Biggest Margins in Saints History

John North

Archie Manning

Sean Payton 2011

Leigh Torrance
The most points ever scored by the Saints or against the Saints in a single game is the same - 62. And the losers' score was the same in both also.

September 16, 1973: Atlanta Falcons 62 New Orleans Saints 7

  • Will Peneguy started his Times-Picayune article on the Saints' opening game of the 1973 season like this.

    There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that the professional football season opened in New Orleans Sunday afternoon.
    Well, maybe it was a half-truth. The Atlanta Falcons opened up ... and how.
    Norm Van Brocklin's usually conservative Falcons drowned New Orleans' alleged Saints in an avalanche of points, scoring a 62-7 victory ...

  • Fortunately, the Tulane Stadium debacle was witnessed by only 66,248, the Saints' smallest opening game crowd ever.
  • Atlanta actually scored its points in just three quarters following a scoreless first period. But that fact is deceptive since the Falcons took over at midfield and the Saints 28 on their first two possessions and reached the 4 and 22 without removing the goose egg from the board.
  • John North's debut as Saints' head coach could not have gone more disastrously.
    The obviously embarrassed coach said afterward: This is real humiliation. I never thought we could be this bad. When you play like this, the Little Sisters of the Poor could beat you. I know it's my job to get 'em ready so we don't make those kind of mistakes, but we work day and night and obviously we haven't gotten a damn thing done. They call themselves professional football players? You've got to be kidding me.
  • As always happens in such a rout, turnovers played a major role. QB Archie Manning threw five INTs, backup Bob Davis tossed one, and the Saints lost two fumbles.
  • The home team scored its TD in Q3 after the Falcons raced to a 31-0 lead. Manning connected with Bill Butler on a 5y scoring pass to culminate a 77y drive.
  • The total offense tally read: Falcons 496y, Saints 187y.
  • The final two Atlanta TDs were scored by former LSU Tiger Eddie Ray. The 240lb FB scored on runs of 8 and 1y.
  • North rallied his troops enough to win five games against nine losses for the '73 season.
  • John survived to keep his job for the '74 campaign and for six games of 1975. His final record was 11-23.

October 23, 2011: New Orleans Saints 62 Indianapolis Colts 7

  • Sean Payton had to wonder if he should coach from the press box permanently after his Saints clobbered the Colts in a Sunday night game at the Superdome. Sean had broken his leg in a fluke sideline collision the previous week at Tampa Bay.
  • Not only was the final score the same as the Saints' worst loss but, as in that game, New Orleans scored the first 31 points before allowing a TD with 1:56 remaining before halftime.
  • The team the Saints had beaten in the Super Bowl two years earlier was suffering through a miserable 2-14 season that Peyton Manning missed entirely because of neck surgery.
  • The Saints first nine possessions went this way: TD, TD, TD, TD, FG, FG, TD, TD, TD.
  • The first three N.O. scores came on Drew Brees passes - to Marques Colston from the 14 and 4 and then Darren Sproles from the 6.
  • FB Jed Collins plunged over from the 1 before John Kasay booted two FGs sandwiched around the Indy score.
  • Then Brees went back to work, tossing 4y and 2y TDs to TE Jimmy Graham.
  • Sproles added a 16y rushing six before Leigh Torrence topped off the night with a 42y INT return.
  • With Payton high in the sky, QB Coach Pete Carmichael called every play of the 557y offensive explosion. The first down tally ended 36-11 in favor of the Saints.
    Payton afterward: I was real proud of how we played tonight and how we handled the practices (with him absent from the sideline). We had talked about now, at this point, playing our best football because we really felt like, although we were 4-2, we hadn't done that.
  • The 2011 Saints finished 13-3 to win the NFC South. They defeated the Lions 45-28 in the first round of the playoffs before losing in the last minute at San Francisco 36-32.
Saints Firsts: Seven wins; NFC Player of the Year - 1978
Under first-year coach Dick Nolan, who took over for Hank Stram, the 1978 Saints achieved the best record in franchise history to that point: 7-9.
  • Seven wins were two more than the club had achieved in any of the previous eleven seasons in the NFL thanks in large measure to the fact that the NFL expanded the schedule from 14 to 16 games that year.
  • When the Saints beat the Giants 28-17 October 29, they achieved their first winning record (5-4) during any season in franchise history.
  • The victory over NY in the Superdome also created the Saints' first-ever three-game winning streak.
  • Alas, the Saints then lost four straight including a 20-17 loss to the Falcons before the largest crowd to watch the Saints since the Superdome opened in 1975 - 70,323 - in the only home game among the four contests.
  • New Orleans copped two of their last three games to achieve the seven victories and run the franchise record for twelve years to 46-119-5.

