Great story, Dome Patrol......
Gone but not 'four'gotten
Saints defense was in its heyday when these guys played
Nick Deriso / Sports Editor
Posted on June 30, 2003
The Dome Patrol - Sam Mills, Rickey Jackson, Vaughan Johnson and Pat Swilling - has been the subject of much nostalgia among New Orleans Saints fans lately.
That happens after a season in which the New Orleans defense sagged to No. 26 in points allowed - even while the offense led the NFL at one point in scoring.
Mills is still proud of all they accomplished in that five-year span, when the Dome Patrol wrapped its arms around many a ball carrier - and every significant Saints defensive mark.
"One of the things we took pride in was, we were a very physical team. We were a tough team," says Mills, back in Louisiana to witness his former coach Jim Mora's induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame last Saturday night. "When you finished playing a game against us, you had been in a war."
New Orleans was ranked in the top five in fewest points allowed in 1987 and at No. 1 in both 1991 and 1992.
"The Dome Patrol in my opinion was the best group of linebackers to ever play together in the NFL," says longtime Saints fan Jan Taylor of Bastrop. "They seemed to be able to read each other's minds on the field."
Members of the Dome Patrol hold Saints team records for most sacks in a career (Jackson, 123), most sacks in a season (Swilling, 17 in 1991), most sacks in a game (Jackson, four in 1986 and '88; and Swilling, four in 1990), most opponents' fumbles recorded in a career (Jackson, 26) and season (Jackson, seven in 1990); and most career fumbles returned for touchdowns (Mills, two).
They also helped propel the team to its first-ever winning season and its first-ever playoff berth.
"People still talk about the old days and that defense - even my kids," Mills says. "They put on the old game tapes, and say: 'Wow, dad! You guys really flew around.' We did. And if you didn't, you would stick out like a sore thumb - because that was the tempo, that was the standard of the Dome Patrol."
In 1987, the Saints went 12-3 - rolling into the playoffs with a nine-game winning streak. Season highlights included two fourth-quarter goal-line stands against Pittsburgh on Nov. 29, ensuring that original winning season.
It was Mills' second year in New Orleans, after a standout career in the USFL. Nicknamed 'Field Mouse' because of his diminutive size, Mills nevertheless played a key role in the Dome Patrol.
"When you're on the field, you really forget there are guys bigger than you," says Mills, who is 5-9. "When you're playing, you don't even realize those guys are 300-plus pounds. All you know is you have a job to do - and there's a guy there that's trying to prevent you from doing it."
The next three seasons were something of a letdown. There were no playoff appearances in 1988 or 1989 - despite the fact that the Saints posted 10- and nine-win seasons. In 1990, New Orleans struggled to an 8-8 finish - but did manage a return to the playoffs, as a wild card team.
Perhaps it was that adversity that pushed the Saints to their first-ever division title, as New Orleans went 11-5 in 1991 - beginning with seven straight wins. Swilling led the league in sacks, while the Saints defense allowed the fewest points in the league and were second in yards allowed.
After that breakout season, Johnson, Mills and Swilling were named starters for the NFC in the Pro Bowl, the most linebackers from one team in history at that time.
Mills says that is recognition for their different approaches on the field.
"Each guy had his own good qualities and things he could do: Rickey and Pat being rushers - although they were pass rushers, they were a different kind of pass rusher," he says. "Vaughan and myself mainly made the tackles - a different style of playing. We were all unique and we are successful in our own way."
The next year, the Saints led the NFL in least points allowed, with a club-record 202. New Orleans also led the NFL in sacks.
But 1992 marked the end of the era, as Swilling was sent to Detroit for first- and fourth-round draft picks.
"One thing about the Dome Patrol is that it was a group that stayed together for quite a while. Injuries really didn't hamper us much," Mills says. "It's hard to get groups together like that, because usually a guy goes down. But for the most part, thank God, we were able to stay together and stay on the field."
Despite that longevity and consistency, there is still a question as to whether members of the Dome Patrol will make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Many counter that New Orleans never won a single playoff game during that time.
Saints fans never tire of debating it.
"This was one case where the whole was greater than the sum of the parts," Taylor says. "Taken separately, their physical skills didn't seem that great. But together they meshed to create a formidable group. Lawrence Taylor and Rickey Jackson (along with the Dome Patrol) changed the way NFL teams played defense."
Despite the lack of postseason success, Mills says that group dynamic is worth recognition.
"You can look at the history of football and you look at the success of four guys as a group, it's hard to find guys with that much success - and that much time together on the field," Mills says. "It's going to be that much harder to find in this age of free agency. It's hard to see that happening again."
A huge discussion on Jackson's legacy erupted this week on one New Orleans fan site, SaintsReport.com. The thread, titled "The Pros and Cons of Rickey Jackson in the HOF," had nearly 800 views in a matter of days.
Sample post: "You guys," writes Holy Avenger, "are honestly crazy if you think that a three-down linebacker with six Pro Bowl berths, 128 sacks (ninth all-time, and was at least seventh when he retired seven years ago - even though he played one season before it was an official statistic), 28 fumble recoveries (second all time in recorded history) and a world championship doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame."
The Super Bowl ring, of course, came while Jackson was playing for another team.
The end of the Dome Patrol - and the Saints' winning ways - came quickly: New Orleans had bested its own NFL Pro Bowl record, as all four linebackers made the trip to Honolulu in February of 1992.
But Swilling was gone by April - and then Saints general manager Jim Finks (the co-architect of much of this success, along with Mora) was diagnosed with lung cancer. Finks resigned later that summer and passed away before the next NFL Draft was held. Jackson left for San Francisco at season's end.
As bleak at that period seemed, however, the mid-1990s produced seeds of resurgence for the struggling Saints.
The first-round pick received in the Swilling trade would bring former Louisiana Tech tackle Willie Roaf to New Orleans; he became a perennial Pro Bowler. In January 1995, Jim Haslett - a longtime assistant at Pittsburgh and former NFL linebacker - was hired as linebackers coach by Mora.
"He'll be a consistent winner - and that's hard to do in the NFL nowadays," says Mora, who now counts Haslett as part of his Saints legacy, as well. "He knows football, he's tough - and the players like him."
Haslett and Roaf would help spark the Saints' 2000 run to a second NFC West title.
Great story, Dome Patrol......
I\'ll guess 1989 and 1992.
Good article, by the way.
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