December 6, 2010

1987: Saints Beat Bucs, Qualify for Playoffs for First Time

Prior to the 1987 NFL season, the New Orleans Saints had symbolized pro football futility. Since the franchise first took the field in 1967, the club had not only never qualified for the postseason in its first 20 seasons, but had never finished with a winning record (the Saints had gone 8-8 in 1979 and 1983).

However, the arrival of Jim Mora (pictured at right) as head coach in 1986 marked a significant change in the team’s direction. After a successful stint coaching the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars to two USFL championships, he was hired by the Saints (after a flirtation with the Eagles, who went with the brash Buddy Ryan instead). They had gone 7-9 in ’86, which was an improvement, and one they built upon. Coming into the December 6, 1987 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Saints were 8-3 and close to locking up a playoff spot.

The team’s strength was its defense, in particular the linebacker corps of Vaughan Johnson, Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, and Sam Mills (who had played for Mora with the Stars). They were at their best stopping the run and ended up leading the league in takeaways (30 interceptions, 18 recovered fumbles). The offense was conservative and run-oriented, featuring RB Rueben Mayes and QB Bobby Hebert, another former USFL star.

Tampa Bay, under the guidance of Head Coach Ray Perkins, was a dismal 4-7 and had lost four straight games coming into the contest at the Louisiana Superdome (two of the wins came while replacement players were in use during the month-long strike by the players’ union; the New Orleans replacement team also went 2-1). The season was a lost cause, but there was some anticipation as rookie QB Vinny Testaverde, the overall first draft choice and Heisman Trophy winner out of the University of Miami, was making his first start for the Buccaneers.

The game started out well for the Saints, playing before a home crowd of 66,471. On the third play from scrimmage, Testaverde fumbled and DE Bruce Clark recovered at the Tampa Bay 19 yard line. Four plays later, Hebert threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to TE John Tice.

No sooner did the Bucs get the ball back, following a 40-yard kickoff return by DB Bobby Futrell, and Testaverde again fumbled the ball away. Swilling recovered for the Saints at the Tampa Bay 38, and the resulting possession again ended in a Hebert to Tice TD pass, this time from six yards out. Barely six minutes into the game, New Orleans had a 14-0 lead.

Two possessions later, the Buccaneers went 48 yards in seven plays to get on the board. Testaverde completed passes to RB James Wilder and WR Bruce Hill along the way that converted third downs (a 17-yard pass interference call on the Saints also helped) and capped the drive himself by running the final yard for a touchdown. The first quarter ended with the Saints leading by 14-7.

New Orleans responded with a 10-play possession that covered 77 yards and was highlighted by a Hebert pass to WR Mark Pattison that covered 36 yards to the Tampa Bay 29. Mayes swept around end for a seven-yard touchdown and the lead was extended to 21-7.

The Bucs were forced to punt and the star kick returner for the Saints, RB Mel Gray (another USFL refugee), fielded the kick at his 16 and ran it back 80 yards to the Tampa Bay four yard line. In short order, RB Dalton Hilliard ran three yards for a TD that put New Orleans up by 21 points.

The Buccaneers managed to put together a long, 14-play drive that resulted in a 37-yard field goal by Donald Igwebuike and the score at halftime was 28-10.

New Orleans started off the third quarter by driving for a 40-yard field goal by the dependable Morten Andersen, and essentially had the game in hand. The Bucs fought back and Testaverde threw touchdown passes of 37 yards to WR Mark Carrier in the third quarter and 12 yards to Hill in the final period. Igwebuike also kicked a 43-yard field goal and RB Bobby Howard ran for a two-yard touchdown.

But the Saints added points on a two-yard run by Mayes and Andersen field goals of 24 and 32 yards. New Orleans won by a final score of 44-34 and clinched a postseason berth for the first time.

Going to the air often in attempting to catch up, Tampa Bay actually outgained the Saints (449 yards to 365) and had more first downs (27 to 19). However, they turned the ball over four times (to once by New Orleans) and the two early fumbles that led to touchdowns put the Bucs in a hole they were unable to dig out of.

Vinny Testaverde made up for the early miscues by setting a new rookie passing yardage record with 369 while completing 22 of 47 passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions apiece. Mark Carrier set a franchise record with 212 receiving yards on 8 catches, including one TD. The Buccaneers gained 97 yards on the ground, with RB Jeff Smith leading the way at 31 yards on 8 carries and James Wilder following close behind at 30 yards on six attempts.

In winning, Bobby Hebert (pictured at left) completed 16 of 24 passes for 255 yards with two touchdowns and none intercepted. WR Eric Martin gained 101 yards on just two catches thanks to a 67-yard reception, and WR Lonzell Hill caught three passes to lead the club (he gained 27 yards). Dalton Hilliard and Rueben Mayes ground out 117 rushing yards between them, with Hilliard gaining 62 yards on 16 carries, including one TD, and Mayes contributing 55 yards on 21 attempts with two scores.

“You bet we’re a playoff team,” said an exultant Coach Mora afterward. “Our guys are happy, but their attitude is they’re not done yet. They want more.”

The Saints kept winning, ending up with nine straight victories to close out the season with a 12-3 tally. Coming in second in the NFC West to the 49ers, they claimed a wild card spot and hosted Minnesota in the first round of the postseason. Their first playoff game proved to be a great disappointment as the Vikings rolled over them, 44-10. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay kept losing and finished at 4-11, tied with Detroit at the bottom of the NFC Central division.

Bobby Hebert, who had been experiencing difficulty in transferring his USFL success to the NFL, showed marked improvement as he threw for 2119 yards with 15 touchdowns against 9 interceptions. His 12.9 yards per completion ranked fourth in the NFC.

Rueben Mayes was selected for the Pro Bowl for the second time as he ranked second in the NFC (fifth in the league) with 917 yards on 243 carries (3.8 avg.) and five touchdowns. Injuries would steadily erode his production thereafter, and he didn’t start a game after 1990.

Mel Gray’s 80-yard punt return was no anomaly as he led the NFL with a 14.7-yard average on 24 returns. He would go on to be a highly-productive kick returner for the next decade, although his greatest notoriety would come as a member of the Detroit Lions.

In the first of 21 up-and-down seasons, Vinny Testaverde (pictured at right) completed 43 % of his passes for 1081 yards and five TDs along with six interceptions. Fellow rookie Mark Carrier caught 26 passes and accounted for half of his 423 receiving yards in the game against the Saints. He would go on to a productive 12-year career.