The Pride and Joy of New Orleans Saints Defense … The Dome Patrol
The Dome Patrol. Just the very mention of it brings a smile to the face of devout New Orleans Saints fans. The words are spoken with an almost hushed reverence and respect among the WhoDat faithful. The name conjures up memories of goal line stands, bone jarring tackles, and ball carriers being swarmed over by hosts of black and gold-clad defenders. The name reminds us of a time when we were respected in the NFL. The traditional term, The Dome Patrol, is usually given to the four linebackers who typified the aggressive nature of the Saints defense of the late 80s and early 90s. Without a doubt, Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughn Johnson and Pat Swilling were the heart and soul of one of the best defenses of its day.
It’s no secret that the New Orleans Saints were a team that couldn’t shake the loser stigma they had obtained since they joined the NFL as an expansion team in 1967. In 1969, it appeared the Saints were on their way to glory in the world of professional football. Finishing their third season, they had posted a total of 13 wins- the most yet for an expansion team in 3 years. The defense, at the time, had earned a reputation of playing tough, hard-nosed football. With such names as Doug Atkins, Steve Stonebreaker, Dave Rowe and Dave Whitsell (who, by the way, still holds the Saints team record of 10 interceptions in a season). The Saints had, if nothing else, a respectable hard-hitting defense. The 6 foot, 8 inch Hall of Famer, Atkins reportedly would inform opposing offenses after games, “We may have lost the game, but you’ll be hurting tomorrow.”
The Dome patrol
But something happened in the 70s. The progress that was made during the late 60s seemed to fade away as established veterans on both sides of the ball left the team. A total of 7 different people held the title of “Head Coach” during this time period as some of the largest margins of defeat in Saints history happened. Finally, the decade of frustration and heart-breaking losses came to a climax with the disaster of 1980. The 1-15 season. The year of the Bagheads.
Faith, Hope and Bum
Following the debacle of 1980, John Mecom (once again) cleaned house and brought in coaching legend Bum Phillips. Phillips had built championship caliber teams at Houston. And though he’s best remembered for bringing in offensive talent like George Rogers and Ken Stabler, he began to put in place the pieces that would be the dominating defense to come. The previous year’s regime had more problems than it could deal with. One such problem was Chuck Muncie. Dick Nolan dealt the talented-but-troubled All-Pro running back to San Diego for the Chargers’ second pick of the 1981 draft. It was with that pick that the Saints took a defensive end from Pittsburgh named Rickey Jackson.
Now Rickey Jackson was known as the “Other Guy” at Pittsburgh. He had played the opposite side of the defense from All-Everything Hugh Green. Despite leading the team in tackles in 1980, Jackson could never get the kind of publicity Green did. The attention he lacked at Pitt was made up for almost immediately. Leading the team with 8 sacks compiling 125 tackles. The Saints defense ranked in the top 5 every season Bum was there, but without an offense to put points on the board, winning seasons still eluded the Saints. When Bum suddenly resigned in 1985, after a 30-23 upset of Minnesota, the Saints were once again forced with a change of regime situation. But things were a little different this time.
Along with a new regime would come something else that was desperately needed- a new owner.
In the past the Saints had made many changes. Coaches, personnel, stadiums, uniforms, mascots had all been changed at one time or another. Now the man at the top was going to be different. Tom Benson bought the team for $70 million after former owner John Mecom Jr., had just had enough. Benson’s first order of business was to bring in someone who knew football. That someone was Jim Finks. As general manager, Finks had built dynasties at Minnesota and assembled a Super Bowl winner in Chicago, and after a falling out between he and Bears owner George Halas, Finks became available.
Finks began by looking for a replacement for the departed Bum. He didn’t have to look far. The rival USFL had dissolved and a migration of talent had ensued. He tabbed disciplinarian Jim Mora to be head coach. Mora had no experience in the NFL, but had coached the Philadelphia Stars in the USFL. Both the Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Cardinals were courting Mora, but Finks got him. Mora began to instill a sense of discipline had that had yet to be experienced in New Orleans. His “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” speech after a close loss to San Francisco in 1987, will always be engraved in Saints History.
With their first ever playoff appearance in 1987, the Saints had emerged as contender in the NFL. This team that had 4 playoff appearances between 1987 and 1992 and a Western Division title in 1991. They were no longer the losers of the 1970s. They proved they could compete in the NFL. And this success can be attributed to a tenacious defense that led the league in points surrendered in 1991 and 1992; a defense that led the league in turnovers in 1991, and a defense that had given up 10 or less points in 27 games since 1987– 5 of them being shut outs.
And at the forefront of this defense was the Dome Patrol.
