Jim Mora arrived in New Orleans in 1986 as head coach for a team that never even made the playoffs. By 1987, Mora put the Saints into the postseason. From 1988-90, his teams went 27-21 and made another playoff trip. The 1991 New Orleans Saints took the next step and won the first division title in franchise history.
Mora’s Saints were about defense. They were built around the linebackers and the showcase player was Pat Swilling. In the midst of a five-year stretch of making the Pro Bowl ever season, Swilling recorded 17 sacks and won Defensive Player of the Year honors.
The 3-4 defensive scheme Mora ran was loaded with more talent at linebacker. Rickey Jackson was on the outside, opposite Swilling and Jackson came up with 11 ½ sacks. On the inside, Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson each made the Pro Bowl. It’s not too much to say that the linebackers carried New Orleans to the status of best defense in the league.
Offensively, the Saints didn’t have great talent—not a single player outside the linebackers made the Pro Bowl—but they still finished 8th in the NFL in points scored. That’s in spite of injuries at quarterback. Bobby Hebert was the primary starter, although he missed seven games where Steve Walsh took his place. Hebert was a little bit better at making plays down the field, Walsh a little better at avoiding mistakes, but the differences weren’t drastic.
The running game was also hindered by injuries. The combination of shifty Dalton Hilliard and burly Craig Heyward couldn’t get untracked, because both were in and out of the lineup. Gil Fenerty and Fred McAfee ended up carrying most of the load, though neither rushed for even 500 yards. Eric Martin and Floyd Turner were the top two receivers, each catching over 60 balls. Quinn Early provided some support with 32 catches of his own.
New Orleans opened the season at home against an average Seattle Seahawks team and jumped out to a 17-0 lead on the strength of a Pick-6 by Swilling. The Saints gave the lead back, with help of another Pick-6 thrown by Hebert and trailed 24-20 in the fourth quarter. Hebert responded with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Turner that got the win.
A road trip to playoff-bound Kansas City was next and the Saints again bolted out to a 17-zip led. Once again, they had to hold on, but this time Hebert didn’t make the big mistake. He finished 19/27 for 211 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in the 17-10 win.
Hebert reverted to form the next Sunday Night at home against the Los Angeles Rams, again throwing a Pick-6. This time it didn’t matter. The Saints defense was completely locked in. They got five sacks, two from Jackson and didn’t allow any more points. New Orleans won 24-7 and then kept the defensive dominance going with a 26-0 home win over Minnesota. The Saints pounded the Vikings on the ground, 196-43 in rush yardage and blew it open after a scoreless first quarter.
A road trip to Atlanta, whom New Orleans would battle for the division title, was up next. For the third time in five games, the Saints offense produced points for the opposition, this time on a fumble return for a touchdown. And for the third time, they won the football game anyway. Hebert found Tuner for a couple TD passes, the defense didn’t allow any more points and the final was 27-6.
New Orleans was rolling into their bye week at 5-0 and the frontrunners in the NFC West, a division they shared with the Falcons, Rams and San Francisco 49ers (It wasn’t until 2002 that the NFC South was created). The Saints were squarely in the middle of early Super Bowl talk, along with another undefeated team, the Washington Redskins and the Chicago Bears of Mike Ditka.
A road trip to Philadelphia, another defensive-minded team that would contend for the playoffs, came after the bye. Hebert misfired on eight of his first ten passes and then had to leave the game with a shoulder injury. Walsh came in with New Orleans trailing 6-3. He threw a touchdown pass to Hilliard and Swilling’s 2 ½ sacks helped the lead stand up in a 13-6 win. The defense continued to dominate at home against Tampa Bay, Walsh’s first start of the season. The Saints got six sacks, with Swilling enjoying another multi-sack game and the record ran to 7-0.
The Bears came to the Bayou for the final weekend in October in a marquee showdown game to start sorting out the top of the NFC. Hebert returned and got the scoring started with a 65-yard touchdown strike to Turner, who ended the day with nine catches for 179 yards. But this time, New Orleans got beaten in the trenches. Chicago outrushed them by nearly a hundred yards and that was the difference. The winning streak came to an end, 20-17.
Hebert was also knocked out again and Walsh returned the lineup the following week at the Rams. He went 17/33 for 269 yards. Swilling came up with three sacks and defensive back Vince Buck intercepted two passes in the 24-17 win. The defense delivered another division win when they shut down San Francisco, playing with third-string quarterback Steve Bono. Swilling had yet another multi-sack game in the 10-3 win.
At 9-1, New Orleans looked like a sure bet for the NFC West title and at least the 2-seed in the playoffs (Washington was still undefeated). But in mid-November, they began to stumble. A road trip to mediocre San Diego saw the Saints lose three fumbles, get pounded on the ground and lose 24-21. A week later, in a Sunday Night home date with Atlanta, Walsh was erratic, going 15/34 for 194 yards. The defense finally had a letdown, coughing up a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter and losing 23-20 in overtime.
Walsh had his best game in San Francisco, going 25/42 for 317 yards and no mistakes. Turner was unstoppable, catching ten passes for 132 yards. They led 24-17 in the fourth quarter, but the defense had another late meltdown, giving up three unanswered touchdowns in the 38-24 loss.
The road didn’t get any easier in a big game at playoff-bound Dallas and for the third straight week, the Saints led after three quarters, this time 14-13. Walsh again played well, going 26/39 for 238 yards. But the defense again seemed to be hitting a late-season wall, as the Cowboys got ten points in the fourth quarter and won 23-14.
New Orleans’ lead in the NFC West was wiped out by the four-game losing streak. They were tied with Atlanta at 9-5 and the Falcons held the tiebreaker. San Francisco was in hot pursuit at 8-6. Even a playoff berth wasn’t clinched yet.
Hebert came back on Monday Night to face the playoff-bound Los Angeles Raiders. He not only showed no signs of rust, he played his best game of the year in this must-win spot. Hebert went 28/39 for 320 yards. Early’s four catches produced over 100 yards of receiving. Brent Maxie scored for the defense, which returned to form. The 27-0 rout locked up a postseason trip.
But the Saints still needed help if they were going to win the West. They got it in the early round of 1 PM ET games on the final Sunday. Atlanta lost 31-27 in Dallas. New Orleans took the field in Phoenix knowing the division was back in their control. They didn’t let it get away, forcing seven Cardinal turnovers, including three interceptions from Gene Atkins in the 27-0 rout. New Orleans was the champions of the NFC West.
A third meeting with Atlanta would open the playoffs six days later in the Superdome. New Orleans was in control of the game early, but their 10-0 lead could have been larger—Hebert had also thrown an interception in the end zone. And the failure to put the Falcons away would come back to bite the Saints.
They ended up losing 27-20, after allowing a simple slant pattern to turn into a 61-yard touchdown run in the final three minutes. Hebert had one good drive that might have tied the game, but he threw an interception on the Falcon 35-yard line. The missed opportunities wasted a defensive performance that saw New Orleans get five sacks, two from defensive lineman Frank Warren.
After the 7-0 start, losing in the first round of the playoffs took a lot of the gloss off of a season that should have been celebrated for its historic division title. Losing in the postseason would, unfortunately become a Saints staple—in 1992 they lost their fourth straight wild-card game under Mora. The franchise did not win a playoff game until 2000 and did not reach the NFC Championship Game until 2006, when the current team of head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees were in place.