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Barry Hirstius

Remembering Saints Legends: “The Dome Patrol”

The New Orleans Saints, along with the rest of the NFL, are welcoming the "official" arrival of Summer today; as they and the rest of the League honor our nation's veterans who died serving our military on this Memorial Day.

As they do so, here at the Saints News Network we are proud to begin our special Summer series (with the start of Saints Training Camp still nearly 8 weeks away) on some of the most iconic players and moments in the team's 50 year-plus history.

As someone who is both a New Orleans native and originally grew up as a young fan of the team in my childhood and youth prior to (and looooooong before) writing about them and covering them professionally as a sports journalist, I can give a unique account on some of those iconic players and moments, from an first-hand / eyewitness perspective.

In more recent years, I've always been struck personally by how Saints fans — especially the younger ones — either aren't aware of or simply just don't know about the "early days" of the Saints franchise, other than what they’ve been told by older generations of Saints fans, or have read about in a book or researching it on the Internet.

More specifically: that long before this current era of overall success of the Sean Payton-Drew Brees Era that includes a World Championship that they won following the 2009 season (Super Bowl XLIV), the New Orleans Saints NFL franchise was one of the League’s all-time worst.

Fact is, the Saints never even had a winning season until the 1987, when ex-USFL (that’s the United States Football League, for those too young to know what that acronym actually stood for) head coach Jim Mora led the Saints to a 12-3 record (the season was shortened by one game due to a brief NFL player’s strike) and their first-ever postseason berth in the NFL Playoffs.

While current Saints head coach Sean Payton relies heavily on his All-Pro and future Hall-of-Fame QB Drew Brees and the Saints offense to lead the way to most of the Saints’ recent success; back in those days over 30 years ago, Mora had to rely HEAVILY upon his defense — a unit that collectively would go on to become known as "The Dome Patrol”.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

While "The Dome Patrol” term was used in general for the entire Saints defense during that era (1986-1993), the nickname actually was a specific reference in origin for the Saints linebacking corps in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s consisting on some of the most legendary players in Saints history.

They were:

  • Rickey Jackson, outside linebacker, University of Pittsburgh (1981 NFL Draft)
  • the late Sam Mills, inside linebacker, Montclair State and the USFL Philadelphia Stars
  • Vaughan Johnson, inside linebacker, North Carolina State and the USFL Jacksonville Bulls
  • Pat Swilling, outside linebacker, Georgia Tech (1986 NFL Draft)

Some of the team’s greatest memories come from that Jim Mora / "The Dome Patrol" Era; where back then, it was the defense winning games for the Saints, instead of the high flying offense we see now in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees Era.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

But actually, the original 'framework' for "The Dome Patrol” actually began with former Saints head coach Bum Phillips.

Phillips, who had been fired earlier that day by the Houston Oilers, was scouting the 1980 Gator Bowl (presumably with the knowledge that he wouldn't be out of work for long) to get a look at South Carolina RB and Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers (whom he later took with the #1 overall pick in the Draft a few months later for the Saints).

But instead, Phillips came away just as impressed (if not more) in that game with a young defensive end for Pitt (as the University of Pittsburgh used to be known as, back during those days) named Rickey Jackson.

It ended up being Jackson -- and not Rogers -- who “stole the show” that night with a near-dominant defensive performance in front of a national television audience on the ABC Network. Clearly, Phillips didn't forget about Jackson a few short months later during the 1981 NFL Draft.

Photo courtesy of United Press International

The following April after being hired as both the new Saints head coach and General Manager, Phillips took Jackson in the 2nd round (the #51 pick overall); and then at that time had the forethought to convert Jackson from a 4-3 defensive end at Pitt, to a 3-4 outside linebacker for the Saints.

Long before the phrase “hybrid” (a player who can both line up as a defensive end with his "hand in the dirt", or be a stand-up pass rusher coming off the outside edge) became part of today's 2017 football terminology, Jackson was a prime example of a player who was versatile enough to do many things, and do them very well at that.

