Big Brother is Watching You Lose
The 1984-1985 New Orleans Saints
The 1984 Saints marked the turning point in Bum Phillips relationship with Saints fans. Instead of taking that next step and getting to the playoffs, the Saints slipped back to a 7-9 record in a pretty ugly fashion.
Ken Stabler may have still had the skills to be an effective passer, but 15 hard years of playing took its toll on the 39 year old knees and back. Bum still did not trust Wilson to be the full time starter, so he made a trade with the Jets for another former Alabama quarterback, Richard Todd.
Todd was brought in to replace another Alabama legend, Joe Namath in New York but lacked the charisma and the early success of Namath. After the 1982 season Todd did lead the Jets to the AFC Championship game (on the strength of the New York Sack Exchange defense) but threw 5 interceptions to lose to the Miami Dolphins, 14-0.
In 1980, Todd threw THIRTY interceptions in a single season and yes, was the quarterback of the only team the Saints beat that season.
In 1983, Todd beat Bum’s defense but threw 18 TDs to 26 interceptions that season leading the Jets to a 7-9 record.
Somehow Bum thought he was the answer to replacing the aging Stabler and the inexperienced Wilson – and he sent his ’84 first round draft pick to acquire him.
Meanwhile, Warren Moon, who had just led the Edmonton Eskimos to Gray Cup for the fifth consecutive season (winning all five) tossing 31 TDs to 19 INTs – was looking for an opportunity to play in the NFL.
Only the Houston Oilers –who had just sent the battered and broken Archie Manning to the Vikings to back-up Tommy Kramer- showed any interest in Moon.
Todd would be the disaster Saints fans expected him to be, but more on that later.
Despite not having a first round pick, Bum picked some solid components to his defense and special teams: 2nd round pick Jumpy Geathers, 3rd rounder Safety Terry Hoage, 4th rounder C Joel Hilgenberg, 5th-rounder Defensive Back Jitter Fields and 9th rounder Punter Brian Hansen were all studs for both Bum and Jim Mora.
The NFL also held a draft of players from the fledgling United States Football League. In their second season, the USFL was already seeing teams switch cities, and low attendance during their inaugural season of ’83, convinced owners that the Spring League may not be around much longer.
Bum selected two players: LB Vaughn Johnson and KR Mel Gray, but neither would join the team until the 1986 season.
In the meantime, the Boston Breakers moved to New Orleans and played one season in the Dome. After a great start, the Breakers collapsed down the stretch to finish with a losing record.
The star on the Breakers was Oklahoma college phenom RB Marcus Dupree but the team’s #1 rusher was McNeese State’s Buford Jordan – another future Saint.
After one season in New Orleans, the Breakers would move to Portland for their final season.
Finally, the ’84 Saints would see one last Oiler come to New Orleans via trade. Despite being on his way to yet another 1,000 yard season, Bum traded for his old friend Earl Campbell to be the 1A back to Rogers 1 string status.
Fans were livid and Bum didn’t make it any better when he pulled a stunt straight out of Tom Landry’s 1971 playbook on how to screw up a team’s chemistry: Against the Rams in the Dome, he alternated running backs and quarterbacks – starting Todd and Rogers but alternating on series he replaced both with the tandem of Stabler and Campbell.
As expected it blew up horribly.
“I was looking for a spark, and I screwed up,” Bum said in his post game presser.
Stabler would put an end to Bum’s indecision at QB when against the Cowboys, a practically immobile Stabler was sacked and fumbled into the end zone, to preserve yet another victory for Dallas.
Stabler retired the next day, admitting he should have retired in ’82, but stayed out of loyalty and friendship to Bum.
Campbell and Rogers wouldn’t be decided nearly as easily… in 1985, Bum traded Rogers to the Redskins, sticking with his old friend.
It also didn’t help that the plague hit the offensive line – losing as many as five different starters to injury for much of the season.
All of that said, Todd continued his struggles as a starter throwing 19 interceptions to only 11 TD passes – it would be his last season as a starter.
The tragedy was the defense was still playing well but the ineffective offense, turnovers and problems at quarterback really hurt the team all season.
However, one noteworthy event happened: With former Steeler Dennis “Dirt” Winston picking off Mark Malone for a score, the Saints finally won for the first time on Monday Night Football, beating the Steelers 27-24.
Finally, John Mecom decided it was time to get out. After 19 years of frustration, Mecom felt Bum had done the best he could, and even he couldn’t make the team a winner.
With the three games left in the season, Mecom announced the Saints were for sale for $70 million.
A billionaire from Chicago, A.J. Pritzker offered Mecom $62 million… talk was Pritzker wanted to move the team to Jacksonville. Jacksonville openly courted the Baltimore Colts for several years but lost out to Indianapolis in 1983. Ever the bridesmaid, they made a push with Pritzker.
Meanwhile, Gov. Edwin Edwards – after the World’s Fair ended in bankruptcy court, Ponchartrain Beach shut down the year before after 55 years, and unemployment was 13% – felt the Saints couldn’t leave. Edwards got New Orleanian Tom Benson to step up… It was presented as an ownership group but the reality was “I was the group,” Benson said.
Benson gave Mecom what he asked for, $70 million… Bum offered to resign as head coach and GM, but Benson asked Bum to stay on.
“I didn’t know anything about football,” Benson said. “I didn’t know about contracts, responsibilities, travel… anything. Bum was invaluable to me teaching me how a football organization works.”
Benson may not have known much about football but he did know what would sell tickets: a Louisiana boy as the Saints quarterback.
Bobby Hebert led the USFL’s Michigan Panthers to a USFL championship and was the league MVP. The next season he went to the Oakland Invaders but lost to Jim Mora’s Philadelphia Stars. Since no one drafted Hebert he was a free agent, so Benson personally got involved getting him to sign.
With Todd and Wilson suffering from an untreated rotator cuff injury, Hebert joined the team for the 1985 season.
Opening day of the ’85 season saw the Saints blown out by the Chiefs 47-27. As Times Picayune columnist Dave Lagarde wrote, “The new Saints went from the womb to the tomb in less than 30 minutes on Sunday.”
As Bum was leaving the field a fan dumped a full beer on him. It surprised Bum that a fan could do that to him but in many ways it reflected how much Bum had worn out his welcome in New Orleans. A 3-8 record – which included a 6 game losing streak – found the coach’s show being cancelled on WWL TV.
Hebert’s first start happened on week 12 against the Vikings and suddenly Campbell found the fountain of youth rushing 35 times for 160 yards and a score. Hebert threw the game winning TD pass to John Tice, 30-23.
The following Monday Bum resigned and his son Wade took over as interim coach. Bum cited the woman who dumped the beer on his head as one of the reasons it was time to go.
The Saints won the following week but lost the last three to finish 5-11.
In the final game of the season the Saints hosted the Falcons… but one play symbolized the Earl Campbell Saints era: Campbell broke open on a handoff and once he got to the second level, there was no Falcon within 10 yards of him – in 1978 Earl had a coming out party vs the Miami Dolphins, where Campbell simply ran away from everyone. Now, 7 years later, the pounding had caught up to him. At about the 20, Earl felt his hamstring tighten and he grabbed it slowing down – and the Falcons safety knocked it out of his arm as the ball bounced out of the end zone for a touchback.
After the season was over Benson cleaned house releasing everyone associated with the old regime.
Benson had his eye on a GM and that man would fill the front office and hire the new head coach.
Mom and Pop sold the store and now the new owner was going to remake the franchise in his own image – a successful one.
And Saints football would never be the same