The postseason brought another first when QB Archie Manning was named NFC Player of the Year for 1978 and also the NFC MVP by both The Sporting News and United Press International.

  • "Huck Finn in shoulder pads" (as he was dubbed at Ole Miss) put up the best numbers of his eight-year career that season: 3,416y passing, 61.8% completions (291-471).
  • Archie's 344y in the November 5 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers ranked as the NFL season high for any QB.
  • He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time.

Manning recalled the '78 season fondly.

I was really crazy about Dick Nolan and his coaching staff. ... And I think you've got to give Hank Stram a lot of credit for this, our offense was kind of ready to go. We'd drafted Wes Chandler, we made a trade for Ike Harris, we had Henry Childs, and, of course, Hank had drafted (Chuck) Muncie and (Tony) Galbreath. And we picked up Conrad Dobler in a trade which really solidified our offensive line. So all of a sudden offensively we've got some weapons and we're scoring points. ... I really had great people to throw the ball to and to hand off to.

Highlights from the record-setting season:

  • Game 1: 31-24 victory over the Vikings
    Tom Myers ran back an INT 97y in Q4 to give the Saints a 14-point lead in Q4.
  • Game 4: 20-18 victory at Cincinnati
    John Leypoldt's 27y FG as time ran out provided the winning points. The kick hit the left upright and bounced toward the stands as the referee's hands went up. The Saints trailed 18-10 with a little more than five minutes remaining.

    Wes Chandler runs against the Bengals
  • Game 7: 14-7 victory over San Francisco
    Nolan's "Flex" defense held the homestanding 49ers to only 175y and created six turnovers (four fumble recoveries and two INTs).

    Manning follows Tony Galbreath and Dave Lafary at San Francisco.
  • Game 8: 10-3 victory over the Rams in Los Angeles
    For the second straight week, the defense forced six turnovers (3 fumbles, 3 INTs), costing L.A. the victory despite a 342-118 advantage in total yards.
  • Game 9: 28-17 win at home against the Giants
    The Saints despite gaining "only" three turnovers (all INTs). The home team scored 21 unanswered points the second half.
  • Game 14: 24-13 victory over the 49ers
    1978 first-round draft choice Wes Chandler snagged two TDs passes from Archie - 58y and 12y.
  • Game 16: 17-10 triumph at Tampa Bay
    Manning led a 55y, six-play drive that led to the winning TD - a 2y throw to Henry Childs, the TE's third reception of the possession. The Saints overcame a pair of holding penalties along the way. That's why Archie had four completions for 65y on the 55y march.
Reference: The New Orleans Saints: 25 Years of Heroic Effort - Book I,
Christian Serpas (1991)

Dick Nolan

Archie Manning

Tom Myers

John Leypoldt
Streak Buster: 1980 Opener

Bill Walsh

Eddie DeBartolo

Earl Cooper

Archie Manning leaving the field disconsolate in 1980

Dick Nolan

Russell Erxleben

Steve DeBerg

Tony Galbreath dives over for Saints' first TD.

Tommy Myers

Erxleben after missing final FG.


Bill Walsh approached his second season as 49ers head coach with optimism.
  • Many questioned his hiring after San Francisco went 2-14 in his first season, the same record as the year before and tied for the worst mark in the league.
  • But owner Eddie DeBartolo had no such qualms. I provided the team with, in my opinion, the best football coach in the country, said Eddie D. to a reporter. It's just a matter of patience, just sitting back and waiting for the good times to come. And I think they will. I really do.
  • Eddie thought the team improved in 1979 and was much more fun to watch, especially on offense, Walsh's specialty. Using what would be dubbed the "West Coast Offense" with its short, ball-control passing game, the Niners scored 308 points, 91 more than the previous season.
  • The stats from 1978 and 1979 show the shift Walsh made in the offense.
    49ers Passing Rushing
    1978 190-435-1956y 585-2091y
    1979 361-602-3641y 480-1932y
  • The problem was the defense, which surrendered 66 more than the year before.

Walsh, who had control of player personnel, showed the eagle eye for talent that would help him make the Pro Football Hall of Fame by bringing in several players who would contribute for years to come.

  • Dwaine "Peewee" Board, a light but fast DE, was picked up on waivers from the Steelers.
  • DB Dwight Hicks, cut by the Eagles and out of football, would become an All-Pro FS.
  • Mike Wilson, WR cut by the Cowboys, would play for Walsh the rest of his tenure in San Francisco.

The 49ers also improved themselves through the 1980 draft.

