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BEST / WORST MOMENTS IN SAINTS HISTORY: Trading (and Wasting) a #1 Draft Pick for a “Washed Up” Earl Campbell

With the entire New Orleans Saints organization now officially on its annual Summertime vacation in advance of next month's start of 2018 Saints Training Camp, we once again resume our popular off-season series, the "Best / Worst Moments in Saints History"; with a look back at the infamous 1984 football season and the absolutely horrible decision made by then-Saints general manager and head coach Bum Phillips, to trade away the team's #1 Draft pick in the 1985 NFL Draft, in exchange for "washed up" Houston Oilers RB Earl Campbell.

First, a little background on WHY Phillips made the ill-advised trade in the first place.

If you're under the age of 40, then chances are you've only seen in old videos on YouTube; of how legendary and near DOMINANT a player that Earl Campbell was during the period of time starting from his senior year in college as the 1977 Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Texas, all the way up to the 1983 season and the 6th NFL season of his career.

To make a long story short: Campbell RAN OVER defenses first with his powerfully-built 5-foot-11, 232 pound frame that looked as if it had been carved from solid granite, and then would blow right past them with his deceptive speed.

As in, literally.

Known for his aggressive, punishing running style and ability to break tackles, Campbell gained recognition as one of the best power running backs in NFL history; and was highly regarded by his peers.

Cliff Harris, the legendary 1970's era safety for the Dallas Cowboys, recalled Campbell as "the hardest-hitting running back I ever played against. He didn't have the elusiveness of an O. J. Simpson. But when you finished a game against Earl, you had to sit in a tub with Epsom salts."

After winning the Heisman Trophy and earning unanimous All-American honors in his senior season in 1977, Campbell was drafted first overall by the Oilers in 1978 and had an immediate impact in the league, earning 1978 NFL Rookie of the Year honors.

Campbell was named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year in each of his first three seasons, during which he averaged nearly 1,700 rushing yards per season. He won the AP NFL Most Valuable Player Award in 1979 after leading the league in rushing yards and touchdowns.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

With then-Oilers head coach Bum Phillips leading the way, Campbell's emergence in Houston coincided with the "Luv Ya Blue" era, a period of sustained success in which the Oilers made three straight playoff appearances with Campbell serving as the centerpiece of Houston's offense during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Unfortunately for Phillips, the "Luv Ya Blue" era ended for him with a heart-breaking loss during the 1980 post-season's AFC Divisional Playoffs, and he was fired by then Oilers owner Bud Adams despite his record as the winningest coach (at that time) in the entire Oilers (now known as the Tennessee Titans) franchise history with a (59-38) record.

Phillips wouldn't stay out of work long however, as he was quickly hired by then-Saints owner John Mecom, Jr.; who was a personal friend of Phillips and whom he needed to help the Saints franchise recover and rebuild the organization from top to bottom, following its inglorious 1-15 record from the unforgettable 1980 "Aints" season.

For younger Saints fans who aren't aware: the team earned the nickname "The Ain'ts" following its embarrassing losing streak during that 1980 season, which reached (0-14) before the Saints won their only game that year.

About halfway through the season, some Saints fans who were very annoyed with the team's poor performance; began wearing bags on their heads (as a joke at first), to hide and conceal their support for the Saints from the sports world..

Mecom was hoping that Phillips could turn the down-trodden franchises's fortunes around, both on and off the field, and get the fans that had started wearing bags in their heads excited about starting over fresh with a new Era and new players; and now being guided by a proven NFL head coach who had been to the Playoffs.

Phillips was named both head coach AND General Manager in early January of 1981, and essentially was given control of every facet of the team and its associated personnel by Mecom, both on and off the field.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Which is where former 1981 Saints Rookie of the Year George Rogers then comes in to our story.

In April of 1981, Phillips — who had just come from coaching Campbell at Houston — chose 1980 Heisman Trophy winner and University of South Carolina RB George Rogers with the very first overall pick of the 1981 NFL Draft; and obviously because he planned to utilize Rogers in the same manner that he had used Campbell with the Oilers (which he did).

Phillips notably took Rogers (although no one actually even realized it at the time) ahead of University of North Carolina Tarheels linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who would subsequently be taken by the New York Giants with the 2nd overall pick and became one of the greatest NFL players of all time.

