Following three consecutive 7-9 seasons, the New Orleans Saints once again find themselves with seven wins. The difference in 2017? It’s only taken nine games to get there. The Saints are surprising many teams and analysts this year and are quickly becoming one of the favorites to make the playoffs. For newer fans, this is a new and refreshing feeling. For those members of the Who Dat Nation that have been around for a while, they may feel as though they’ve seen this before. That feeling comes from the 1987 Saints.
The Eerie Similarities Between the 1987 and 2017 New Orleans Saints
The 1987 New Orleans Saints have more in common with today’s Saints than one may remember. Sure, that team was led by a third-year quarterback (Bobby Hebert) and second-year head coach (Jim Mora) as opposed to today’s longer-term leaders in Drew Brees and Sean Payton. And yes, the 2017 brand of Saints are a far better passing offense while the 1987 version was much stronger at linebacker. But the similarities between the two clubs are too hard to ignore.
The Win Streak
After that underwhelming 0-2 start for this year’s Saints, they have rattled off seven straight wins. The combination of production on both offense and defense has made the club a well-rounded opponent for anyone who faces them. The Saints of 30 years ago had the same balance. Being able to control the clock and move the ball on offense along with a tough-as-nails, opportunistic defense kept head coaches on edge from week to week. This balance led to a nine-game win streak during the 1987 season.
Confidence in a kicker can make all the difference in an offensive game plan. 1987 saw Morten Andersen continue to be an automatic three points when he lined up for field goals, hitting on nearly 80% of his field goal attempts. Now in 2017, second-year kicker Will Lutz has won the confidence of his head coach, hitting field goals at a 81.8% rate. As the season wears on and games get closer, this will prove to be just as valuable an asset now as in yesteryear.
The Blocked Punt
A rookie blocks a punt, catches it after it bounces off the turf and runs it in for a touchdown. If that sounds familiar, it should. Justin Hardee did just that in week nine versus the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Flashback to 1987, it was another rookie in Reggie Sutton making almost the same exact play against a division rival in the St. Louis Rams on almost the exact same spot of the Superdome turf.
The 1987 New Orleans Saints suffered very few injuries during the run toward their first playoff berth. Aside from pre-season losses of Jumpy Geathers and Steve Korte, Antonio Gibson was the only significant injury. The Saints of today have had similar luck thus far. The pre-season loss of Delvin Breaux and Nick Fairley in combination with the in-season loss of Zach Strief have been met with a similar “next man up” mentality to the 1987 squad.
Jeff Ireland has loaded the 2017 Saints with talent. The combination of back-to-back quality draft classes has fast-tracked the team’s talent. In 2016, the Saints scored picks of Sheldon Rankins, Michael Thomas, Von Bell, David Onyemata and Daniel Lasco. In 2017, Ireland followed up one gem of a draft with another by selecting Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara, Alex Anzalone, Trey Hendrickson and Al-Quadin Muhammad.
1987 saw general manager Jim Finks have similar success in back-to-back drafts. 1986 saw the Saints select the likes of Jim Dombrowski, Dalton Hilliard, Reuben Mayes, Pat Swilling and Reggie Sutton. To add to that, the Saints also brought in USFL starts such as Vaughan Johnson, Mel Gray and Sam Mills amongst others. The 1987 draft was also impressive with all eight selections making the team, highlighted by Gene Atkins, Toi Cook, Milton Mack and Michael Adams.
Number Three Rushing Attack in the NFL
The Saints ran the ball effectively in 1987. The combination of the two-headed monster in youngsters Reuben Mayes and Dalton Hilliard led the Saints to finish the season ranked third in the NFL in rushing for the season. Today, there is a new two-headed monster lining up behind Drew Brees. Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara have the new-look Saints offense ranked, you guessed it, third in the NFL right now.
The 2017 Saints have a new swag on defense. The combination of next-level play from their veterans such as Cameron Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro along with the influx of new talent, particularly in the secondary have the Saints shutting down opposing offense at an alarming rate. The 31st team in the league in points allowed in 2016 has made massive strides in 2017.
With the addition of Vaughan Johnson, Sam Mills and Pat Swilling to a defense that already had a waiting veteran and future Hall of Famer in Rickey Jackson, the 1987 Saints created “The Dome Patrol”. Swag? Check.
If one isn’t yet convinced of the similarities between the two clubs separated by three decades, perhaps this will help.
The 1987 Saints received an incredible number of breaks during their best season to date at the time. Those Saints simple beat the team in front of them, such as dismantling scrub-filled teams during the mid-season strike like a Ram team without Eric Dickerson. Or perhaps playing the Rams a second time later in the season, the week after they trade Dickerson to the Indianapolis Colts.
Or facing a San Francisco 49ers teams and a concussed Steve Young is replaced by Joe Montana who had been injured in practice. Then there was the game against the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants where Phil Simms and Joe Morris didn’t play and Lawrence Taylor made a brief cameo since he was hurt the week before. The Saints also played the Pittsburgh Steelers without their leading rusher Ernest Jackson and then faced a Tamp Bay team with where Vinny Testaverde started his first game as a pro. While none of this was any fault of the Saints, New Orleans took advantage of the matchups and beat the teams that were on their schedule.
2017 has been another year of breaks for the Saints, confirming the old adage that “it’s not who you play, but when you play them”. The Saints win against the Carolina Panthers saw them face a hurt Cam Newton. In similar fashion, the Saints victory against the Detroit Lions saw an injured Matthew Stafford fall short. The Saints then faced the Green Bay Packers the week after they lost Aaron Rodgers for the season. The following week was the token rookie quarterback as the Chicago Bears and Mitch Trubisky fell short against the black and gold. The Buccaneers had their quarterback hurt during a game that wasn’t close the next week in Jameis Winston. All this, along with some good bounces and timely turnovers, have helped the Saints be as successful as they have been thus far in 2017.
The Saints currently sit as the third seed in the NFC playoff picture. If the season were over today, the Saints would host the Seattle Seahawks in wild card round. Should they win that game, they would play Minnesota. Yes, the same Minnesota Vikings franchise they faced in the 1987 playoffs.
How did the Saints fare in 1987? Despite being favored, the Saints suffered a tough 44-10 loss at the hands of the Vikings.
Could this year be different? Could the Saints not only avenge their week one loss, but also that loss 30 years ago? Perhaps. Come playoff time, that’s where the similarities need to stop.