  • DE Jim Stuckey from Clemson
  • RB Earl Cooper from Rice
  • Light but fast OLB Keena Turner from Purdue, who would become a defensive mainstay for a decade

Walsh considered the 1980 opener in New Orleans a strong test of how much his team had improved.

  • The Saints had beaten their NFC West rival twice in 1979, 30-21 and 31-20.
  • Those victories helped New Orleans to finish 8-8, their best in the franchise's 14-year history.

Excitement was at an all-time high in the Crescent City. The heart of the 1979 offense that ranked 4th in the NFL in yardage returned.

  • QB Archie Manning came off his second straight Pro Bowl season.
  • "Thunder and Lightning," otherwise known as RB Chuck Muncie and FB Tony Galbreath, returned after gaining almost 2700y from scrimmage as a combo in '79.
  • Third-year WR Wes Chandler snagged 65 balls for 1,069y while TE Henry Childs caught 51 for 846.
  • Coach Dick Nolan had a problem, however. Three of his offensive stars had missed the last preseason game because of injuries. Muncie nursed a bruised big toe, and Chandler suffered from a sprained knee. Childs would definitely miss the 49ers game with knee and groin injuries.
  • Nolan made what proved to be a crucial decision when he cut veteran K Garo Yepremian, a crowd favorite, and kept second-year K Russell Erxleben, a first-round draft choice in 1979 who had been injured most of his rookie season. Erxleben was expected to handle both the place-kicking and punting duties.

Nolan knew that matching 1979's success would require an improved defense.

  • I think our defense is better in many areas. We have to be a better team. Everyone in the division has improved.
  • On the SF passing attack: They've done well. What they do is throw percentage passes. They run their routes right and pick up their receivers well. They don't make foolish mistakes.

A crowd of 58,621 gathered in the Superdome to see if the Saints could win their third opener in team history.

  • Quarter 1
    49ers QB Steve DeBerg picked on the Saints' LBs all game long with passes to his RBs and TEs. The Saints countered by giving up their run-oriented "flex defense" in favor of a "4-3 Rush" technique designed to put pressure on the QB. But DeBerg responded by calling a running play when he saw the 4-3 defensive formation.
    A Saints' drive to the 49er 13 came up empty when Russell Erxleben's 30y FG attempt hit the right upright.
    A later N.O. drive to the 30 stalled because of a holding call.
    END OF Q1: SAINTS 0 49ERS 0

  • Quarter 2
    Erxleben failed to connect on a 47y attempt. However, a good bit of acting resulted in a roughing the kicker penalty. That enabled the Saints to continue the march that culminated in FB Tony Galbreath diving over from the 1. Saints 7 49ers 0 (9:22)
    The Niners responded with a 69y drive sparked by the running of HB Paul Hofer and rookie FB Earl Cooper. The crucial play came on a 3rd-and-6 when DeBerg hit Cooper with a 15y pass. Cooper ended the drive with a 2y run. Saints 7 49ers 7 (5:23)
    Before the half ended, the visitors drove 55y to take the lead. DeBerg relied almost exclusively on Cooper who caught seven passes during the 11-play march, then ran 6y for his second NFL TD with just seconds left in the half.
    Saints S Tommy Myers: Cooper surprised me. He's a much better back than I thought he was.

  • Quarter 3
    The 49ers scored on their opening series on a 27y pass to RB Paul Hofer over a badly-beaten Reggie Mathis. The advance covered 66y in 10 plays. The Rickey Ray blocked the PAT try. 49ers 20 Saints 7 (9:55)
    Starting from their 26, Manning & Company roared back to another TD, Muncie doing the honors on a 7y sweep. But a high snap threw off the EP try. 49ERS 20 Saints 13 (5:28)

