"The Dome Patrol": The NFL's Most Underrated Defense.
The National Football League (NFL) is now preparing for its 101st season amid COVID-19 concerns and as a result it is a perfect time for football fans to take a step back and look at the past. The NFL has had some of the greatest teams in professional sports and even currently is home to the most expensive franchise in professional sports at the moment according to Forbes (The Dallas Cowboys). Within each team, there are great players and legacies that stem from offensive greatness to defensive enormity. However, unlike the Pittsburgh Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s, the Purple People Eaters of the Minnesota Vikings also in the 1970s, and of course the 1985 Bears, there is one team that was left off the list as one of the greatest defenses ever and it happened in the last place one would expect in professional sports.
New Orleans, Louisiana, home of the famous New Orleans Saints football franchise possessed arguably one of the greatest linebacking corps of any team ever. The four players that will be discussed played on a franchise that many considered to be subpar and not worth even supporting. However, after their arrival in the late 1980s the Saints for a brief moment became contenders well beyond what they had been before. These four linebackers would be referred to by their fan base as the “Dome Patrol” and their names are synonymous within the Saints Hall of Fame and Ring of Honor, as well as the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. We will look at the Saints before the “Dome Patrol”, during and after, talk about the four individuals who belonged to it and their legacy within the Saints organization but also within the game of football, and the impact that one of the four had on the eyes of Canton, Ohio becoming the one of the first New Orleans Saints to ever enter the Hall of Fame.
Laisse Les Mauvais Temps S’en Sortir (Let the Bad Times Roll) (1968-1981)
In 1966, on All Saints Day the New Orleans Saints became the newest expansion franchise within the NFL which had been around for over for roughly 45 seasons. New Orleans was chosen for its prominence as one of the key cities not just in the South but in the United States. It also possessed the capabilities to hold an NFL franchise as it had been host to the Sugar Bowl in College Football since 1934. New Orleans was always a football city and never really desired for their to be any other sport there. Previously, they had minor league baseball but like many potential ventures the team went under and New Orleans’s closest team was the Dallas Cowboys. Lots of fans even after the Saints had begun playing in the NFL still routed for the Cowboys and refuse to change allegiances. The Saints began their first official season in 1967 and their first 6 seasons where played at local Tulane University’s stadium named “Tulane Stadium.” It was eventually replaced by their current home the Louisiana Superdome in 1974. The Saints were given the colors black and gold as homage to the oil industry in the Gulf Coast, much of which took place off the coast of Louisiana specifically. However, these colors were a blessing and a curse as the Saints themselves for the first two decades in existence had many black marks on their schedule that read “L” for losses. They had never won their division and not even played in a playoff until the late 1980s. In 1979, they had a team record achieving a .500 record which they would repeat in 1983 and that was it. The Saints lacked a quality of talent. Some say it stemmed from their opening kickoff to the season in 1967.
On the opening kickoff, return man John Gilliam scored on a 94-yard return, but the Saints lost to the Los Angeles Rams 27-13. For those next 20 years it was merciless. The only team the Saints appeared to be better than were the eventual expansion franchise the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who still hold the record for most consecutive losses in NFL History. When they broke the streak, guess who they beat. With the arrival of star quarterback Archie Manning, the Saints were expected to perform much better than they had been. Well, the opposite happened, Manning ran away from defenders more often than the team gained yards to begin with. Every year at the top of the draft board seemed to be promising but then turn into what only a Saints fan could expect. George Rogers, the Heisman trophy winner in 1980 was drafted by the Saints and despite winning Rookie of the Year spent the remainder of his years with the Saints being mediocre. In 1980, the Saints lost their first 14 games and were so bad, local sportscaster “Buddy D” Diliberto suggested that the fans who would go to the games should wear bags over their heads and many did so and wrote “Aints” on them to show their support. A bright spot for the team was in 1970 when their kicker Tom Dempsey kicked the NFL record longest field goal in a game. His 63-yard field goal went through the uprights to defeat the Detroit Lions. Dempsey’s record stood until 2013. Aside from this, if you had looked at the records for worst offensive production, worst defense, most amounts of points scored against, the Saints were in all of these categories and were the lowest in each of them. Their was no hope for them to ever get beyond the hump. Then, 1981 happened and the Saints appeared to have something to finally hold their heads up again.