But we can "forgive" Phillips for passing on Lawrence Taylor since a round later with the 51st overall pick in the 1981 NFL Draft, Phillips chose University of Pittsburgh defensive end Rickey Jackson, who Phillips converted into an outside linebacker for his new 3-4 defense.

As noted previously from articles past: Jackson went on to become the team's greatest defensive player of all-time and is in the NFL Hall of Fame.

And as for Rogers, he was the first of five Heisman Trophy winners selected by the Saints (Danny Wuerffel in 1997, Ricky Williams in 1999, Reggie Bush in 2006 and Mark Ingram in 2011 were the other four).

Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Times-Picayune

In his first season, Rogers was a "work horse" for New Orleans — and led the League in rushing with 1,674 yards, which set a record for rookies and is still the single season record for the Saints. He earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and was selected as the 1981 NFL Rookie of the Year.

But what's remembered most is just how good Rogers was that year, as a rookie. Even though the Saints were a "rebuilding" team at that time (they finished at 4-12 that year) , Rogers was by far and away the Saints' best player.

He was virtually (and literally) UNSTOPPABLE when he wanted to be.

Unfortunately around that same time (and unbeknownst to Phillips and Saints management), Rogers may have been "dabbling" in drug usage; and following his rookie season with the Saints, Rogers testified to a federal grand jury during an investigation into trafficking by another Saints player, that he along with other teammates had purchased and used cocaine during his rookie season with the Saints in 1981.

He claimed to have spent more than $10,000 on cocaine during the 1981 season, and voluntarily checked himself into a drug treatment center for cocaine addiction in 1982. 

He played 3 more years for the Saints, before he was eventually traded to the Washington Redskins in the 1985 off-season.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

But long before Rogers was eventually shipped off to the Redskins, Phillips had already began to "sour" on him, simply because he didn't believe that Rogers was trust-worthy and was worried that Rogers would do irreparable harm to himself and the Saints franchise off the field.

Early in the 1984 season, the Saints were undergoing a metamorphisis. The team's QB position was being manned by former New York Jets QB Richard Todd, whom Phillips had given up the team's top pick in the 1984 NFL Draft to the Jets for, to essentially replace 39-year old QB Kenny "The Snake" Stabler — who ended up deciding to retire halfway through the season — not long after losing the battle against Todd to be the team's starting QB in 1984 Saints Training Camp.

Under Todd, the Saints had a (3-3) record after its first 6 games; when suddenly after a 20-7 loss to the Bears at Chicago's Soldier Field, Phillips decided after the loss that the ream needed some type of "spark" or inspiration to motivate the team to perform better and hopefully remain in contention for a Playoff spot (which they wouldn't earn until 3 years later after Phillips was gone).

That's when the decision was made by Phillips to go out and get a familiar face that he hoped would give the team the momentum push that it needed: Earl Campbell.

The Oilers were (0-6) by that point of the 1984 season, and were in desperation mode. But after getting a call from Phillips, Campbell was sent in a surprise, seemingly hastily arranged trade to New Orleans in exchange for its top choice in the 1985 NFL Draft.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

The acquisition of Campbell from the Oilers, winners of just three of their last 31 games by that point in 1984, was surprising because running back was one of the few positions on the Saints' roster at that time which was well stocked with experienced, healthy talent.

Besides Rogers, the Saints had other productive RB's on the roster at that time such as Wayne Wilson, the rapidly developing Hokie Gajan and 1984 3rd Round draft choice Tyrone Anthony.

The Saints at that time were hurting on the offensive line after injuries to three starters, which made trading for another RB seem even more ill-advised.

But Phillips remained undeterred, and "pulled the trigger" on the deal anyway.

It would turn out to be the decision that ultimately would end Phillips' NFL aching and management career, in one single swoop. 

The only "good thing" that can be said about the trade was that it gave the Saints two former Heisman Trophy winners in the backfield — Campbell and Rogers.

Campbell entered the 1984 season as the ninth-leading rusher in NFL history; he had carried 1,883 times for 8,296 yards, a 4.4 average. But he had began the PHYSICAL DECLINE of his brilliant career, from the punishment that he had endured up to that point.

