After decades of despair, a historically dominant linebacker corps changed everything for the New Orleans Saints.
Illustration by Mary Jane Kim
After decades of despair, a historically dominant linebacker corps changed everything for the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints are riding a four-game winning streak, but the stakes are higher than simply pushing that run to five straight. A victory for New Orleans clinches a winning record for the 1987 season -- a feat that has yet to be accomplished in the franchise's 20-year history.
The home crowd's deafening roar descends upon the field, attempting to will the Steelers into the end zone.
Two straight runs at the heart of New Orleans' vaunted front seven net Pittsburgh just 3 yards, with key tackles by middle linebacker Vaughan Johnson and Pro Bowl outside linebacker Rickey Jackson. Precious seconds erode from the game clock.
"Like throwing popcorn at a battle ship, trying to run inside like that," former Chiefs head coach Hank Stram quips alongside Tim Brant from the CBS Sports booth. He's been barking for the Steelers to try something to the outside. And on third-and-goal, Stram gets his wish.
Fullback Frank Pollard leaks out into the flat as middle linebacker Sam Mills is uncharacteristically late to diagnose the play. With Steelers quarterback Mark Malone rolling to his right, Pollard is wide open. The go-ahead score seems imminent ... until Jackson blows past pulling guard Terry Long and bats Malone's pass harmlessly to the ground.
Fourth-and-goal. Fourth-and-game. Call it what you will -- at this point, there hasn't been a more important down and distance in Saints history.
The play call is a power toss to the left. Pollard sprints for the goal line, but right outside linebacker Pat Swilling sets the edge well enough to turn him upfield sooner than he'd like. Instead of running to daylight, Pollard is met by a 5-foot-9 brick wall better known as Samuel Davis Mills Jr.
Turnover on downs.
"Look at the shot inside!" Stram exclaims, watching a replay of Mills' hit. "I don't care who it was -- it was a great performance on the part of the New Orleans Saints."
The players erupt in celebration, tasting that elusive winning season. And even though the defense later would have to seal the win by intercepting Malone for the third time, the goal-line stand is why this game is remembered. Not only did it bring the Saints their first campaign north of .500 in 20 years -- the longest drought in NFL history -- it was made with key plays by linebackers Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Pat Swilling.
Together they formed the most dominant linebacking corps the league has ever seen. Over the course of their six seasons starting together, they'd go on to set numerous records, earn a combined 13 trips to the Pro Bowl and march the Saints to the playoffs four separate times while leading a defense that was feared across the league. And as the franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary, their indelible impact demands to be reexamined.
They were the Dome Patrol.
Fans, still devoted enough to attend games, expressed their displeasure by donning paper bags over their heads and bestowing a new nickname on their beloved franchise:
Understanding the profound connection between New Orleanians and their football team, Tom Benson sought a quick turnaround after purchasing the team in 1985 to prevent it from moving to a new city. To bring about this revival, he hired noted franchise resurrection artist Jim Finks as general manager and president in 1986. Prior to joining the Saints, Finks had turned around the Minnesota Vikings (running the team from 1964 to 1973), the Chicago Bears (1974-1982) and even the Chicago Cubs of Major League Baseball (1983-84). Shortly after taking over in New Orleans, Finks hired a new head coach: Jim Mora, fresh off back-to-back titles in the soon-to-fold USFL. United in their philosophy and approach, Finks and Mora were ready to set forth on the greatest challenge of their professional lives: undoing two straight decades of ineptitude.
A fresh front office meant an influx of new players. While Finks and Mora signed and drafted critical role players in those first few years, the single most important part of their roster construction and future success came in finding the pieces that eventually would become the Dome Patrol.
From 1987 to 1992, Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughn Johnson and Pat Swilling combined to form one of the best linebacking quartets in football history. They were four incredibly unique and remarkably talented individuals, who all took different paths to the NFL. Fortunately for the Saints, each one of those paths converged in New Orleans.