Second Line: The Patrol's Formation
The 1980 season for the Saints ended as one might expect, 1-15 providing them with the worst record in the NFL that year. They did not even have one pro-bowler on that team and even the 0-16 Detroit Lions sent Calvin Johnson to the Pro Bowl. The Saints needed a kickstart to form a potential NFL champion and had been unsuccessful thus far due to a variety of reasons that could be discussed in another article. 1981 was that kickstart and the Saints drafted Running Back George Rogers from South Carolina who had won the Heisman Trophy the previous year. His college career gained him much recognition but by 1987 Rogers was retired from professional football. The other notable pickup was a no-name linebacker out of Pittsburgh. His name, Rickey Jackson. Jackson was one of the top players in high school and was even considered to be one of the top 100 Florida High School Football players ever, placing at #33. He played football and basketball at Pahokee High School in Florida but preferred the violence of Football to the swaying nature of basketball. He received an offer from Pittsburgh and decided that he wanted to continue playing football there. During his four years at Pitt, Jackson played with several future NFL players and most notably Hall of Famer Dan Marino. He was not a large man during his collegiate days, but he played with an intensity and a fire that some said allowed him to be almost as good as Lawrence Taylor. However, despite this Pitt would rather recognize some of its other greats like Running Back Tony Dorsett or Tight End Mike Ditka, both Hall of Famers. Jackson did not earn respect during his college year but his professional career was a different story. Bum Philips was the Saints new coach that season and Jackson did not disappoint him at all. Despite winning four games that year the Jackson earned himself a reputation making the NFL All-Rookie Team. What made Rickey Jackson great was that he was lucky enough to not be injured. He missed two games in his 13 seasons with the Saints. One because of a car accident in 1989 which he played the other 15 games that season with a wired jaw and still managed to play extremely well. Jackson currently holds the third most sacks in an NFL career with 128. With the Saints alone, he was their longest tenured player with over 195 games played, and still holds the sack record for the Saints with 123. Jackson was the beginning of the change for the Saints though. He was the leader of the Dome Patrol, but what about the other three?
Rickey Jackson was alone for his first four seasons with New Orleans and had earned him a Pro Bowl appearance in 1983-1986. Jackson was alone though because the Saints were still terrible losing to almost everyone they played against. However, they did have a winning record against the 1980s team of the decade San Francisco 49ers who won 4 Super Bowls in the 1980s. The two most feared weeks that the 49ers played were against the Saints who always seemed to spoilt Sunday afternoons for them. The Saints might only win those two games a year and lose every other one. Jackson was it though and the Saints needed additions especially on defense to depreciate the scoring which they averaged over 25 points per game. The Saints next great linebacker would come in the form of another draft in 1986. Patrick Swilling who was the second great key to the “Dome Patrol” was drafted out of Georgia Tech. Swilling while he was at Tech set the NCAA single game sack record with 7 sacks against NC State. He is now 5th on the Georgia Tech all-time sacks list which he led when he left. Swilling was picked in the 3rd round by the Saints, #60 overall. Like Jackson he was picked later than a star running back in LSU great Dalton Hillard. The Saints were looking to revamp their offense as well with the addition of Bobby Hebert as Quarterback. Hebert was known in his home state as “The Cajun Cannon” and would be the first quarterback to lead the Saints to the playoffs the following year. Swilling’s roll as a number two was highly underrated as Jackson earned all the glory. Swilling worked his way to 5 Pro Bowls, 4 of which came with his time in New Orleans. Swilling was so much of a force with the help of Jackson that the Saints were finally on the right path on both sides of the ball. Swilling and Jackson though did not act alone. Two others played roles in the “Dome Patrol” but they were not draft picks, they came from the USFL, the league that competed with the NFL but then collapsed in 1985 due to financial ruin.
Vaughn Johnson previously played for the Jacksonville Bulls but was relegated as being a subpar player. Johnson was drafted by the Saints in 1984 but decided that more money was better than simply playing the game. Johnson would go on to play the sidekick role to Jackson as well and would make the outside linebacker position his home during his brief NFL career. Johnson played for the Saints until 1993 and made the Pro Bowl after coming into his own between 1989 and 1992. Johnson was a strong addition to the corps because he although not a strong pass rusher was a dominant turnover machine, he forced fumbles and earned prominence for doing so amongst his teammates and around the league. His counterpart in covering the outside was Sam Mills. Mills was no stranger to the NFL; he made the practice squad for the Cleveland Browns but was relegated to the Canadian League after one season. With the creation of the USFL, he found a new home in Philadelphia and played from 1983-1985 there. Mills was not simply signed as a Saint, he had a connection with the Saints new coach Jim Mora. He and Mora’s connection led him to becoming the anchor of the Saints defense later as an aging Jackson. Mills is credited as being the “best player I ever coached” according to Mora. Mills even ended up becoming a Pro Bowl phenom as he made four appearances himself.
