After earning the franchise’s first-ever playoff berth in 1987, the New Orleans Saints had gone through modest decline. Off an 11-win campaign in ’87, the Saints won 10 games in 1988 and went 9-7 in 1989. But they were left out of the playoff party both times. The 1990 New Orleans Saints continued the decline in terms of W-L record. But a series of well-time events got them back into the playoffs.
New Orleans was wracked by quarterback controversy. Bobby Hebert was the established starter, but a contract dispute would keep him out for the entire 1990 season. The Saints tried backup John Fourcade, but without success. They swung an early season trade to get Steve Walsh. While that provided for some improvement, Walsh’s numbers of 54% completion rate, 6.0 yards-per-attempt and 12/13 TD-INT ratio were still subpar.
Eric Martin was the best receiver, catching 63 passes for over 900 yards. But there was a steep drop in production after him. The Saints weren’t going to win games throwing the football.
Nor were they going to do so by running it. Craig Heyward and Reuben Mayes were both respectable enough, sharing duties and each rushing for over 500 yards. There was no Pro Bowl talent on the offensive line. And the Saints’ offense ranked 22nd in what was then a 28-team NFL for points scored.
Where New Orleans did win games was on defense. This was the side of the ball where head coach Jim Mora came from. It was where the Saints had two Pro Bowl linebackers in Vaughn Johnson and the great Pat Swilling, who recorded eleven sacks. The New Orleans defense ranked a solid eighth in the league for points allowed.
The season started off with a big-time test—the two-time defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers came to the Superdome for Monday Night Football. In this era, the 49ers were a division rival. Prior to the realignment of 2002, the Saints and Atlanta Falcons were in the NFC West, along San Francisco and the L.A. Rams.
The New Orleans defense played well and kept a potent attack led by Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana under control. But Fourcade was awful, going 12/34 for 186 yards and throwing three interceptions. The Saints turned it over five times on the night and took a tough 13-12 loss.
It was more of the same at Minnesota a week later. Facing a team that had been in the playoffs three years’ running, Fourcade again threw three picks. The offense as a whole again turned it over five times. This week they added ten penalties to the mix. And this week, the defense did not play well in a humiliating 32-3 loss on the late Sunday afternoon stage.
New Orleans desperately needed a win and a bad Phoenix Cardinals team came in for Week 3. With no offense, the game was tied 7-7 in the third quarter. But Mayes was running well today. He went for 99 yards on 16 carries, including three touchdowns down the stretch. The Saints pulled away to a 28-7 win and were off the schneid going into an early bye week.
Fourcade came out of the bye and played well in Atlanta. He got the scoring started with a 68-yard TD strike to Floyd Turner. Fourcade went 10/17 for 235 yards, with no mistakes. He had the Saints ahead 24-21 and driving for a potential insurance touchdown. But that drive bogged down inside the 10-yard line and ended with a field goal. The Falcons scored a late touchdown and handed New Orleans a 28-27 loss.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys had two young quarterbacks. They were clearly going with Troy Aikman. But Walsh was also well-regarded. With the Saints desperate, the Cowboys milked New Orleans for three high draft picks. Even though it was smaller in scope than Dallas’ famous trade of Herschel Walker to Minnesota a year earlier, you can argue that was even more one-sided. Because Walker was at least a pretty good NFL player. Walsh was never more than what he would be this year, which was a modestly competent backup if your legitimate starter is out with an injury (or contract dispute).
Anyway, Walsh did play well in his debut, a home game with lowly Cleveland. He went 15/26 for 243 yards. Martin caught eight balls for 153 yards. The Saints led 25-6 in the fourth quarter and held on to win 25-20.
But the offense quickly reverted to type over the next two weeks. They went to the playoff-bound Houston Oilers, fell behind 20-3 after three quarters and lost 20-10. In a home game with lowly Detroit, Walsh was unable to get the ball down the field and also threw three interceptions. A game that was tied 10-10 in the third quarter ended up a 27-10 loss. That’s in spite of the defense holding Detroit’s outstanding runner, Barry Sanders, to ten yards on the ground.
At 2-5, this was looking like one big lost season. But the NFL had just expanded its postseason from 5 teams per conference to 6. The NFC was top-heavy, with a lot of mediocrity around the playoff bubble. And the Saints got back in the race.