  • Quarter 4
    SF added a 37y FG by Ray Wersching to start the period. 49ers 23 Saints 13 (14:52)
    It didn't take two minutes before Manning threw a 49y bomb to a leaping Wes Chandler. 49ers 23 Saints 20 (13:03)
    Tommy Myers intercepted DeBerg on the next series and four plays later Erxleben hit a 37y FG to tie the game. 49ers 23 Saints 23 (9:47)
    Saints DE Elois Grooms: I felt we were getting ahead of them at that point. But we had them in a sitution where we had to control the ball, and we let them drive the field on us.
    The 49ers drove 61y to set up a 38-yarder by Wersching. 49ers 26 Saints 23 (3:37)
    Beginning from the 20, Manning led an 11-play drive, hitting a key 4th-down pass to Larry Hardy to put the pigskin on the SF 34. Along the way, though, New Orleans was charged with a timeout when T Bob Woods was injured with less than two minutes left, leaving them with just one more. On the next play, Archie completed a pass to Galbreath to the 16 with 25 seconds left. Manning decided not to use his final timeout despite the fact that his offense seemed confused as he frantically gestured them up to the line for the next play. The crowd began chanting, "Timeout! Timeout!" The result was an incomplete pass that ran the clock down to just 4 seconds.
    Afterward, Manning explained: I wanted to take a touchdown shot with a timeout left to protect the chance at a field goal. The problem was it just took us too long to get organized. If you call timeout at that point, then the only play you can run after it and still get a shot at the FG is to pass into the EZ. When you're in that situation, they're going to have five DBs in the EZ. You have to force the ball in there, which means possibly a tipped ball or worse. So I'm thinking, "Run a play." Try to go into the EZ with a pass. If you don't score, you stop the clock. Or look for one of your backs short. If they don't get in, you can still kill the clock and kick the FG.
    Nolan: Archie tried to move Wes to flanker and Ike to split end. He just took too much time.
    So Erxleben, already suffering from a miserable day, came in to try a 34y FG to send the game into OT. He missed wide left and dropped to the turf and hid his face as the crowd booed.
    DeBerg said the 49ers were worried. Last year, we weren't a 2-14 team, but something crazy would always happen to us. If this had been last year, that kick would have been good.
Thus did San Francisco win their first road game after 18 straight losses. The last win came in the Superdome November 13, 1977.


  • Saints
    With Erxleben avoiding the press (Please, I have nothing to say. Please.), his teammates tried to absorb some of the blame for the loss. Myers: You can't blame a game on any one thing or one person. We all had a hand in it.
    Chuck Muncie on Erxleben: He's got to grow up. This came from someone who had some maturing to do himself.
    One teammate said of the kicker, Dammit, I'd rather see him kicking over benches. But maybe that's his way. Whatever it is, he's got to pull it together. I don't know why we ever let Garo Yepremian go. But that's water under the bridge. He's all we got.
    WR Ike Harris on the confusion at the end of the game. If everything had gone cleanly at the line of scrimmage, we could have run another play, called time out with 14 seconds left and had time for one more play with about six or seven seconds left.
    Nolan: I think we're a better team (than last year). We were able to come back. ... Penalties and the big plays killed us. I was pleased with the fact that we moved the ball, but penalties stopped our drives. On his kicker: There was no fault of the center on the missed field goals. Erxleben took his eye off the ball on his first miss. We expect him now to kick the ball higher and deeper. We expect him to conquer his problems.
    Chandler: The crowd noise really got to us. That was the only time I couldn't really hear the call.
    DT Derland Moore, an eight-year veteran: This is the most disappointing loss I have ever had as a New Orleans Saint. There are going to have to be a lot of changes - a lot more concentration, a lot fewer mistakes. We were supposed to be a real good football team this year. ... We stunk. They were smart and played a good game and all tat, but we just stunk.
    DE Elois Grooms: It just seemed like no matter what we used, they were able to hit us.
    CB Clarence Chapman: It's the same type of offense, he [Walsh] used against us last year. When you get a RB on a LB, you've got to expect the back to be able to get open. You can't stop it. You just try to limit it, knowing the percentages are against them, that they'll get tied up inside the 20 or make a mistake. But today we just couldn't get an edge on it.
    LB Ken Bordelon: Their offense is designed to pressure the LBs. They just did a good job of mixing their plays up. They kept us off balance. I don't think we did a bad job defensively. They had a couple of big plays, but we were not embarrassed.
    Myers was not as happy with the defensive effort. We didn't stop the passes to the backs all day long. Our responsibility is to stop the pass. Obviously we didn't do the job today.
    As Erxleben walked into a hallway and approached the door, he slumped back against the wall and sobbed.

  • 49ers
    Walsh: We were spirited, relentless, a very determined team.
    DeBerg threw 29 passes and completed 21 of them for 223y. 17 passes went to RBs Paul Hofer and Earl Cooper. They were doing a good job of covering our wide receivers, and we have the kind of backs I don't hesitate to throw to. If my wide receiver isn't wide open, I don't try to force the football. On Cooper, the Niners' first offensive draft choice of 1980: He's got great hands. We'll continue to use him. He might be the leading receiver in all of football this year. It's very likely that he could be at least the top receiving back. On the Saints' flex defense: The flex presents problems in the running game. But then it's weaker against the pass because the guys have a longer way to go to the ... QB. So that's the problem with the flex. They use it in running down situations. ... They were doing basically what they've been doing for the last three, four years. Steve expressed optimism about the Niners' chances in the NFC West. We do think that things are going to be very positive until somebody proves us wrong. And nobody yet this year has been able to prove that they're a better football team. Asked if Walsh was the reason for the 49ers turnaround: Yes. Also my maturity, the maturity of the whole offense and being under the system - maybe the best system in all of football - for two years. And don't forget those other players. On top of that is our defense and its progress over the past yeare. We're really in the running.
    Hofer on the passing attack: That's what we've done since Bill Walsh came to the 49ers. That's our offense. I'd hate to play defense against our offense.

