Today, we’re going to talk about one of the greatest NFL defenses in recent memory, one that doesn’t get its fair remembrance due to a lack of Hall of Famers and a lack of playoff wins. That would be the New Orleans Saints’ defense of the late 1980s and early 90s, particularly the linebacking corps, who earned the moniker of the “Dome Patrol.”
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Every Friday, host John Gidley shares interesting stories of games, players, coaches and teams that aren’t necessarily forgotten, but are not as well-known as they should be.
Dome Patrol Backstory
If you’re a younger NFL fan, such as myself, you may not realize that for most of their initial history, the New Orleans Saints were frequently the laughingstock of pro football, and rightfully so. It took them 20 years until they finally had a winning season (more on that later). The only two times they finished at .500 in that span were in 1979 and 1983, seasons that both ended in heartbreak. After starting 0-3 in 1979, the Saints won seven of their next ten games to put themselves in the thick of the NFC West race.
On Monday night, December 3rd, they hosted the Oakland Raiders in the first Monday Night Football game ever played at the Superdome. After the Raiders took a 7-0 first-quarter lead, New Orleans exploded for four second-quarter touchdowns and led 28-14 at halftime. In the third quarter, Ken Bordelon intercepted Ken Stabler at Oakland’s 19-yard line and returned it to the end zone, giving the Saints a presumably comfortable 35-14 lead. Instead, the Raiders shocked New Orleans and the nation by scoring four unanswered touchdowns over the next two quarters, turning a 21-point deficit into a seven-point victory, 42-35.
The next week, the Saints lost 35-0 at home to the San Diego Chargers, which eliminated them from playoff contention. The following season is still well-remembered 40 years later. New Orleans finished with one win and 15 losses, earning the nickname of the “Aint’s.”
The only highlight of 1980 came in a Monday night home loss to the Los Angeles Rams, when disgruntled fans took in the game with paper bags over their heads, a practice that is still in style today among fans of losing teams.
Three years after that dismal season, the Saints were reasonably improved. They were now led by former Houston Oilers head coach Bum Phillips, and at quarterback by Ken Stabler, who had dashed their playoff hopes just four years earlier. New Orleans was in the running for the entire 1983 campaign in a wide-open NFC West.
The San Francisco 49ers broke away towards the end of the regular season to win the division, but on the last Sunday of the year, there was still one remaining wild-card spot left. It was up to either the Saints or the Rams to claim it.
The schedule worked out nicely, as those two played each other at the Superdome in that final game of the regular season. New Orleans overcame a 16-7 second-half deficit to take a 24-23 lead, but a late 42-yard field goal by Los Angeles kicker Mike Lansford sent the Rams to the playoffs and sent the Saints home yet again.
The Patrol Begins It's Shift
After two forgettable seasons, things began to take shape for the Saints in 1986. That year was the first for head coach Jim Mora, the former head coach of the Philadelphia Stars, arguably the most successful team in the NFL’s attempted rival, the USFL.
1986 was also the first season for three of the four players that would soon make up the “Dome Patrol” defense: Sam Mills, Pat Swilling, and Vaughan Johnson. The fourth member of the unit was Rickey Jackson, who had recorded double-digit sacks in each of the previous three seasons. New Orleans surrendered only 287 points in 1986, seventh-fewest in the NFL. Their problem was that they only scored 288 on offense. This explains their 7-9 record that season.
1987 would be the first time that Jackson, Johnson, Mills, and Swilling were all starters. They missed four weeks of the regular season, however, because of the NFL’s infamous players strike that saw one week of the season canceled, and the other three played with replacement rosters. On October 25th, the first week back for the regular players, the Saints lost at home to the 49ers, 24-22, dropping them to 3-3.
This would be the last time, however, that New Orleans lost that regular season. A dominant 38-0 victory the next week in Atlanta was the first of nine consecutive wins to close out the season. Their 20-16 win in Pittsburgh on November 29th was their eighth of the year, which secured the first winning season in franchise history.
It took them 20 years to get there, but they finally did it. Despite their 12-3 record, the Saints finished one game behind the 13-2 49ers in the NFC West. It still meant their first playoff game ever, played at the Superdome the next week against the Minnesota Vikings. That day, however, saw New Orleans’ dreams dashed in shocking fashion. The Vikings pummeled the Saints for a 31-10 halftime lead, and an eventual 44-10 victory.
That loss set the tone for each of the next three seasons in New Orleans. After starting 7-1 in 1988, the Saints stumbled through the second half of the year. While still finishing 10-6, they missed the playoffs in a highly-competitive NFC. A silver lining was that this was the first big season for both Vaughan Johnson and Sam Mills, who combined for 219 tackles.
1989 got off to a promising start with an Opening Day shutout of the Dallas Cowboys, but New Orleans proceeded to lose each of their next four games. An 8-3 finish wasn’t enough to fill the early hole they dug for themselves. Pat Swilling earned the top rank in the Dome Patrol that year by recording 16.5 sacks.
In 1990, the Saints possessed one of the worst offenses in the NFL. This likely had something to do with the absence of quarterback Bobby Hebert, who sat out that entire season in protest of his contract. With the starting job split between Steve Walsh and John Fourcade, both of whom inexperienced, New Orleans struggled to put points on the board.
