Will Saints Fans Get to Witness Another “Dome Patrol”?


Despite their back-to-back disappointing 7-9 seasons in 2014 and 2015, the New Orleans Saints have enjoyed their fair share of success throughout the last decade — including a Super Bowl title in 2009.

However, what some Saints fans — especially the younger ones — may not know other than what they’ve been told by older generations of Saints fans or read about in book or the Internet; is that long before this current era of overall success, the Saints franchise was one of the NFL’s all-time worst.

In fact, the Saints never even had their first winning season until the 1987 season, when ex-USFL (that’s the United States Football League, for those too young to know the acronym) head coach Jim Mora led the Saints to a 12-3 record (the season was shortened by one game due to a brief NFL player’s strike) and their first-ever postseason berth in the NFL Playoffs.

Whereas Sean Payton has relied heavily on his All-Pro and future Hall-of-Fame QB Drew Brees to lead the way to most of the Saints’ recent success; in those days nearly 30 years ago, Mora had to rely


upon his defense — a unit that collectively become known as the “Dome Patrol”.

While the “Dome Patrol” defense moniker was a term used in general for the entire Saints defense of that era (1986-1993), the nickname actually was a specific reference in origin for the Saints linebacking corps in the late 80’s and early 90’s consisting on some of the most legendary players in Saints history:

  • Rickey Jackson, outside linebacker, University of Pittsburgh
  • the late Sam Mills, inside linebacker, Montclair State and the USFL Philadelphia Stars
  • Vaughan Johnson, inside linebacker, North Carolina State and the USFL Jacksonville Bulls
  • Pat Swilling, outside linebacker, Georgia Tech

Some of the team’s greatest memories come from those golden years; where in reverse, it was the defense winning games for the Saints, instead of the high flying offense we see now.

The beginning for the “Dome Patrol” actually took root with former Saints head coach Bum Phillips, who while scouting the 1980 Gator Bowl in late December to get a look at South Carolina RB and Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers (whom he later took with the #1 overall pick in the 1981 NFL Draft), came away even more impressed with a young defensive end for Pitt (as the University of Pittsburgh was known in those days) named Rickey Jackson, who “stole the show” that night in front of a national television audience.

The following April, Phillips took Jackson in the 2nd round of the 1981 NFL Draft; and at that time had the forethought to convert Jackson from a 4-3 defensive end at Pitt to a 3-4 OLB for the Saints, long before the term “hybrid” became part of the football lexicon.

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Jackson went on to become a star linebacker in the League, despite the Saints’ lack of success in the standings during Phillips’ tenure. But what he gave Mora, who was hired by new owner Tom Benson and GM Jim Finks in early 1986, was a “core” player to build his new defensive scheme around.

Once the USFL had folded around that same time, Mora subsequently brought in two former USFL stars at inside linebacker: Sam Mills, who had played under Mora and won the USFL title with the Philadelphia / Baltimore Stars, and hard-hitting inside linebacker Vaughan Johnson of the Jacksonville Bulls, whom the Saints got in the USFL allocation draft.

The “Dome Patrol” linebacking corps was then completed in the 1986 Draft, when Mora selected Georgia Tech and All-ACC defensive end Pat Swilling in the 3rd Round; who he put at the other OLB spot opposite of Jackson.

For the better part of nearly a decade, this defense terrorized opposing NFL offenses, even though the Saints could ever seem to “get over the hump” in the NFC West division (ruled in those days by the San Francisco 49ers and Hall-of-Fame head coach Bill Walsh and his ‘West Coast’ offense led by All-Pro QB Joe Montana).

Nevertheless, they are remembered fondly and even by former opponents — as evidenced a few years ago when they were recognized by their old peers as “The Greatest Linebacker Corps in NFL History”.

Which brings us back to the current Saints era, and the point of this article, which is:

Is it possible that we are about to witness a new generation of the “Dome Patrol” — similar to that legendary group of linebackers from 3o years ago?

Now clearly with the Saints finishing with the 31st ranked overall defense; one doesn’t exactly get a mental image of anything REMOTELY associated with the defensive greatness of a unit like the “Dome Patrol” was, but hear me out.

The Saints already have two of the pieces of the defensive puzzle in place from last year’s draft with middle linebacker Stephone Anthony and outside / strong side linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha.

Nov 1, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha (44) and middle linebacker Stephone Anthony (50) against the New York Giants during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Giants 52-49. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone who watched Anthony from start to finish this past season, got to witness an amazing maturity unfold as he continued to look better and better each game.

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Anthony finished the year off with 112 tackles — only 13 tackles off Rickey Jackson’s team record first year (125) and that is more than triple the tackles Johnson finished with his rookie year (33). With a year of experience now under his belt, one can hardly wait to see how he will blossom even further in 2016.

Meanwhile, as he battled through a nagging injury during the latter part of the season, Kikaha still managed to finish with some respectable numbers, with finished with 54 tackles, 4 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles on the season.

Now it will be contingent upon Saints management to build their next era of defensive football around these two talented young men; and one would imagine with rather limited options available in NFL Free-Agency, that the process will continue through the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft in late April.

Many talented and versatile prospects such as Butkus Award winner Jaylon Smith from Notre Dame, dominant pass rusher Leonard Floyd from Georgia, or work-horse Reggie Ragland from Alabama are all intriguing options.

Oct 10, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) celebrates a fumble recovery in the third quarter against the Navy Midshipmen at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame won 41-24. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

And inside linebacker prospects such as Arizona’ Scooby Wright, Missouri’s Kentrell Brothers, and LSU and NOLA native / Jesuit High School graduate Deion Jones, are just a few more of the additional names that Saints brass will be looking at as potential picks in late April.

One has to wonder if perhaps it even would be in defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s best interest, to switch the team back to a more traditional 3-4 style defense — like the one being utilized by the AFC Champion Denver Broncos — in order to give the Saints defense a much-needed “shot in the arm”, and potentially give their next group of young linebackers a chance at recreating history.

While the future has a lot in store for the Who Dat Nation next year, one can at least hope that the Saints defense will bounce back much stronger in 2016.

And maybe — just maybe — with a little luck and a lot of focus on getting it right in the NFL Draft, the younger generation of Saints fans could possibly witness the beginnings of another “Dome Patrol”……