When The Saints Go Marching In
Between 1987 and 1992 the Saints were one of the best teams in NFL history and received many accolades for it aside from the Pro Bowl appearances. Jim Mora was coach of the Year in 1987 after leading the Saints to the postseason for the first time ever. Swilling was voted Defensive Player of the year in 1991. Furthermore, the Saints entered the playoffs three years in a row between 1990 and 1992. They won 62 games during this period and it was all due to the great defense that the Saints had developed. Defenses win championships after all and the Saints had the number 1 defense twice and finished in the top 10 every year but 1989. The problem with the Saints was their offense who could not score enough. The Saints could get to the playoffs but they could not win a playoff game. Pat Swilling for instance, played in 6 playoff games during his career and lost all six which is an NFL Record for most losses without a win. The Saints could not overcome the playoff hump during the years of the “Dome Patrol.” Their claim to fame was winning the NFC West in 1991 as this was the only division title in the team’s history for over 20 years. IN 1992, all four “Dome Patrol” members made the Pro Bowl and are the only team to have four linebackers from the same team get invited and start in a Pro-Bowl.
The key to the defenses’ success was that with the help of Jim Mora, they changed their entire defensive scheme. They redefined the 3-4 defense. Playing Jackson and Swilling in the middle and Johnson and Mills on the outside they Saints were terrorizing opponents as a result. They were the greatest linebacking corps in NFL History as they allowed the least amount of points and had more tackles than any corps in a five-year period. If you were a Saints fan during this period you were excited as all hell to watch this NFL defense. They were so good but could never win a playoff game which would be their downfall. Until the 2009 New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl this was the team the best years in Saints history.
The “Dome Patrol” recreated the NFL defense and behaved like Lawrence Taylor did but in several different areas. They were truly able to destroy offenses and were the most feared defense during the period. It was especially important considering that the “Dome Patrol” was well out of its prime when they were destroying opponents. They were all in their 30s when they achieved Pro Bowl relevance which is unusual. Instead they came out later in their careers and they did it better and cleaner than any other team. However, the glory would not last forever and by 1994 the last of the Patrol was gone. Pat Swilling was the first to leave in 1992 when he was traded to Detroit. Swilling played until 1998 and retired as a Raider. He was later voted as a Louisiana House District 100 in New Orleans. One of his sons plays at Georgia Tech as well. Swilling still resides in New Orleans today. He was followed by both Vaughn Johnson and Rickey Jackson. Johnson played his final season in Philadelphia and retired in 1994 after only one season. Vaughn Johnson though passed away in December of 2019 at 57 from kidney disease. He along with all four members are enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the Saints Hall of Fame. Mills left in 1994 and played his final three years with the expansion Carolina Panthers until 1997 when he retired. Mills was able to have his jersey retired by the Panthers in 2005 and was the first Panther to have his number retired. He was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame along with Pat Swilling. He died in 2005 on intestinal cancer but during his chemotherapy he continued to coach upon his diagnosis in 2003 and operated as a Panthers Defensive Assistant Coach. Lastly, Rickey Jackson who left in 1993 finished his career as a San Francisco 49er and won a Super Bowl there in 1994. He, like Swilling, remains a New Orleans local and was the first New Orleans Saint to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio. Although he is not the only person to ever play for the Saints to go to the Hall of Fame, he was the first to go as a Saint. Jackson is the only member to have each of these honors in his career.
Although not as famous as many other defenses in NFL History the “Dome Patrol” still deserves just as much respect. They did their damage in only 5 years, other teams had at least a decade of dominance. Not to mention they are the only ones to have never won at least one playoff game during their dominance. Names like Sam Mills, Vaughn Johnson, Rickey Jackson, and Pat Swilling do not resonate with the community outside of New Orleans with the exception of Mills and Jackson. Their legacy needs to be explored more despite not much success in games that mattered in the playoffs, but they still performed equally well against the NFL’s best offenses in the decade but also in its history.