The defense bailed them out, however, particularly in the second half of the season. After losing 9-6 to Pittsburgh in week 15, dropping them to 6-8, the Dome Patrol put the clamps on the two-time Super Bowl champion 49ers the next week, holding San Francisco to just ten points. The offense was able to muster 13 and hand the Niners just their second loss of the season. The next week, the Saints beat the Rams, 20-17 to sneak into the playoffs.
Their opponent in the Wild Card round was the Chicago Bears, who still had most pieces of their legendary defense in place. On a frigid day at Soldier Field, neither offense could get anything going, but the Bears did just enough to win, 16-6.
Two Seasons of Dominance
1991 was the first of two of the greatest seasons by a defense in the history of the NFL. That season, the Saints started 7-0 for the first time in franchise history. The defense surrendered only 60 points over those first seven games, most notably pitching a shutout in week four against their old nemeses, the Vikings.
After losing their first game of the season to the Bears, New Orleans lost four of their next six, suddenly finding themselves at 9-5 with two games to play in yet another competitive season in the NFC. The defense knew what they had to do, however. In week 16, the Saints shut out the Los Angeles Raiders on Monday Night Football and surrendered only three points in their season finale against the Phoenix Cardinals. They finished 11-5, which not only got them into the playoffs, it was also good enough for their first division championship in franchise history.
This gave them a home playoff game that next week against one of their NFC West rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, who were making their first playoff appearance in nine years. It was a close game the entire way, with the score tied at 20-20 in the fourth quarter. It was then that Falcons quarterback Chris Miller threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to Michael Haynes, giving Atlanta a 27-20 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. New Orleans was sent home yet again. Even though the playoff loss made the season a moot point, the stats are still remarkable: 211 points allowed (that’s just 13 per game), 17 sacks for Pat Swilling, 11.5 for Rickey Jackson, and 102 tackles for Sam Mills.
The Dome Patrol hardly missed a beat in 1992. In fact, they surrendered slightly fewer points than they did in ’91, only allowing 202. A few times, however, the offense would let the Saints down, particularly in their first two losses: 15-13 on Opening Day in Philadelphia, and 16-10 at home in week four against San Francisco. Speaking of the 49ers, a little backstory on them: Joe Montana injured himself in the 1990 NFC Championship Game, which turned out to be his last start in San Francisco.
Steve Young took over in 1991 and was serviceable, but a 10-6 finish wasn’t good enough for the Niners to make the playoffs. This was largely the reason why the Saints won the NFC West that year. 1992, however, was a much different season. Young led the 49ers to a 14-2 record and won his first of two Most Valuable Player awards. The Saints had to settle for second place at 12-4, which was still good for the first wild card spot. In this era, that meant a home playoff game. With the Superdome faithful hungry for a playoff win, New Orleans hosted Philadelphia. The Dome Patrol did their job for the first three quarters. At the start of the fourth, the Saints led, 20-10.
No one expected what was to come after that. First, Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Fred Barnett to make the score 20-17. Then, Heath Sherman scored on a six-yard touchdown run to give Philadelphia their first lead of the game. Five more points were scored after that on a field goal by Roger Ruzek, and on a safety, as Reggie White sacked Bobby Hebert in the New Orleans end zone.
The final blow was an 18-yard interception return for a touchdown by Eric Allen. When all was said and done, the Eagles scored 26 unanswered fourth-quarter points to shock the Saints, 36-20. Just for reference, the most points New Orleans had allowed during the regular season was 21. Yet again, they came up short. Yet again, the season was a moot point, but the stats deserved to be looked over yet again: 10.5 sacks for Pat Swilling, 13.5 for 34-year-old Rickey Jackson, 15.5 for defensive end Wayne Martin, and 130 tackles by Sam Mills.
The Patrol Surrenders the Fort
1992 was the last season that the four members of the Dome Patrol played together. That next offseason, Pat Swilling was traded to Detroit for draft capital. The Saints’ defense immediately suffered the effects, surrendering an uncharacteristic 343 points and finishing at a mediocre 8-8.
The following offseason saw the departures of Rickey Jackson, who signed with the 49ers, and Vaughan Johnson, who went to the Eagles. Sam Mills, the last member of the club, tallied a career-high 155 tackles in 1994, but he was the only bright spot in a New Orleans defense that allowed the second-most points in the NFL. Seeing that their window had closed, the Saints let Mills go that offseason, allowing him to sign with the expansion Carolina Panthers.
Mills played three more seasons before retiring and becoming the Panthers’ beloved linebackers coach. Shortly before the 2003 season began, he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer, but continued coaching, famously telling his defense to “keep pounding,” a phrase that remains the team slogan to this day. That season, Carolina went to the Super Bowl for the first time ever but came up just short against New England. In April 2005, Sam Mills passed away at the age of 45.
As for the Saints, the rest of the 1990s were certainly forgettable. Jim Mora was fired midway through the 1996 season and was replaced the next year by Mike Ditka. You may not remember that Iron Mike coached the Saints for three seasons. He doesn’t want you to remember it, either. It took them 33 years, but in 2000, New Orleans finally won their first playoff game in franchise history. Nine years later, they won their first-ever Super Bowl. While some of their defenses have been solid, their current iteration, in particular, no unit has ever been more dominant for the Saints than the Dome Patrol.
If you enjoyed this article about the Dome Patrol, you may enjoy the Jackie Wallace story from The Football History Dude podcast. Jackie grew up a legend in the New Orleans area, played in multiple Super Bowls, and then found himself sleeping in a homeless camp under the Carrollton overpass in New Orleans. Ted Jackson took a photo and started what would become a 30+ year amazing story.
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