The "Aints"
Follow up
  • The 1980 Saints would become the "Aints" as they lost their first 14 games - the last an OT defeat in San Francisco 38-35 - before beating the Jets to finish 1-15. Nolan lost his job after 12 games, and O-line coach Dick Stanfel finished up.
  • The 49ers would start 3-0 before losing eight in a row on their way to a disappointing 6-10 season. Along the way, DeBerg lost his job to a second-year QB named Joe Montana, who led the NFL in completion % (64.5). With another excellent draft and Joe under C from the start of the '81 season, the Niners would win the Super Bowl.
Reference: The Genius, David Harris (2008)
Profile: Jim Finks - I
No one in Saints history is more responsible for making the club competitive following two decades of futility than Jim Finks, who became General Manager in 1986.
  • A native of St. Louis, Finks played QB at the University of Tulsa. The Pittsburgh Steelers made him the 12th pick in the 1949 NFL Draft.
  • In 1952, when the Steelers became the last team in the league to convert from the single wing to the T-formation, Finks became the starting QB after playing his first three years as a DB.
  • That season he tied Cleveland's Otto Graham for the league lead in TD passes with 20 and earned a Pro Bowl invitation.
  • Jim retired after the 1955 season after completing 661 passes for 8,622y and 55 TDs.

Jim turned to coaching right after leaving the NFL but it turned out that his playing career wasn't over.

  • After coaching a year under Terry Brennan at Notre Dame, Jim joined the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.
  • Following a year as an assistant coach and player, Finks became a scout and then the general manager for the 1958 season.
  • Showing a good eye for talent, Jim signed the players that made Calgary the winningest team in the CFL during the 1960s. The most famous player who joined the Stampeders on Jim's watch was QB Joe Kapp.

The Minnesota Vikings hired Finks as their General Manager for the 1964 season, the expansion franchise's fourth year in the NFL after winning only ten games their first three seasons.

  • Believing a team should be built around defense, his first draft pick in the NFL was DE Carl Eller, who became a perennial All-Pro who became enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
  • Over the next few years, Finks complemented Eller on the D-line with the other three members of the famous "Purple People Eaters."
  • Other acquisitions included S Paul Krause (in a trade from Washington), OT Ron Yary (drafted).
  • Another key player he acquired was Joe Kapp, his QB at Calgary who would lead the Vikings to Super Bowl IV.
  • Most of all, Finks hired head coach Bud Grant, whom he knew as the coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for 10 years in the CFL.
  • By 1968, Jim had built Minnesota into the "Black and Blue Division" champions. That started a streak of ten division titles in 11 seasons for the Vikings.

In 1974, Jim moved to Minnesota's NFC North rivals in Chicago after a dispute with the Vikings' principal owners over the location of a new stadium.

  • As Executive Vice President and GM, he worked his magic again in the Windy City with a team that had suffered through seven straight non-winning seasons.
  • His approach was to avoid the "quick fix" mentality and instead build for the long haul. As one member of his staff said, Jim Finks does not build teams. He builds organizations. Then the good teams follow naturally.
  • As in Minnesota, he hit the jackpot with his very first draft pick - RB Walter Payton from Jackson State. All he did was become the centerpiece of the Bears' offense. He gained 16,726y over his 13-year career and, like Eller, ended up in Canton.
  • Other Hall of Famers he drafted in Chicago were MLB Mike Singletary and DE Dan Hamption.
  • By 1977, Jim had Chicago back in the postseason for the first time since their championship season of 1963.
  • He left the Bears in 1982 following owner George Halas's hiring of Mike Ditka as Head Coach without consulting the GM.
  • Ditka won the Super Bowl three years later with a roster on which 19 of the 22 starters were acquired by Finks.

Jim next brought his talents to a different sport, baseball.

  • He was no stranger to that game, having played two years of minor league ball while with the Steelers.
  • The Cubs made him their president and chief executive officer near the end of the '83 season.
  • Was it a coincidence that the club won the NL East in 1984 for the first time? They fell one-game short of the franchise's first World Series appearance since 1945.
  • But once again his tenure ended with a dispute with management. He resigned when the team and then baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth undercut his promise of Chicago fans that Wrigley Field would not need lights.

Finks was working for a Chicago public relations firm when he was contacted by Tom Benson, the new owner of the New Orleans Saints.

