In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
After 20 years of frustration, the New Orleans Saints led by second-year coach Jim Mora clinch their first playoff berth by beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 44-34 at the Louisiana Superdome. It is also the first time in the team’s history that they posted a winning record as the Saints best season previously were a pair of 8-8 seasons in 1979 and 1983. The Saints would go on to post a record of 12-3.
The City of New Orleans could not have been more excited on November 1, 1966, when the NFL announced they would become the league’s 16th franchise in 1967. With the team being awarded to All Saints Day, owners decided it must have been fate, and the team name was chosen. The Saints began the game with a bang as John Gilliam returned the opening kickoff 94 yards in the team’s first game at Tulane Stadium. However, not much else went right as the Saints lost their first seven games and finished with a record of 3-11. Losing was habitual for the Saints, who never won more than five games in a season in their first 11 seasons. This is despite solid play from quarterback Archie Manning, the team’s lone star. The Saints began to show progress in 1978, finishing 7-9, while going 8-8 in 1979. However, things hit rock bottom for New Orleans in 1980, when they became the first team in NFL history to finish 1-15. The Saints lone win that season was a 21-20 win over the New York Jets at Shea Stadium, prompting frustrated fans to wear paper bags on their heads, as fans started called the Aints. After the debacle in 1980, the Saints again found themselves in the same old rut, of indistinguishable losing seasons, as they again reached .500 with an 8-8 record in 1983, and went 7-9 in 1984, but regressed again in 1985 with a 5-11 in Tom Benson’s first season as owner.
Things quietly began to change for the Saints in 1986. The collapse of the USFL would be the catalyst needed to change the team’s fortunes. First, they named Jim Mora as the new coach. Mora had coached in the USFL Championship Game all three years of the league’s existence winning two titles with the Philadelphia and Baltimore Stars. The Saints also signed Bobby Herbert, who was one of the USFL’s top quarterbacks, while Linebacker Sam Mills who played for Mora with the Stars also joined the Saints. Mills, who played his college ball in New Jersey at Division III Montclair State would become the leader and its heart and soul.
After a 7-9 record in Mora’s first season, the Saints began 1987 by splitting their first two games before the players went on strike. During the replacement games, the Saints won two out of three games, including a 19-17 win over the Chicago Bears and quarterback Sean Payton at Soldier Field. After a 24-22 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at the Superdome in the week the regulars returned to the field, the Saints hit their stride, winning their next five games including a 26-24 win in San Francisco. The five-game winning streak assured the Saints would finish no worse than 8-7, as the clinched a winning record with their 20-16 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium.
A week later the Saints had a chance to clinch a playoff berth when they returned home to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints got off to a fast start, as Bobby Hebert connected with John Tice on a pair of touchdowns in the first quarter. The Buccaneers would get on the board late in the quarter on a one-yard sneak by Vinny Testaverde. The Saints extended the lead to 28-7, getting touchdown runs by Ruben Mayes and Dalton Hilliard, while Tampa got a field goal by Donald Igwebuike to make it 28-10 at the half. The Saints extended the lead to 38-10 in the third quarter, with a field goal by Morten Andersen and a second Mayes score. Tampa answered with a Mark Carrier touchdown catch and a second field goal from Igwebuike. The Buccaneers would get touchdowns from Bruce Hill and Bobby Howard in the fourth quarter, as Andersen hit two field goals to keep the game well out of reach as the Saints won the game 44-34.
The win over the Buccaneers saw the Saints improve to 9-3 on the season. They would go on to win their next three games to finish with a record of 12-3. The 12-3 record was the second-best record overall in the NFL. Unfortunately, the 49ers had the best record at 13-2 and won the NFC West, forcing New Orleans to settle for the Wild Card. The Saints first playoff appearance would end up being a big bust, as they delivered their worst game of the season, losing to the Minnesota Vikings 44-10 at the Superdome.