"It kind of all fell into place," recalls Mora. "The only guy who was there when we got there was Rickey."
A second-round pick out of Pitt in 1981, Jackson came to the Saints after the worst season in franchise history, but he played well enough to earn four straight trips to the Pro Bowl from 1983 to '86. However, individual success was secondary to winning for Jackson, so he warmly welcomed the new arrivals brought in by Mora and Finks.
Among those additions was Swilling. A third-round selection out of Georgia Tech in 1986, Swilling gave the team another intimidating pass rusher to pair with Jackson. While the Saints' decades of despondence didn't initially excite Swilling, the notion of playing opposite Jackson certainly did.
"I'd heard a lot about Rickey Jackson, how he was a terror down there and a great linebacker," Swilling remembers. "Had he been in New York or Los Angeles, he'd have been bigger than life."
Jackson's on-field play helped build that reputation, as he didn't have any weaknesses, according to Mora. And his toughness was second to none. During the 1989 season, Jackson broke his cheekbone in an automobile accident. The original diagnosis was for him to miss four to six weeks. He came back after two -- the only two games he would ever miss due to injury in his 15-year career.
While Swilling and Jackson carried notable draft pedigrees, Mills brought a different sort of resume -- one filled with rejection.
An undersized underdog his entire life, Mills walked on at small Montclair State College (now Montclair State University) in New Jersey. Undrafted in 1981, Mills was cut by the Cleveland Browns and passed over after a tryout with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. He finally found a home in the USFL with Mora on the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars and became a standout. He was named to three All-USFL teams while leading Mora's defenses to three straight league title games -- and winning two of them.
Even though Finks initially balked at adding a short, 225-pound linebacker, Mora convinced him.
"He had everything -- everything -- that you would want in a player," Mora explains. "He achieved as close to his potential as any player I ever coached. He was special. I get shook up just talking about him."
Mills' ability to read and diagnose opposing plays made him a natural choice to serve as the defense's field general, delivering assignments from the huddle and making adjustments on the fly. With Mills calling the shots as Swilling and Jackson swarmed from the edges, all that was missing was an enforcer, someone to set the physical tone for the defense. Enter Vaughan Johnson.
"If you want to know how good Vaughan was, just ask [three-time Super Bowl champion and star 49ers RB] Roger Craig," Swilling says of the North Carolina State product, who, like Mills, began his professional career in the USFL. "I think he knocked Roger Craig into three or four different centuries. I've never seen a guy hit another guy so hard in my life."
Johnson bursts into a deep, jovial laugh when asked about tackling Craig.
"I like Roger -- I became real good friends with him," he reveals. "He's a great guy, but I enjoyed hitting him, that's for sure."
The respect given to Johnson for his physicality wasn't limited to poor Roger Craig, though.
"Vaughan, God, he was the downhill thumper of that era," recalls Jamie Dukes, a center for the rival Atlanta Falcons from 1986 to 1993. "He was a like a big, 250-pound bowling ball."
Even though they didn't all become full-time starters together until 1987, from Day 1, Jackson, Swilling, Mills and Johnson forged a bond that would unite them in excellence for the better part of a decade.
"It was so much fun to play with those guys," Johnson beams. "We were always competing against one another, which I think made us a better group of linebackers."
While the four linebackers earned plenty of praise outside of the locker room, it never affected their reputation within team walls.
"They earned [their recognition]," says Brett Maxie, a defensive back for the Saints from 1985 to 1993 and the current defensive backs coach for the Buccaneers. "And they were good. It was hard not to admit that they were very good. They were four of the best in the history of the NFL to ever play on the same team."
These sentiments were felt by players on both sides of the football.
"The Dome Patrol always had my back," says Bobby Hebert, quarterback for the Saints from 1985 to 1992. "Just by having that respect, it didn't matter to me that [the offense] didn't get as much recognition."