Photo courtesy of The Houston Chronicle

He was already experiencing harder times during that point of the 1984 NFL season with the Oilers, carrying 96 times for 278 yards, a 2.9 average.

Nevertheless, Phillips told reporters that the Oilers made the offer after noon on that day (October 10, 1984), which was the 1984 NFL trade deadline day, when Ladd Herzeg, then-Houston general manager, called then-Saints executive Pat Peppler.

"Obviously, we are glad to get him," Phillips said. "I've never had too many good players. This trade gives us a heck of a backfield.

"I doubt if he and George (Rogers) would play in the same backfield in too many situations, but they might. Earl is a tailback in the I-formation. That's what he does best. I never talked to the Oilers about this trade before."

"The Saints called regarding Earl's availability," said Herzeg. "But it was an extremely difficult decision because he has meant so much to this franchise."

Regardless of who ever actually called who first, the Saints were now stuck with an essentially "washed up" former NFL superstar, who was now suddenly going to "share" the #1 RB duties with a talented but emotionally unsteady Rogers.

Photo courtesy of Lou Krasky, The Associated Press

In short, it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.

Campbell appeared in 8 total games in the 1984 season, carrying the ball 50 times for 190 yards (a 3.8 yards per carry average) with zero TD's. He rushed for a total of 468 yards and four touchdowns in 1984, but failed to record a 100-yard game during the season.

Meanwhile, Phillips traded Rogers to the Washington Redskins during the 1985 off-season; and basically got back the top pick that he had given up to Houston in exchange for Campbell.

But in hindsight, it was still a pick that was wasted on a player whose best years were CLEARLY behind him.

Campbell actually began the 1985 season as the team's #1 RB, but his rapidly declining body was already giving him issues by that point, and Saints fans in attendance at the team's 1985 season home opener would watch the team get blown out by the Kansas City Chiefs by a score of 47-27, as they would go on to finish the season with a disappointing (5-11) record.

Phillips would eventually resign as the team's head coach and GM, but not before he and his old work-horse Campbell would get one last hurrah together.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Campbell's final 100-yard game was his only one in 1985: a 160-yard outburst at the Minneapolis Metrodome against the Minnesota Vikings in Week #12, where he scored his only touchdown of the season. 

He would go on to finish that 1985 season with 643 rushing yards on 158 carries.

But the microcosm of Campbell's time in New Orleans occurred in the 1985 season finale at home against the hated arch-rival Atlanta Falcons. 

Early in the 1st quarter, new starting Saints QB Bobby Hebert handed the ball off to Campbell, who got a HUGE hole at the line of scrimmage to run through, and began running through the Falcons secondary on what should have been an 80-yard TD run.

But as Campbell was being chased by the Falcons DB's, he pulled up lame around the 15-yard line as he was headed for the end zone, before the ball was knocked out of his grasp by an Atlanta defender from behind and out the back of the endzone for a touchback, as a stunned Superdome looked on in total disbelief.

Earl Campbell — one of the League's most dominant players of all-time at the RB position — was merely a shadow of his former self.

It was a sad realization for him, interim head coach Wade Phillips (who taken over the team after Bum had resigned), and the sold-out Superdome filled with Saints fans.

After considering a return for one more season to reach 10,000 career rushing yards, Campbell decided to retire during the preseason of 1986, feeling that the beating he had taken during his career had taken too much of a toll.

And of course: the underlying notion that then-brand new head coach Jim Mora was going to cut him, regardless.

"I'm a man; I'm not a little boy," Campbell said to reporters at that time. "I believe this is the best thing—not only for myself, but for the Saints."

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Campbell finished his career having carried 2,187 times for 9,407 yards and 74 touchdowns in the regular season. In his year and a half wearing the Black and Gold, he ran the ball a total of 208 times for 833 yards, or just slightly over 4 yards per carry, with 1 TD.

But for a player who had such a remarkable Hall of Fame NFL career, his time in New Orleans was anything but remarkable. And it remains even now nearly some 35 years later, as one of the worst moments in Saints history......


Saints News Network featured columnist and Big Easy Magazine contributing writer Barry Hirstius is a 52-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer 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 45 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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