Top 10 Best free agents signed by the Saints:
3. Sam Mills
5. La’Roi Glover
9. Wesley Walls
10. Quinn Early
Again, I’m breaking my own rules, and picking a free agent signed prior to 1993, but in this case, this was a franchise changing free agent.
Sam Mills was “too” everything: Too short, went to too small of a school, and he was too good to stay of football.
Mills tried to play/played in the CFL, USFL and the NFL. He took a franchise that never had a winning season, and turned them into a consistent winner. Then, he took an expansion franchise, and as a player got that team to the championship game.
But first, he had to get his foot in the door.
Sam Mills was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Cleveland Browns in 1981. He was released in the final cut down. He signed with the Toronto Argonauts, but then was released before the season started.
Mills then took a job teaching, when opportunity came again.
In 1983, Sam Mills took another shot with a new professional football league, the USFL, that was supposed to play in the spring. He got a shot with the Philadelphia Stars. Mills excited scouts when they read his statistics, until they got to his height.
At 5’9” Mills was thought to be too short to play middle/inside linebacker in the pros. Blockers and ball carriers will run over him, the scouts said… then they watched the tape. Showing surprising speed, Mills was everywhere on the field –and for that teammates nicknamed him the field mouse.
But this mouse had a bite. Mills was so fundamentally sound in his tackling, that his height actually became an asset. He got under the pads of even the lowest runners and with his incredible strength, could hit them just right to not only stand them up, but drive runners backwards.
The big star of the USFL was Hershel Walker of the New Jersey Generals. Walker was supposed to run all over the Stars just as he did every other defense in the league –until he met Mills. Mills hit Walker with a pop that rocked the stadium, setting the tone for the rest of the day. Walker did not have a good day, and the Stars went on to play in all three of the USFL championships, winning two of them. Mills was known not only for physical play, but also his intelligence and leadership.
But the league folded in 1985, so while all of the top tier talent went onto to NFL rosters, Mills was once again out of football.
Jim Mora was hired by the new general manager of the Saints, Jim Finks in 1986. The Saints were in their 20th season, and had not only never had a winning season, but only got to .500 twice: 1979 and 1983.
Jim Mora was Mills’ coach for the Stars, so he invited Mills to the Saints camp to see if he could do for Mora’s Saints what he did for the Stars.
“The first thing I saw (when he came out there) was that he was short. Really short,” Mora said. “I kept thinking, ‘man, these guys aren’t going to take me seriously if he can’t make it’”
Mills demonstrated everything he gave to the USFL, stuffing the backs cold in drills, and running all over the field like the field mouse.
Mills became one of the four cornerstones of the Dome Patrol defense: Outside linebacker Pat Swilling (3rd round pick 1986), Inside linebacker and USFL alum Vaughn Johnson (Saints’ 1st round USFL supplemental draft pick, 1984) and Rickey Jackson (2nd round pick, 1981) and Mills were the linebackers who had 6 non-losing seasons from 1987-92.
Each of them went to a pro bowl every year they were together, and all four went in 1992.
But by 1992, it was over. Swilling was traded to Detroit in 1993. Johnson developed a staph infection in his knee in 1993, and finished his career as a back-up with the Eagles in 1994. Jackson went to the 49ers in 1994 and won a Super Bowl.
Sam Mills was the last one left. In 1994, the Saints changed defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3, and was non-committal about whether to bring the now 36 year old Mills back for another year. The expansion Carolina Panthers offered Mills a 2-year, $2.8 million deal. The Saints matched it, but Mills was angry that they waited until Carolina made an offer to make him a deal, so he became a Panther.
Mora was crushed. Calling Mills the best player he ever coached, watching Mills make play after play for the Panthers really hurt Jim. I have no doubt his “diddly poo” meltdown (and subsequent resignation) after the 1996 Saints/Panthers game came in large part because of watching Mills do to his offense what he saw Mills do so many times to every other team as a Star and a Saint.
With the Panthers, Sam Mills finally won a playoff game and got to the NFC Championship game. As a linebackers coach, despite not only being diagnosed, but receiving treatment for intestinal cancer, he coached the team all the way to the Super Bowl in 2004.
Sam Mills passed away in April of 2005.
For his career, Mills went to 5 Pro Bowls –his last in 1996 at the age of 37. He was a first team all pro and 2 time second team all pro. He was an all USFL player all three years the league was in existence and won two championships with the Stars.
He is in the Saints Hall of Fame and has a statue of himself as a player outside Carolina’s stadium. His phrase “Keep Pounding” said regarding his fighting the cancer in 2004, has become the Panthers’ motto.
In the NFL Films Top 10 greatest linebacking groups, former Falcon offensive lineman Jamie Dukes talks about a game where Mills called out every play the Falcons ran before they did it. I know what game he is talking about. It was a 1994 Sunday Night game in Atlanta, and as usual, there was no one there, so you can hear everything Mills is saying on the field.
The Saints won that game, and it was the last time the Saints would beat the Falcons for the rest of the 1990s. 10 consecutive losses finally came to an end in the 2000 season.
Mills knowledge of the game and his leadership was his greatest gift he gave. Without it, the Saints defense was rudderless, and the franchise would spend the next 14 years, three head coaches and three general managers trying to replace those attributes.
All for a guy who was considered too short to play the position