As the Saints unified under Mora and his coaching staff, a growing sentiment emerged throughout the locker room that greatness, and potentially a Super Bowl, was within this team's grasp. Something special appeared to be in the making in New Orleans.
"When people came to the Superdome," Jackson says, "they knew they had four guys to be aware of because they were going to get knocked around."
New Orleans lost that game, 24-22, when Morten Andersen couldn't convert a 52-yard field-goal try in the final seconds. The media saw the close loss to one of the league's preeminent teams as a positive sign for the Saints. Mora didn't, which led to the first of many emotional rants that marked his career.
Looking back on that rant, among others, Mora himself isn't filled with quite the same fire.
"I'm not proud of a lot of the things I said, and that's very truthful," he admits now. "I'm an emotional guy, I say things that sometimes you don't need to say publicly. But I always basically said what I felt, and that's just me."
Ask any of the players in that locker room and the message was received -- loud and clear.
"It was a wakeup call for us, and he was right -- we always came up short," Swilling says. "After a while, if you start to believe that that's good enough, then that's who you are."
"That's the way I felt," Johnson echoes. "This is the NFL. It's not the 'come close' league. You have to win. At the end of the season, they don't add up how many games you came close to winning."
After that speech, the Saints stopped coming close and piled up nine straight victories, including the Pittsburgh triumph detailed above, plus revenge over the 49ers in Candlestick Park in November and a win over the Buccaneers in December to secure the franchise's first-ever playoff berth.
Sadly, the magic ran out after that, with the team suffering a 44-10 blowout loss in a wild-card game at the Superdome at the hands of the 8-7 Vikings.
"I blame myself," Mora admits, looking back on the season. "I had a tendency as a coach to work teams a little too hard. We were rolling along and doing things the way that were helping us win early in the season. I probably should have eased off on the team with the difficulty of practices and stuff like that."
After a brief pause, Mora adds: "We were good enough to go on. We just didn't do it."
"I've never felt so empty in my life, and I'll never forget that," Swilling adds. "There were a couple things we all could have done to make a difference."
With the bitter taste of defeat in their mouths, the Dome Patrol picked themselves up and soldiered on. From 1987 on, the Saints never had a losing season when all four members of the Patrol were starting together. In that run were three more playoff appearances, including the franchise's first division title in 1991.
Yet, even with all of the wins and stats the Dome Patrol piled up, the legitimacy of the unit's legacy often comes down to one sad number: zero. As in, zero playoff wins.
The defense is actually partly to blame. From 1987 to 1992, New Orleans held opponents to 16.4 points per regular-season game -- but that number skyrocketed to a whopping 28.5 points per game in the postseason (excluding points given up by the offense via turnover). Some believe the offensive philosophy was the culprit. The team benefitted (to a fault) from a prolific kicker in Andersen, who to this day leads the NFL in career points. Once the offense crossed the 50, the Saints assumed it had three points and would play it safe. That strategy routinely worked in the regular season, but it could prove costly in the playoffs.
Perhaps, above all else, the level of competition was what killed the playoff dreams of the Dome Patrol.
"We sometimes thought, if we were in the AFC, we had a great chance to represent the conference in the Super Bowl," Hebert says. "But I looked at it as [the competition in the NFC] was what brought the best out of us."
It's hard to argue with Hebert's logic. The NFC won the Super Bowl for 13 straight seasons starting in 1984. During the Dome Patrol's heyday, only one AFC team posted a better overall record than the Saints: Jim Kelly's Buffalo Bills.
Dwelling on what-ifs isn't a part of this team's DNA, though.
"You gotta play the hand you're dealt," Johnson says, "and ours helped us be the team that we were."
As brightly as these Saints teams shined for six years under the Dome Patrol, it all came to a rather dark, unsatisfying end, leaving the game-changing quartet's historical standing in question.
