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Barry Hirstius

Saints #1 Priority in Pre-Season: Staying Safe & Sound Until September

August 12, 1982. For "older" fans of the New Orleans Saints, it's a night that still lives on in infamy.

It was the team's first Pre-Season game in the 2nd year of the Bum Phillips Era, against Phillips' former team: the Houston Oilers (the NFL franchise now known as the Tennessee Titans).      

It was during the 1st quarter of the game, and only the 5th play run by the Saints offense; which had just received the opening kickoff a few minutes earlier.  

2nd year QB Dave Wilson, who was locked in a tight Training Camp battle for the starting QB spot with the team's long-time "face of the franchise" Archie Manning, was under center --- after he had been given the starting nod by Phillips the day before.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

As Wilson took the snap, he dropped back to pass when suddenly --- BAM!!!!! --- he was "sandwiched" from behind by Oilers linebacker Robert Brazile and defensive end Elvin Bethea; causing Wilson's right knee to buckle in the process.

The result: Wilson had completely blown out his ACL, tearing every single one of the ligaments.

He underwent surgery the following morning, and a solemn Phillips announced that Wilson, who was about to become the obvious heir apparent to Manning when the Saints took him with the 1981 NFL Supplemental Draft #1 overall pick from the University of Illinois; was lost for the entire 1982 season.

As a result, Phillips -- who obviously was trying to usher in a "new era" of Saints football with Wilson as his QB -- was forced to keep Manning as the starter anyway; which then prompted him to make what some considered to be a desperation move: when he lured 36-year old former Raiders and Oilers QB Kenny "The Snake" Stabler out of retirement.

Photo courtesy of David Madison, Getty Images

After Manning struggled badly in the Saints' 1982 season-opening loss to St. Louis, he was pulled from the game and replaced by Stabler --- permanently.

Two days later, Manning was traded to those very same Houston Oilers that had put Wilson out of commission, ending a decade plus run as the "face" of the Saints franchise.

The NFL players would then go in strike, cancelling most of the remaining 1982 season. The strike lasted 57 days, reducing the 1982 season from a 16-game schedule per team to an abbreviated nine game schedule. The Saints would finish (4-5), just narrowly missing a Playoff berth.

Now, while we'll never know if the results of that abbreviated season would have been different had it not been for Wilson's injury, what we do know is that it changed the entire course of Saints history, since Wilson --- who had been considered one of the most talented QB's in all of college football when he was taken by Phillips -- was NEVER the same QB again because of limited mobility.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Wilson ended up playing for the Saints for 9 NFL seasons, before retiring in the 1990 off-season. He spent most of his time with the team as the back-up first to Stabler and then behind Bobby Hebert during the Jim Mora Era in the late 1980's.

But --- Wilson was never was able to realize the full potential in his entire time spent in the NFL with the Saints, that he once had entering the League as a record-setting QB in college.

So.....just what exactly does that story have to do with tonight's Pre-Season game at 7 p.m. Central time at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio against the Browns, you ask?

Well, everything to be honest.

The story of Dave Wilson and the Saints 1982 Pre-Season, and how it ultimately affected the course of Saints football history -- at least with regard to that memorable if not successful Bum Phillips Era -- is a very valuable lesson in prioritization for NFL coaches during the Pre-Season; whether it be in the past, present, or the future.

You see for the Saints, actually winning this game tonight against the Browns ranks pretty low on the list of priorities.

What ranks much higher on the list for Sean Payton and the Saints coaching staff is evaluating players, and getting the team as a whole mentally prepared for the upcoming regular season.

However.....

After what happened to the Saints last year, when their entire 2016 campaign was essentially derailed by a slew of injuries which included losing BOTH of their starting cornerbacks within the first 2 weeks (Delvin Breaux in Week #1 against the Raiders, and P.J. Williams in Week #2 against the Giants) of the season; it's become quite obvious what the Saints' #1 priority of this Pre-Season has become: staying healthy.

Photo by Al Bello, Getty Images

We all know that injuries are an inherent part of football.

When men violently collide with each dressed in what essentially is modern-day "battle armor" in the form of pads and helmets, it's inevitable that someone is going to get hurt.

Unfortunately the difference between winning and losing games in the National Football League, just always seems to come down to not only which teams have the highest-scoring offense or the toughest defense, but teams that also have the most luck --- and that usually includes the teams who have been fortunate enough to avoid the injury bug.

The anguish of losing a healthy player, especially one who is vitally important to your team's overall success (as Wilson was considered with the Saints and Bum Phillips in August of 1982), can be quite gut-wrenching when it occurs during the Pre-Season; and right when when anticipation for the upcoming season ahead is filled with high hopes and the dreams of a Super Bowl run, is first and foremost on everyone's mind.

Let's face it: if the Saints can escape Cleveland without any major injuries occurring tonight, you shouldn't really care if they win or lose.

In fact, given the Saints' luck with injuries the past few years, leaving Cleveland with just a few scrapes, nicks, and bruises would be considered a major victory for New Orleans.

At this point, the #1 priority for the Saints is staying "safe and sound" until September --- as in September 11th to be exact: when the 2017 version of the now 51-year old New Orleans NFL franchise opens the season in Minneapolis, Minnesota on ESPN Monday Night Football. 

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

It's likely the reason why you "might" see the Saints starters -- which includes future Hall of Famers Drew Brees and Adrian Peterson -- play one series tonight, if that.

It's also likely the reason also that you won't see either of the team's rookie 1st Round draft picks -- cornerback Marshon Lattimore or offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk -- play a single snap in tonight's contest.

Saints head coach Sean Payton held both players out of the last few practices over last weekend, prompting some to speculate that both players might be hurt worse than originally thought or that the team was letting on.

But Lattimore, who is nursing a minor knee sprain, and Ramczyk, who had off-season hip surgery, both could play if this were the regular season, although Payton and the team appear to be taking a proactive, precautionary approach this year to risking injuries to key players after the results of last season.

And with the team coming into the Pre-Season without starting center Max Unger, who's out until the season-opener at Minnesota after having off-season foot surgery; and starting left tackle Terron Armstead (whose spot Ramczyk is filling in his absence) out until late November with a torn labrum, Payton and the Saints organization should be commended for "playing it smart".

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

The NFL has evolved over the years, and the Pre-Season isn't what it used to be: which was an excuse for owners to get rich by having more games, and for veteran players who never trained year-round as they do now, to get in shape after "taking it easy" all off-season.

For the Saints tonight, the priority isn't on winning, or breaking their current 9-game Pre-Season losing streak --- which dates back to their last win in the 3rd Pre-Season game of 2014 at Indianapolis.

Instead, the Saints have a very specific and important #1 priority.

It's all about staying "safe and sound" until September, and being able to be in good shape to play the games that count --- starting first against the Vikings, in Minneapolis..............

Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 50-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports editor and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of Sports Talk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, attended games at the old Tulane Stadium and grew up as a long-time Saints fan; 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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