the team in 1985 and then hired Jim Finks a year later.

When Jim Mora took over the Saints in 1986, 24 players from the Bum Phillips era contributed on offense, defense, and special teams as starters or part of the regular rotation. That’s more than half of the 45-man roster at the time.


Bobby Hebert

Dave Wilson


Wide Receiver

Eric Martin

Eugene Goodlow


Tight End

Hoby Brenner

John Tice


Offensive Line

Joel Hilgenberg

Brad Edleman

Steve Korte

Stan Brock


Defensive Line

Jim Wilks

Bruce Clark

Tony Elliot

Frank Warren

Jumpy Geathers



Rickey Jackson

Vaughan Johnson

Jack Del Rio



Dave Waymer

Johnnie Poe

Frank Wattelet


Special Teams

Morten Andersen

Brian Hansen

Mel Gray

Note: 22 of these players were Bum Phillips draft picks, UDFAs, or rights acquired in a trade. Stan Brock and Dave Waymer were drafted by Steve Rosenbloom in 1980 the year before Bum arrived.

When the Saints had their first winning season and playoff appearance in franchise history in 1987, 12 of the 22 starters were holdovers from the Bum Phillips era – 7 on offense and 5 on defense. There was also a 6th player on defense (Frank Warren) who wasn’t a starter but was a regular in the defensive line rotation and finished 3rd on the team in sacks behind Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson.

Aside from the 13 players who contributed to the 22 spots on offense and defense, the Saints special teams was exclusively Bum Phillips draft picks. Morten Andersen (Kicker), Brian Hansen (Punter), and Mel Gray (Kick/Punt Returner).

Yeah, THAT Mel Gray. One of the greatest return men in NFL history who later went on to become a 3-time All-Pro and 4-time Pro-Bowler while helping Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions get to playoffs for the first time in 8 seasons.

So again, not only was the cupboard NOT bare when Mora took over, that thing was more than half full. Oh, and on top of that, there was some choice cuts of Certified Prime USDA meat waiting in the deep freezer.

People forget, Bum Phillips drafted HALF of the Dome Patrol.

Yeah, sure, Sam Mills was the professor and QB of the defense on the field (who Mora brought over from the USFL) while Pat Swilling was the speed on the outside edge (who Finks drafted out of Georgia Tech). But, the “City Champ” and “Meat” were the toughest guys on a stout defense. Hell, they were the toughest cats on that team. They set the tone for that entire Jim Mora era. Mora was a former Marine who believed in discipline and toughness. And those two fellas were prime examples playing out those concepts on the field.

And, um, if you’re reading this and wondering who the City Champ and Meat were; uhh, yeah, I can’t help you. Maybe Dang Hu Dat or Russty will hook you up down in the comments.

So, what if the Saints never hired Bum Phillips? Who knows? But, one thing is for sure; Jim Finks and Jim Mora wouldn’t have had such a stockpile of players already in house which allowed them to get off to such a fast start. All they needed to do was fill in a few blanks and the Saints were winners and contenders for the first time in their history.

Finks and Mora are the guys who usually get all the credit. Of course. Finks was the architect/builder with Mora putting it into action on the field.

But, I’m thinking maybe we can leave some room for old O.A. “Bum” Phillips too?