1992 New Orleans Saints: Contention & Collapse

Consistent winning football was still a pretty new thing in the New Orleans of the early 1990s. It took the arrival of Jim Mora to finally put the Saints into the playoffs for the first time in 1987. They made it back in 1990, with two winning seasons in between. In 1991, the franchise won its first division title. There was still one thing they hadn’t done—win a playoff game. The 1992 New Orleans Saints spent all season looking very much the part of a Super Bowl contender…until those January problems came back and bit Mora one more time.

Mora’s success was built around the defense, specifically some great linebacker play. Pat Swilling was as good as it got at the outside linebacker position. In ’92, Swilling was 1st-team All-NFL and got 10 ½ sacks. Rickey Jackson was the other side in the 3-4 defensive scheme and recorded 13 ½ sacks in a Pro Bowl season. Veteran Sam Mills was another Pro Bowler on the inside.

The quality of the linebacking corps freed up defensive end Wayne Martin to get 15 ½ sacks of his own. The pressure on opposing quarterbacks led to six interceptions for cornerback Toi Cook. And the New Orleans defense ranked first in the NFL for points allowed.

Bobby Hebert was at quarterback and had a big-play arm. He was modestly above average with his 59 percent completion percentage, and his 19-16 TD/INT ratio. But when it came to bang for your buck, Hebert’s 7.8 yards-per-attempt was outstanding and second-best among starting QBs.

Eric Martin was the prime beneficiary of Hebert’s arm, catching 68 passes for over 1,000 yards. Quinn Early caught thirty balls, and at nearly 19 yards a pop, he could stretch the field. Dalton Hilliard was a versatile running back who caught 48 more passes out of the backfield.

The running game had problems. Even though Joel Hilgenberg was a Pro Bowl center and there were three viable runners in Hilliard, big Craig Heyward and young Vaughn Dunbar, the running game had a tendency to come and go—and to disappear at the most crucial moments. But even allowing that, this New Orleans offense was still a solid 10th in what was then a 28-team league for points scored.

A road game at Philadelphia opened the season. The Eagles were a perennial contender and known for their physical defensive front. The Saints were outrushed 184-55 and lost a tough game 15-13. Then they trailed Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears 6-0 at home in the third quarter of Week 2. The offense needed to step it up.

Hebert found Martin a 52-yard touchdown pass to get the lead. Then the quarterback hit Wesley Carroll on a 72-yard strike to make it 14-6. The avalanche had started. The defense scored two more touchdowns. The Saints rolled to a 28-6 win.

Dunbar had a solid game against Atlanta, rushing for 85 yards, and that was enough to pull out a 10-7 home win against the Falcons. It wasn’t a particularly inspiring win, but it did get New Orleans to 2-1 before San Francisco came to town.

Prior to the realignment of 2002, the 49ers were a divisional rival of the Saints. Both teams were in the NFC West, along with the Los Angeles Rams and the Falcons. What’s more, San Francisco had been the pre-eminent team in all of football for over a decade. With MVP quarterback Steve Young coming into his own, the 49ers were a powerhouse.

New Orleans’ defense cold hold its own and the Sunday Night game at the Superdome was in a 10-10 tie after three quarters. But the Saints were being outrushed, 154-77. Hebert threw three interceptions, while Young threw none. The Niners got a couple field goals in the fourth quarter and sent New Orleans to a 16-10 loss.

At 2-2, the Saints had a six-week soft spot on the schedule coming up, five bad opponents sandwiched around a bye. They took full advantage of the opportunity to get some wins and get the running game moving.

New Orleans enjoyed a 133-42 edge in rush yardage at Detroit, with the defense shutting down the great Barry Sanders. Hebert played an efficient, mistake-free game and New Orleans won a tough 13-7 decision.

The Saints were a solid nine-point favorite when the Rams came to town. The passing game never really got untracked and the game stayed tight. But New Orleans won the rushing battle 135-43 and with Jackson picking up three sacks, they got a 13-10 win. 

A road trip to Phoenix to face the Cardinals proved to be what Hebert needed. He lit up the desert to the tune of 19/26 for 355 yards and three touchdowns. Eric Martin caught eight balls for 151 yards. A 30-21 win sent the Saints into their bye week at 5-2.