Continued below ...

Jim Finks, Tulsa

Jim Finks, Steelers

Carl Eller

Walter Payton

Profile: Jim Finks - II

Tom Benson and Edwin Edwards announcing Benson's purchase of Saints

John Mecom, Jr.

Bum and Wade Phillips

Earl Campbell

Steve Sidwell

Jim Miller

Bill Kuharich

Bobby Hebert

Rueben Mayes

Jim Dombrowski

By his own admission, Tom Benson didn't know much about football when he put together a coalition to purchase the New Orleans Saints in May, 1985 from the team's original owner, John Mecom Jr.
  • Benson, a native New Orleanian who made his fortune through multiple automobile dealerships in Texas, admitted that he became interested in the Saints when Governor Edwin Edwards told him the club was on the verge of being sold to parties interested in moving the team to Jacksonville FL.
    Benson recalled in 2016: I wasn't a football fan. I didn't play football. I most probably didn't go to many games. But the big thing for me was the Saints were going to leave New Orleans. It would have been a disaster for us. I thought then, and I think that now. That's where it all started.
  • Almost three dozen people committed amounts ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $6 million to the $72M purchase price.
  • The new principal owner announced that he would run the team like a business, a radical change from the Mecom method which was epitomized by having a former astronaut, Dick Gordon, as Executive Vice President and General Manager from 1972-76.

The team Benson inherited had yet to have a winning season in its 18 years in the NFL.

  • The best New Orleans had done was 8-8 in 1979 and again in 1983.
  • Bum Phillips, the coach and GM since 1981, had been unable to build on the momentum of the '83 season as the Saints dropped to 7-9 the following season.
  • When Bum offered to resign so that the new owner could hire his own coach, Tom told him, "I need you to help me get this thing started." Bum acquiesced but said, "If it doesn't work out, I'll retire, and you won't have to tell me to."
  • It didn't work out, in part because Bum put his faith in over-the-hill RB Earl Campbell who had toiled so valiantly for him with the Houston Oilers.
  • When the '85 team won only four of its first 12 games, Bum resigned both his positions. He had decided to quit at the end of the season but did so earlier so that his son Wade, his defensive coordinator, could coach the last four games and perhaps earn the job full-time.

When the season ended, Benson decided to clean house.

  • He fired president Eddie Jones, PR Director Greg Suit, and Bum's pal Pat Peppler. Also gone was offensive coordinator King Hill.
  • Benson then began a search for a new GM, who would in turn hire the new head coach. Tom told the fans, "We're working to win," and, for the first time in Saints history, enlisted professionals to search for the men who would bring a winner to the long-suffering fans of the Crescent City.
  • Tom told the human resource manager for his business enterprises, Phil Osborne, to enlist the services of five nationally known people for the search committee - not GMs or coaches.
  • The Saints received applications from nearly 200 coaches and 25 GM candidates. The new owner set aside the coaching candidates and quickly reduced the GM number to five.
    Benson recalled, I believe that everyone should answer to the president and general manager, and I decided that I didn't want to run the team. I wanted to hire a man who would be in charge but keep me informed.
  • The United States Football League had just thrown in the towel (thanks in large measure to one of its owners, Donald Trump). Osborne arranged an interview with the GM and head coach of the Philadelphia Stars, who had the best record in the league: 48-13-1. Carl Peterson and coach Jim Mora discussed a package deal whereby they would assume the same positions with the Saints.
  • However, the search committee recommended someone else for GM - Jim Finks, one of pro football's most respected executives. Both New York Giants owner Wellington Mara and Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell recommended Finks to Benson.
    Ralph Wilson, owner of the Buffalo Bills, had pursued Finks for months to be his GM, but Jim refused the offer. I even wondered if I wanted to get back in the rat race again, Finks recalled.
  • Osborne invited Finks to come to San Antonio, the headquarters of Benson's car empire. Jim met with Tom for four hours in December, 1985.
    Finks suggested they draw up a contract. Benson recalled, There were some things I didn't understand, and when he asked me for a contract, I said, "Contract! In any of my companies, I don't give contracts. What the hell are you talking about?" So Finks drew up a written agreement that designated himself as president and GM. Since Benson considered Finks a good person who would do the right thing, the owner acquiesced.
  • Benson signed the contract January 14, 1986. For the first time in franchise history, a football man took complete control of the team.
  • During the press conference announcing his hiring, Finks told reporters, I've seen clubs with less material become a club and win, and I think that's the number-one objective here.

The next task was to hire a head coach.