Jackson went on to become a star linebacker in the League, despite the Saints’ lack of success in the win-loss column during Phillips’ tenure.

Photo by George Rose, Getty Images

But perhaps more importantly years later, would eventually give Mora, (who was hired by new owner Tom Benson and GM Jim Finks in early 1986) an integral player to build the "core" of his new defensive scheme around.

The United States Football League eventually had folded around that same time, and Mora then subsequently brought in two former USFL stars at inside linebacker: Sam Mills, who had played for Mora and won back-to-back USFL titles with the Philadelphia / Baltimore Stars, and hard-hitting inside linebacker Vaughan Johnson of the Jacksonville Bulls, whom the Saints got in the USFL allocation draft.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

The “Dome Patrol” linebacking corps was then completed in the 1986 Draft, when Mora was stunned to see Georgia Tech and All-ACC defensive end Pat Swilling still on the board in the 3rd Round; who he quickly snapped up and put at the other outside linebacker spot in the Saints 3-4 defensive scheme, on the opposite side of Jackson.

For the better part of nearly a decade,"The Dome Patrol" defense terrorized opposing NFL offenses, even though the Saints could ever seem to “get over the hump” in the NFC West division (ruled in those days by the San Francisco 49ers and Hall-of-Fame head coach Bill Walsh and his ‘West Coast’ offense, led by All-Pro QB Joe Montana).

Nevertheless, they are remembered fondly by many of the greats who have played the game of Pro Football; even by some of their former opponents that a few years ago voted them as “The Greatest Linebacker Corps in NFL History”.

The Dome Patrol term would later go on to encompass the entire Saints defense under Mora, including players such as defensive linemen Bruce Clark, Frank Warren, and Jim Wilks; and DB's Gene Atkins, Van Jakes, and Toi Cook.

But regardless of whomever you had to face as a Saints opponent back in those days, the Saints defense (unlike this present day Saints defense of the past few seasons) back then was a defense that was FEARED.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

But no players were more feared on that unit than the four linebackers, each of who brought their own individual strengths to the team.

Jackson was the most complete player, able to rush the QB as effectively as he was "sniffing" out the run or covering RB's out "in the flat".

Johnson was known for his tenaciousness and ability to deliver "bone-rattling" hits (like the one on Rams RB and Hall of Fame legend Eric Dickerson pictured above) that had opponents trying to account for his whereabouts at all times.

Swilling likely had the biggest impact of the four because of his incredible burst off of the snap of the football, which allowed him to blow right past offensive tackles and come in unimpeded for a sack against the opposing QB.

And there was Mills, who was the "field general" of the defense because of his high football IQ and knowledge of Mora's system. Sadly, Mills passed away in 2005 from cancer.

My most fond memory from the legendary days of "The Dome Patrol"?

Easily, it would be the moment when the team clinched its first ever winning season, by making an incredible goal-line stand with the ball at the 1-yard line, against the Pittsburgh Steelers in late November of 1987 at Three-Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, PA.

With their backs against the wall (literally almost) and certainly against all odds in the most difficult of circumstances while Steelers fans were yelling at the top of their lungs, the Saints defense was able to hold its own --- and gave New Orleans (at least in those days) its greatest victory ever in team history.

It was a moment of exhilaration for both a team and a fan-base whom up to that point, had experienced nothing but heart-break and agony.

Obviously, the more-recent Saints teams now under Sean Payton and Drew Brees have gone on to make their own special memories, for Saints fans of this current generation.

But to use a term from the past (that "old guys" like me still use), "The Dome Patrol" were and will always be, the "baddest S.O.B.'s" in the team's 51-year history.

Unfortunately, they were never able to win anything more than a Division Championship (1991), and lost every single Playoff game they played in (0-4).

But nevertheless, they were -- and even now still are -- among the most unforgettable Saints players to ever wear "the Black and Gold"........

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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