The running game unleashed at home against playoff-bound Cincinnati. Both Heyward and Mayes went for 100-plus yards in a 21-7 win. Heyward tacked on 155 more in a 35-7 rout of a bad Tampa Bay team. The record was up to 4-5.
Walsh played well at Washington, where the Redskins, bound for the postseason themselves. He went 23/38 for 274 yards. But losing the turnover battle 4-1 meant the Saints lost the football game 31-17. Atlanta’s return visit to New Orleans was a defensive battle. Heyward ran for 88 yards. Trailing 7-3 in the fourth quarter, Walsh found Martin a six-yard scoring toss to pull out a 10-7 win.
It set up a road game at Dallas on the first Sunday of December. It was Walsh’s return home. And more important, the Cowboys were one of several teams that were trying to get traction in the push for the 6-seed. New Orleans took a 10-0 lead by the second quarter. But they bogged down after that. In a game that was played pretty evenly both ways, the Saints lost 17-13.
They were 5-7 as the season turned into its final quarter. The Vikings and Green Bay Packers were tied for the lead in the race for the final playoff berth at 6-6. The Cowboys were nestled in between at 6-7. The standings said the Saints had a chance. But they had head-to-head losses to Minnesota and Dallas. New Orleans trailed Green Bay in conference record. If the Saints were going to qualify, it wouldn’t be via tiebreaker.
When they went to Los Angeles and trailed the Rams 20-10 in the third quarter, it looked like the faint playoff hopes would finally be put of their misery. Then backup running back Gill Fenerty took off on a 60-yard touchdown run. Walsh threw a short TD pass to Martin. The Saints won 24-20. The Vikings and Packers lost. With the Cowboys on a bye, there was now a four-way tie at 6-7.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were another team on the playoff bubble. Their visit to New Orleans turned into a complete display of defensive dominance both ways. Walsh went 8/26 for 95 yards. The Steeler attack fared no better. The only scoring came on five field goals and four of them were from over 40 yards. But the Steelers had three of those field goals.
The 9-6 loss was another moment that should have ended New Orleans hopes. But Minnesota and Green Bay were both in the throes of a full-scale meltdown. Both lost and neither would win again this season. The Cowboys had won to go to 7-7. The standings said they were in control. But early the following week, Aikman was knocked out for the year. Dallas had no viable backup. As it turns out, getting Walsh was huge for the Saints, if only to get him away from the Cowboys.
There was still this little matter of needing to win their remaining games. And one of them was at San Francisco. The 49ers had locked up the 1-seed. They were resting Montana. Although facing backup Steve Young really didn’t qualify as a major break. New Orleans was still a nine-point underdog. But they recovered four fumbles and got a couple sacks from defensive lineman Renaldo Turnbull. A 13-10 win, coupled with a Dallas loss, kept the season alive.
The season finale with the Rams was on Monday Night. So the Saints watched on Sunday as the Cowboy offensive collapse continued. Playing without Aikman, Dallas scored only 10 points combined in the final two weeks. They lost again in the finale. New Orleans now controlled their own fate.
Walsh came out and threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Turner to get the scoring started. A short TD run by Heyward made the lead 14-3 in the second quarter. It had the feel of a night where the party could start early. But Los Angeles didn’t quit. The Rams chipped away and tied the game 17-all in the fourth quarter. Walsh led one final drive.
The Saints reached the 12-yard line in the closing seconds. Their Hall of Fame kicker, Morten Andersen, trotted on for the kick that would send them to the playoffs. It was blocked.
Except there was a flag on the field. Offsides on the Rams. Andersen got another chance. The 24-yarder was good. The ending to the finale was like the season itself—nothing that looked particularly pretty, but enough to put you in the postseason.
New Orleans went on to play Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears. Playing in the late afternoon on Sunday, the temperatures were down to nine degrees with the wind chill and it was a defense-oriented game. An early 10-0 deficit was too much to overcome. Field goals kept the Saints within 10-3 and then 13-6. But Walsh only went 6/16 for 74 yards. Fourcade came in and went 5/18 for 79 yards. They were outrushed 189-65 and finally lost 16-6.
The season was over. It wasn’t a great year by any stretch. But it was a playoff year. Hebert came back the following season. And this was the start of a four-year stretch where the Saints got into the postseason three times.