By 1987, Rickey Jackson was joined by former USFL players Sam Mills and Vaughn Johnson, and Pat Swilling (a third draft pick in 1987) to form the Dome Patrol. These four linebackers would make NFL history by all four being named to the Pro Bowl in 1992.
The original member of the Dome Patrol and arguably, the most prolific Saint of his time frame. The 6-time Pro-Bowler was acquired via the Chuck Muncie trade of 1980, Jackson was a second round pick. He played 13 seasons as a Saint and still holds the team career record of 115 sacks. He started 195 games in a Saint uniform. In his entire career, he missed only 2 games due to injury. And those were due to an auto accident he suffered in 1989. He played the greater part of that season with a wired jaw- and still recorded 7 1/2 sacks.
As a rookie in 1981, he led the team in sacks with 8. He also recorded 125 tackles and 10 passes defensed. He either led, or shared the team lead in sacks 6 times as a Saint. Twice had games with 4 sacks during his career. Against Atlanta in 1986, and Detroit in 1988. In 1987, he chalked up three sacks against Cincinnati. During his first Pro-Bowl year, in 1983, he had 11 sacks on the year, with three different games with at least two sacks. In 1984, his second Pro-Bowl year, he led all NFL linebackers with 12 sacks, had at least 1 sack in 10 different games, 16 passes defensed on the year and 4 fumble recoveries. Against the Rams,he had 11 solo tackles. In 1985, the year of his third Pro-Bowl, Jackson had 3 games with 2 sacks and 11 on the year, 107 tackles and 15 passes defensed. In 1986, he had 114 stops (11 in the same Atlanta game where he had 4 sacks), and 6 forced fumbles on the year. In 1989, following the accident, he was supposed to miss 4-6 weeks. He was out only 2. In the third game after his return, against the Jets, he recorded 7 tackles and 2 sacks. Against Detroit, in game 13, he had another 2 sacks.
Following the 1993 season, Rickey’s contract expired in 1993 and he opted to sign on with the San Francisco 49ers. He became the starter for their 1994 Super Bowl Championship team.
Mills had been an All-American at Division II sized Montclair State when he tried out with the Cleveland Browns in 1981. After being cut by the Browns, he then tried to find a spot with the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts and failed to make the team with them. He was teaching high school in 1982 when he made the roster of Jim Mora’s Philadelphia Stars of the USFL. The Stars made it to the league title game three times while winning the championship twice. Mills was the leading tackler in each of those three years. When Mora took over the Saints, Mills was immediately brought on board in 1986. By week 4, Mills was the starting linebacker and would hold that position until 1994. At 5 foot, 9 inches, Sam Mills was one of the shortest men to ever star at linebacker in the NFL. Proving that big things can come in small packages, Mills was named to 5 Pro Bowls as a Saints. He also led the team in tackles in 1989.
In 1995, Mills left the Dome Patrol and joined the expansion Carolina Panthers and intercepted the pass that set up the Panthers’ first-ever win against the Jets. The teams leading tackler in 1995 and 1996, he made the Pro-Bowl in 1996. After retiring after the 1996 season, he continued as a coach with the Panthers’ organization and is currently the only member of the Panthers Hall of Fame. In 2003, Sam was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and continued to coach for the Panthers until he passed away in April of 2005.
A 3rd round draft pick in 1986 from Georgia Tech, Pat Swilling had 15 sacks his senior season playing defensive end. His rookie season was uneventful as he played mostly on special teams.
By his second season, he earned the starting right outside linebacker spot, leading the team with 10.5 sacks. In 1988, he had a three-sack day and forced 2 fumbles against the Giants. In 1989 he made the Pro Bowl while setting a new team record of 16.5 sacks on the season. That year he had 2 consecutive 3 sack games, against the Rams and Falcons. In 1991 he led the league with 17 sacks and was named NFL Defensive player of the year.
After the 1992 season, Swilling was traded to Detroit. It was with that pick that Willie Roaf was drafted. After 2 seasons in Detroit, Swilling played 3 in Oakland before retiring in 1999 after 12 years in the NFL.
Like teammate Sam Mills, Vaughn Johnson had a sensational career in the USFL before joining the Dome Patrol, tallying 154 tackles in 1984 with the Jacksonville Bulls. Johnson was chosen number 1 by the Saints in the 1985 Supplemental Draft. By 1987 he had become one of the starting inside linebackers, leading the team with 87 tackles. In 1988 he had an 18-tackle game against the Redskins in route to leading the team in tackles again with 114, along with 2 sacks and an interception for the season, and he was named to the Sports Illustrated All-Pro team. He was named All-Pro every year from 1989 to 1992, but he left the Saints after the 1993 season and had a brief stay with the Philadelphia Eagles.