  • Mora was also being courted by the Philadelphia Eagles as well as the St. Louis Cardinals. But Jim was more interested in the Saints.
    Mora recalled: I had serious opportunities in both places, but I had a feeling about this team (the Saints). I liked this team and felt this was the place I'd like to be.
  • With Philadelphia media reporting that Mora was close to signing with the Eagles, Finks hurried to The City of Brotherly Love and met with Mora for three hours.
    Mora was impressed. After I met with Finks ... I was really excited about being the head coach (in New Orleans). I really liked him, and I liked stepping into a situation where they had never won before and trying to produce a winner.
  • Finks was sold on Mora as his coach but had one problem. Benson preferred Wade Phillips, the interim coach from '85. But Finks pressed for someone who was not a retread ... and someone who had had winning head-coaching experience. Jim also felt that Mora's familiarity with USFL personnel would be valuable.
  • When Benson deferred to Finks, Jim met with Mora in Chicago and offered him a contract. Mora wanted to bring his entire USFL staff with him despite the fact that none had coached in the NFL. Finks suggested hiring a couple of NFL coaches for their knowledge of the league personnel. Mora held his ground and Finks gave in.
  • As it turned out, Mora did hire several assistants with NFL experience. When his defensive coordinator, Vince Tobin, joined the Bears staff, Jim hired an old friend, Steve Sidwell, with whom he had worked for six years at Colorado, and added Steve Walters as WR coach.

    Jim Finks, Tom Benson, Jim Mora at opening press conference
Meanwhile, Finks completed his front office staff.
  • Jim Miller, who was working for the NFL in New York administering the players' collective bargaining agreement, flew to New Orleans to meet with Finks during Super Bowl week and accepted an offer to become vice president of administration.
    Miller remembered: I was to meet Finks in the office at the Superdome on Super Bowl Sunday. So I went to the receptionist and said, "I'm here to see Mr. Finks." So this older guy walks out, and he looks kind of rumpled, and I'm wondering who he is. Then he comes over and says, "I'm Tom Benson."
  • Another key position, Director of Player Personnel, was filled by Bill Kuharich, son of former college and NFL head coach Joe Kuharich.

Finks and Mora engineered a significant overhaul of the Saints' roster.

  • Offense:
    QB Bobby Hebert, a native of South Louisiana, came from the USFL
    RB Dalton Hilliard was drafted in the second round from LSU.
    RB Rueben Mayes from Washington State was a third-round draft pick.
    T Jim Dombrowski was drafted in the first round out of Virginia.
  • Defense:
    LB Vaughan Johnson was acquired in the supplemental draft
    MLB Sam Mills came from the Philadelphia Stars with Coach Mora.
    LB Pat Swilling was a 3rd round draft pick out of Georgia Tech.
    Those three newcomers would team with Ricky Jackson, a six-year veteran, to form The Dome Patrol, arguably the greatest set of LBs on one team in NFL history.

The '86 Saints reflected their new head man, who was a hard-working, no-nonsense coach who stressed defense and ball control.

  • They started slowly, losing four of their first five games.
  • Then they won five of their next six to nose above .500 at 6-5.
  • But three straight losses ended any playoff hopes.
  • The final record was 7-9, two games better than the last pre-Finks/Mora squad.
  • But a comparison of points scored vs points surrendered shows the '86 Saints were considerably better than the previous year's club.
    1985 Saints: Points For 294, Points Against 401, -107 difference
    1986 Saints: Points For 288, Points Against 287, +1 difference
  • The difference lay in the '86 defense, which gave up 114 fewer points.

The foundation was laid for the breakthrough 1987 season.

Continue below ...
Profile: Jim Finks - III

The makeover that GM Jim Finks began in 1986 didn't take long to bear fruit.

  • The 1987 Saints compiled a 12-3 record, including a nine-game winning streak to end the regular season.
  • Although the 49ers won the NFC West with a 13-2 record, the Saints earned a wild card spot and entered the playoffs for the first time in the franchise's 21-year history.
  • Despite playing before a raucous Superdome crowd that just knew the visiting Vikings would be no match for the Crescent City juggernaut, the Saints lost the wild-card game 44-10.
    Read the full story of the 1987 season ...

Still, New Orleans looked forward to the 1988 season.