* * * * *
From 1987 through 1992, the Dome Patrol-led defenses in New Orleans ranked second in points allowed (16.4 per game), third in yards allowed (289.8), fourth in total sacks (274) and seventh in interceptions (123). No team held opponents to 200 total yards or fewer in that span more often than the Saints, who accomplished that feat 17 times. (No other NFL team managed to top 13 times.) They also tied (with the Bills) for the league lead in shutouts during that span with six.
Even in terms of straight wins and losses, the Saints' 62 wins from 1987 to 1992 were the third-most, behind only the Bills (65) and 49ers (72). (Buffalo and San Francisco each appeared in four conference title games in that span, with the Bills logging three Super Bowl appearances to the 49ers' two.)
Even with all of their accomplishments, with each passing day, the Dome Patrol becomes more and more of a distant memory in the minds of most football fans.
"The people who win are the people they remember," Swilling says. "That's just the way it is."
"People have a short memory," Johnson posits. "True fans that know the game realize how good our defense was back then -- but if you don't win a Super Bowl, it's kind of hard to be remembered or revered."
Still, despite the lack of postseason success, these Saints remain special in New Orleans.
"We really did bleed black and gold," says Swilling. "The players, it wasn't ever about the money. It was about winning and winning for our city."
Maxie states: "I don't think I've ever been around a group or team that really had that team philosophy in terms of camaraderie and who we were."
"I loved playing for the Saints," says Toi Cook, a cornerback in New Orleans from 1987 to 1993. "Loved it, loved it, loved it. Loved playing in the dome. And from here until eternity, I still get emotional about Sammy [Mills]."
Yes, Mills in particular is a figure deserving of more attention. As both a man and a player, he left an indelible impact everywhere he went. Case in point: The Panthers built a statue honoring Mills outside their home stadium after he played three years with the team from age 36 to 38. And when he was done playing, Mills coached linebackers in Carolina. That's when the Panthers' ongoing "Keep Pounding" mantra was born. The phrase came from an emotional speech Mills gave to the team before the 2003 playoffs. He'd been diagnosed with cancer that preseason and was told he had three months to live. Just over four months later, he was delivering the following message:
"When I found out I had cancer, there were two things I could do: quit or keep pounding," Mills told the players. "I'm a fighter. I kept pounding. You're fighters, too. Keep pounding!"
That team made it all the way to the Super Bowl, but fell in a shootout to the Patriots. Fourteen months later, in April 2005, cancer claimed Mills at age 45.
Despite his statistical production, on-field performance and longevity, Mills has never been a semifinalist in the Hall of Fame voting process -- though he's been on the preliminary list for 11 consecutive years.
"He probably deserves more than he got, as far as accolades are concerned, because he was something special," Mora declares. "Of all the players I ever coached, he was probably my favorite player."
Vic Fangio, who coached Mills for 14 seasons in the USFL and NFL, offered the following intel about the linebacker's legacy: "I remember Vince Tobin, who coached both Sam and [Hall of Fame middle linebacker] Mike Singletary, said that Sam was every bit as good as Mike -- and probably better."
Of the four members of the Dome Patrol, only Jackson is enshrined in Canton. While one could say Jackson is biased in his opinion that his fellow Patrol members should be there alongside him, cases can be made for each -- especially Swilling, whose 72.5 sacks between 1987 and 1992 ranked behind only Reggie White (93) in that span. But in the end, the legacy of the Dome patrol remains that four remarkable players with unique backgrounds and talents came together and reversed the fortunes of a historically futile franchise.
"It was hell on Earth," Dukes says of his competition against the Dome Patrol. "When you look at the film, you see how great those guys were. As four linebackers, as a group, they were the best."
- Story Editors: Ali Bhanpuri, Tom Blair, Brooke Cersosimo, Gennaro Filice
- Creative: Mary Jane Kim
- Photo Editors: Alix Kane, Ben Liebenberg
- NFL Media: David Eaton, John Marvel
- Photos courtesy of: Associated Press, Costacos Brothers