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SMASH-MOUTH: Once Upon a Time, Saints-Rams Rivalry Was Legalized Violence

With all of the hype surrounding the big clash tomorrow afternoon at the Superdome between the (6-1) Saints and the undefeated (8-0) Los Angeles Rams, some older Who Dat fans have been reminiscing back to a time when these two teams were engaged in a bitter and intense division rivalry; which included one year when they played not one but two brutal and physically-demanding contests within a span of 3 weeks against each other.

In short, it was a point in time where the two teams essentially participated in a form of “legalized violence”.

The year was 1988, and it was almost exactly 30 years ago when defensive-minded then-Saints head coach Jim Mora and his team featuring the “Dome Patrol” defense, led by linebackers Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson, and Pat Swilling, were keeping New Orleans in the Playoff chase thanks to their “elite” level of play in spite of their low-octane, run-first offense.

However, it was in a game at the Superdome between the (7-1) Saints and the (5-3) Rams on October 30th, 1988; in which New Orleans would face off against a Los Angeles squad that was not intimidated by the vaunted Dome Patrol defense, thanks in part to their very own high-powered and very capable offense led by QB Jim Everett and the talented Rams WR duo of Henry Ellard and Willie “Flipper” Anderson.

The two teams ended up having a “slug fest” in front of a sold-out Superdome crowd; as the Saints held L.A. to 4 field goals but couldn’t generate much offense of their own; which was why they found themselves down by a score of 12-7 in the 4th quarter and in danger of losing for only the 2nd time that year. 

Then after a Morten Andersen field goal cut the score to 12-10 Los Angeles with only 4:01 remaining on the game clock, the Rams had managed to hold the ball for the last 4:01 to preserve a two-point win, as the defense just simply could not get a stop when they needed to in order to give their offense one last shot at driving for a potential game-winning field goal.

A week later at Washington, the Saints top-rated defense failed down the stretch yet again, as the Redskins drove 94 and 64 yards to score 10 unanswered fourth-quarter points for a 27-24 win over New Orleans.

“We just couldn’t find a way to get off the field,” Saints inside linebacker Vaughan Johnson would tell reporters in the team’s locker room after the Black and Gold’s agonizing defeat.

The Saints would fall to (7-3) with the loss at Washington, setting up a re-match the following week with the suddenly-hot (7-3) Rams out in California; as both teams now were coming in with identical 7-3 records and a share of the division lead just a mere 2 weeks after they had just engaged in that previous slug-fest at the Superdome.

This time around the venue was Anaheim Stadium in suburban Los Angeles on November 13, 1988; and New Orleans entered the contest that day as the only NFC team that hadn’t lost by two touchdowns or more in any one game that entire 1988 season, but somehow had managed to lose all three of their losses by a combined total of six points.

The Saints’ game plan was actually a very simple one, which was to find a way to rattle Everett, the Rams’ young 3rd year veteran star quarterback out of Purdue University who was already developing into the League’s top-rated passer by that point.

(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Allsport/Getty Images)

The Saints knew that he was already mature enough to effectively run their offense attack and read defenses, which meant that Mora and his coaching staff were aware that they needed to come up with some ways to disrupt Everett’s timing.

Despite their low-scoring output in the game 2 weeks earlier, the Rams offense and particularly Everett had gotten the Saints’ full attention by taking several “deep shots” down the field; where he completed a few long throws with impressive and somewhat surprising accuracy.

The only reason why the Rams had been forced to settle for 4 field goals under Everett’s guidance in their earlier win at the Superdome, had been several dropped passes by their WR’s; which prevented the L.A. offense from scoring more points than they did.

In this contest however, the two teams would square off head-to-head in one of their typically nasty games between each other for the better part of 57 minutes and 48 seconds.

With only 2:12 remaining and the Saints leading 14-10, the Rams were moving the ball down the field on their final drive of the day. New Orleans had stopped L.A. on the Rams’ two subsequent possessions before Los Angeles got the ball on its own 30 with one last shot at pulling out the win.

Photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Times

But just 4 plays later, a penalty against the Saints put the ball on the New Orleans 26-yard line when Everett pump-faked and tried to throw a pass on a timing pattern to his young superstar WR “Flipper” Anderson to the right side of the end zone for the possible game-winning score.

Anderson was open after beating Saints CB Dave Waymer, who had the coverage underneath. But Saints safety Geno Atkins suddenly seemed to come out of nowhere; as he streaked across the end zone and took the ball out of Anderson’s hands for the game-saving (and game-winning) interception.

Atkins had deep responsibility in the double-zone coverage on the play, and his sensational individual effort had allowed New Orleans to seal the 14-10 victory.

“He tried to look me off to the seam guy,” Atkins, a second-year pro out of Florida A & M at the time, would say to reporters following the game. “He tried to get me hung up with the pump fake. I didn’t bite. I just tried to get enough depth so I could get a good break on the ball.”

“We were anticipating that play, where Everett pump-fakes to the inside receiver and then goes sideline,” said Atkins. “We worked on it all week.”

That game, the one 2 weeks before it, and pretty much all of the Saints-Rams match-ups during that “Dome Patrol” era, always seemed to be a relentless battle of attrition in those days, hiding under the guise of a football game.

Bottom line: when ever these two teams met back then, you knew it was going to be an all-out war for a full 60 minutes.

The intensity of the rivalry at that time had began two years prior in 1986, during Mora’s first season as head coach after he had come over from the USFL (Untied States Football League).

In their first meeting at the Superdome in October of 1986, the “Dome Patrol” held L.A. to only 53 total yards rushing in a 6-0 defeat.

It was the only game that season in which the Rams failed to run for at least 100 yards. A year later during the strike-shortened 1987 season, Los Angeles rushed for 102 yards. In their first match-up of that 1988 season, the Rams only gained 96 yards on the ground — an unheard of number for a team that had previously led the NFL in rushing yardage with talented RB Eric Dickerson.

But just two seasons later, the Rams offense evolved into a full-fledged pass-first offense, forcing the Saints defense to adapt. But it was the ineptitude of the Saints offense in those days, that prevented New Orleans from being more successful against Los Angeles and other teams like the San Francisco 49ers, than they should have been.

“We dominated the game, but we only had seven points,” Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert said to reporters after that close win at Anaheim Stadium. “It was a frustrating thing.”

Hebert’s frustrations were shared by most Saints fans at the time. who lamented the fact that the Saints offense wasn’t anywhere nearly as talented as the defense was. 

Just as Saints fans in 2018 are concerned about the team’s defense trying to meet the high standard set by its high-powered offensive attack led by Drew Brees; in those days over 30 years ago, the Saints didn’t have a chance to win if their defense ever struggled — because more often times than not, their offense couldn’t score enough points to “bail them out” of any potential trouble.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

How ironic that now over three decades later, the situation is completely reversed; and it’s Brees and the Saints offense, that has to bail the defense out of trouble as opposed the other way around.

Such as things were, in the days when the “smash mouth” style of play between these two long-time NFC conference and former division rivals, used to fall somewhere in between the existence of pure sport and the ultimate destruction of mankind.

Such were the days once upon a time, when the Saints-Rams rivalry was legalized violence….

 

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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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