  • Finks built on the success of the '87 campaign to raise ticket prices by $4. He also moved the Saints training camp to La Crosse WI.
  • The Saints used their No. 1 pick on RB Craig "Ironhead" Heyward from Pittsburgh. Director of Player Personnel Bill Kuharich called him "a cross between a bull and a deer." Kuharich and his assistants felt that Heyward's tendency to overeat and engage in "mischievous" behavior could be controlled. That would prove to be a naive assessment.
  • The only other selection who would help the team was #2 Brett Perriman, WR from Miami. Particularly bad was the choice of DT Tony Stephens from Clemson in Round 3. He didn't even survive training camp but went home happy with his $150,000 signing bonus.
  • New Orleans had a successful '88 season, winning 10 and losing six. But three losses in a row down the stretch after a 9-3 start dropped them into a tie for 1st in the NFC West with the 49ers and Rams but they missed the playoffs by being on the wrong side of tiebreaker with Los Angeles.
  • Heyward played in 11 games, gaining 355y on 74 carries.
  • After the season, Finks admitted to a reporter, The drafting of Shawn Knight(in 1986) and Tony Stephens were big mistakes. Now, we've got to get our coaches better players.

Finks' job was made more complicated in 1989 by "Plan B."

  • This was a compromise with the Players Association that provided for a limited free agency.
  • Under Plan B, each team retained limited rights to 37 players each season. A protected player was not allowed to sign with another team without the old team getting the first shot at signing him at the same or better salary or getting compensation from the new club that signed him.
  • The Saints lost promising WR Robert Clark and record-setting return man Mel Gray as well as several second-line players.
  • The club acquired no impact players from Plan B.

For a while in the offseason, it appeared that the Saints might lose their GM.

  • Commissioner Pete Rozelle retired, and Finks was considered a strong candidate to replace him.
  • A six-owner search committee listed Jim as the only candidate for the job.
  • However, a group of eleven newer owners wanted more of a voice in the selection process. So they abstained from voting to prevent Finks from receiving the 19 votes needed to become commissioner.
  • Six months later, a second vote was held that resulted in a tie with 13 votes for Finks and 13 for Paul Tagliabue.
  • At a third meeting, the factions reached a compromise whereby Tagliabue would become commissioner and Finks, president in charge of football operations.
  • But Jim declined the position and stayed with the Saints.
The 1989 draft was only marginally better than the previous year's.
  • The #1 pick, DT Wayne Martin, would play eleven solid years for the Saints.
  • But the only other pick who had much of an impact was WR Floyd Turner, taken in Round 6.

The '89 campaign started 1-4.

  • The defense felt the loss of LB Ricky Jackson for the first three games. He had barely escaped death in an auto accident just before the start of the season. He needed some time to get back into playing shape when he returned.
    Jackson's 118 consecutive games streak ended.
  • The Saints regrouped and won five of their next six games to get back in the playoff race.
  • But a devastating loss to the Rams in OT after blowing a 17-3 lead with less than three minutes to play and an add-on defeat to the Lions dropped them back under .500 and caused Mora to bench Bobby Hebert in favor of John Fourcade.
  • The New Orleans-area native led the team to three straight victories to finish 9-7 - not enough to make the playoffs.
  • Heyward took part in all 16 games but carried only 49 times.

Finks's 1990 offseason was dominated by dealings with multiple holdouts.

  • Bobby Hebert was not happy with his contract, which expired February 1. He asked to be left unprotected under Plan B so that he could sign with another team. His agent said it would take a raise to $2M from his previous $650,000 to make him resign with the Saints. Finks refused to leave Bobby unprotected and announced that Hebert and Fourcade would go to camp as equals.
  • Fourcade, who earned $100,000 in '89, signed a contract for a $850,000 over two years. Hebert decided to sit out the 1990 season.
  • LB Pat Swilling also held out for a better contract but finally accepted a two-year deal nine days before the season opener.
  • Another holdout, OT Stan Brock, also signed just before the regular season began.

The draft produced two players who would contribute.

  • DE Renaldo Turnbull started a seven-year career with the Saints highlighted by 44.5 sacks.
  • DB Vince Buck didn't start until his second season when he registered five picks.
  • However, DE Frank Warren was lost for the season when he was suspended for violating the NFL drug policy.

The 1990 season started poorly but ended up producing another trip to the playoffs.

  • Fourcade started the first four games but was not nearly as effective as he had been at the end of the '89 season, throwing seven INTs. The Saints won only one of his starts.
    After the 32-3 loss to the Vikings, a reporter asked Mora, Should the Saints be trying to sign Hebert? Jim answered: No. Hell no. Absolutely no. I don't miss Hebert. Hell no. I don't miss him.
  • So Finks acquired Steve Walsh from Dallas for the fourth game of the season. He compiled a 6-5 record as a starter.
  • The vagaries of the NFL were illustrated by the fact that the Saints finished 8-8, their worst record in four years. Yet they made the playoffs as a wild card only to lose to the Bears in Chicago.
To be continued ...

Craig Heyward

Paul Tagliabue

Floyd Turner

Bobby Hebert

John Fourcade

Steve Walsh