The city of New Orleans got an NFL franchise in 1967 and for two decades experienced what can be described as mediocrity—if you’re being nice. After twenty years they had never made the playoffs, not even had so much as a winning season. They’d only finished .500 twice. The 1987 New Orleans Saints ended all that with a run to the playoffs and the beginning of the first successful period in franchise history.
Jim Mora had taken over as head coach in 1986 and put his imprint on the defense. The Saints had the fifth-best D in the NFL in 1987 and they were led by a great set of linebackers. Rickey Jackson, a future Hall of Famer, wreaked havoc on the outside with 19 ½ sacks in a year where the regular players lost four games to a strike. Pat Swilling was the other side and the 23-year-old recorded 10 ½ sacks and made the first of what would be five Pro Bowls in his career. Inside linebacker Sam Mills was another Pro Bowler, as was corner Dave Waymer who intercepted five passes.
New Orleans didn’t have the same star power on offense, but they got even better results, ranking second in the league in points scored Reuben Mayes was a Pro Bowl back, his 917 rushing yards being fifth-best in the NFL. Dalton Hilliard chipped in 508 more yards.
Bobby Hebert was at quarterback and was respectable, in the middle of the league in completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and avoiding interceptions. Eric Martin and Mike Jones were decent receivers. What helped separate the Saints’ offense—in addition to the opportunities the defense provided—was the edge they got in special teams.
Morten Andersen was the best kicker in the league and doing his work in a dome only made him more dangerous. They had a good punt returner in Mel Gray, a second-year player who eventually landed in Detroit where he made four Pro Bowls thanks to his punt returning skill.
The first game of the season sent the message that a new era was starting. New Orleans hosted the Cleveland Browns, who had come within one magic John Elway drive of reaching the Super Bowl in 1986. Mayes rushed for 147 yards and the game was tied 21-21 in the fourth quarter when the Saints’ defense rose up. Defensive end Bruce Clark and free safety Brett Moore each sacked Browns’ quarterback Bernie Kosar for a safety. New Orleans added a field goal to complete the unusual 28-21 win.
It looked like the momentum would continue at mediocre Philadelphia when the Saints grabbed a quick 10-0 lead. But they turned it over five times, were outrushed 161-32 and lost 27-17. Then the players went out on a strike.
The league would cancel the Week 3 games and the ensuing three games were played by replacement players. The replacements in New Orleans did well by their regulars and won two games, including a division game over the Los Angeles Rams (prior to 2002 the Saints were in the NFC West with the Rams, 49ers and Falcons).
John Fourcade was the new quarterback and against the Rams he was 16/21 for 222 yards and three touchdowns. Fourcade would hang around the league for three years after this. The replacement Saints were sloppier in St. Louis the following week, allowing two fumbles to be run back for touchdowns in a 24-19 loss to the Cardinals.
New Orleans closed this bizarre three-week period with a win a 19-17 win at Chicago. It was a big break in that the regular Bears were one of the league’s best teams. The game also provided an interesting historical coincidence in that one of the replacement Chicago quarterbacks was a guy named Sean Payton, who eventually led the Saints’ franchise to its greatest heights. New Orleans won this game 19-17 on the strength of three interceptions by Reggie Sutton.
The regulars were back on October 25 for a big home date with Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers. Mayes rushed for 144 yards, but twice the Saints were stopped inside the 5-yard line and had to settle for field goals. The red-zone failures were the difference in a 24-22 loss.
New Orleans faced a season-defining stretch of three consecutive divisional road games. They opened by going to Atlanta and crushing the Falcons on the ground to the tune of a 244-55 rush yardage advantage and defensively, five different players intercepted passes in a 38-0 rout. The Saints then blasted the Rams 31-14, again winning the rushing battle even though Los Angeles had the eventual league rushing champ in Charles White.
It set up a rematch with the 49ers in San Francisco. New Orleans was a four-point underdog and was outplayed, but unlike the previous meeting this time it was the Saints who made the most important plays. They blocked a field goal and ran it back for a touchdown. And trailing 24-23, Andersen drilled a 51-yard field goal to steal a two-point win.
New Orleans didn’t let up when they came home to play the Giants. New York was the defending Super Bowl champ, but was going through a rough year in the strike season. The Saints trailed 14-13 in the fourth quarter, but they forced seven turnovers on the day and eventually Herbert hit Martin for a 22-yard touchdown pass that keyed the rally and 23-14 win.
A road trip to mediocre Pittsburgh was next and Hebert threw a Pick-6 in the second quarter as New Orleans dug a 14-3 hole. Again, the defense created opportunities. They forced six turnovers while Swilling and Jackson had two sacks apiece. The game turned around the Saints won 20-16.
New Orleans was soaring with an 8-3 record as the calendar turned to December and the season hit its final four weeks. They were a game back of San Francisco in the division, but were in complete control of the race for the two wild-card spots. After the Saints and the 7-4 Minnesota Vikings, the next-best team was 5-6. The franchise’s first winning season was assured and the fans could surely taste the end of the playoff drought.
A home game at Tampa Bay saw a rare off day from the defense, as they gave up 34 points to a bad team. Hebert stepped up, going 16/24 for 255 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, leading a 44-34 win. The playoffs were clinched, but no one could be blamed for thinking this team could do even more.
Hebert played well again the following week against the playoff-bound Houston Oilers. He went 15/27 for 254 yards and three touchdowns, with Martin catching six balls for 130 yards. Hilliard added 93 yards on the ground and the Saints won at home 24-10. The win clinched a home date for the wild-card round, although San Francisco kept holding serve at the top of the division.
The Saints went to Cincinnati and fell behind 24-3. Mora made a quarterback change and gave Dave Wilson a shot. Wilson went 9/15 for 160 yards and led a run to 38 unanswered points in a stunning turnabout and 41-24 win. Hebert returned to the lineup for the home finale against lowly Green Bay. The Saints again fell behind early 14-3 and still trailed 24-19 in the third quarter. Hebert threw the go-ahead touchdown pass to tight end Mike Tice, the future head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Hilliard ran in for another TD that clinched the 33-24 win.
At 12-3, New Orleans had the second-best record in all of football. The problem was that San Francisco still hadn’t budged. The 49ers played the Rams in the final Sunday Night game of the season and clinched the division with a 48-0 rout.
The Saints would have to take the wild-card route, but even with proven winners of the 1980s like the Redskins and Bears in the playoffs, there was every reason to think New Orleans could make their way to San Francisco for a Round 3 in the NFC Championship Game. No one expected the wild-card game against the slumping Vikings, who had backed into the playoffs at 8-7, to be a serious problem and the Saints were a 6 ½ point favorite.
Hebert threw an early touchdown pass to Martin and it looked like all was well. It turns out that was the last happy moment of the New Orleans season. By halftime, they were in a 31-10 hole. The special teams, so good all year long, allowed an 84-yard punt return to the electric Anthony Carter and at the end of the half a penalty for 12 men on the field allowed Minnesota an untimed down—which ended up as a 44-yard touchdown pass. The final score was 44-10.
The ending was shocking and disappointing, but the Saints had finally arrived as a playoff team. It was no fluke—it was the first of four playoff appearances in a six-year stretch under Mora. Unfortunately, the playoff problems were no fluke either—the Saints lost their first postseason game all four times, including twice more at home. But this was still the greatest period in franchise history at the time and has been exceeded only by the glory years of Drew Brees, Sean Payton and the 2009 run to a Super Bowl title.