A home game with lowly Tampa Bay was on the far side of the bye. New Orleans continued to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football, winning rush yardage 145-84. But four turnovers, including three interceptions by Hebert kept this one tight. It took a 50-yard field goal from the Saints’ Hall of Fame kicker Morten Andersen to escape with a 23-21 win.

New Orleans went up to Foxboro to face a bad New England Patriots team. Hebert and Early hooked up on a couple of first-quarter TD passes. The defense teed off and picked up five sacks. A 31-14 win pushed the Saints to 7-2 and set up the next big showdown. The 49ers were also 7-2 and it was time for the annual trip to the Bay Area.

Hebert was ready and he went 22/35 for 301 yards. There were no mistakes. With a 20-7 lead after three quarters, New Orleans was poised to push into first place.

But they weren’t running the ball and couldn’t salt this one away. They were outrushed 176-43. San Francisco’s ability to run the ball freed up Young to win the game with a couple of fourth quarter touchdown passes. The crushing 21-20 loss put the Saints in a huge bind for the NFC West race. They were only one game back in the standings, but had already lost the tiebreaker.

New Orleans came back home to face the Washington Redskins. The defending Super Bowl champion, the Redskins would make the playoffs again this year, but were more of a fringe postseason team rather than a true contender. The Saints defense dominated, Hebert played an efficient game and a 20-3 win got the bad taste from San Francisco washed out.

A tough home date with Miami, a team destined for the AFC Championship Game, was next. This one was tied 10-10 in the third quarter. Then defensive tackle Robert Goff scooped up a fumble and raced 28 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Holding a 17-13 lead in the fourth quarter, defensive back Vince Buck picked off Dan Marino and raced 34 yards to the house. The 24-13 win pushed New Orleans to 9-3.

The Saints were still a game back of the 49ers and expecting San Francisco to lose twice in the final four weeks was more than a longshot. The alignment and playoff structure of the time had three wild-cards joining three division champs. That meant earning the top wild-card spot got you the 4-seed and a home game. The Saints were in control of that race, with the Eagles and Redskins giving chase at 7-5.

Thursday Night Football was not the norm at this time, so the prime-time home game with Atlanta was a treat for NFL fans. New Orleans drove the ball consistently, but kept having to settle for field goals. They clung to a 15-14 lead in a game they had complete control off. Cook finally put this one away with a 48-yard interception return to secure the 22-14 win.

Everything clicked ten days later in Los Angeles. Hebert was 15/25 for 238 yards, no mistakes and he spread the ball around. Dunbar ran for 91 yards, while Heyward chipped in 50 on eleven carries. The Saints were ahead 37-zip and closed out the 37-14 win.

Buffalo, the two-time defending AFC champ and headed back to another Super Bowl this year, came to the Superdome for a marquee game in the early afternoon TV window. San Francisco had formally clinched the NFC West the day before, but this was still a chance for New Orleans to secure the 4-seed.

The Saints led 16-10 going into the fourth quarter. But again, they were not running the ball and they were being gashed by the running game of a top opponent. The final rush yardage deficit was 181-48. The Bills took over the fourth quarter and won 20-16.

Meanwhile, the Eagles were playing the Redskins. The winner would move to within one game of the Saints for the top wild-card and home game. The fact it was Philadelphia was bad luck—New Orleans would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker to Philly, whereas they had it with Washington. So there was still something to play for in the final week.

In an early Saturday afternoon kick, the Saints went up the Meadowlands to face a terrible New York Jets team. New Orleans did not play particularly well. Hebert threw three interceptions. But the defense was dominant and that included a 76-yard fumble return from Mills to start the scoring in the first quarter. The 20-0 whitewashing ensured that the Eagles-Saints wild-card game would be played at the Superdome.

For three quarters, New Orleans looked comfortably in control. With a 20-10 lead, they were set to finally give the city its first playoff victory. But there’s a saying in any sport and it’s that in the postseason, your weaknesses find you. Never did that unfold more dramatically than in the fourth quarter of this final game of Wild-Card Weekend.

The Saints again couldn’t run the ball against a quality opponent and gained only 76 yards. Hebert again made mistakes, with another three-interception game. Just like against the 49ers and Bills, a fourth-quarter lead disappeared. In fact, this time it collapsed. New Orleans allowed 26 points in the final period. The stunning meltdown led to a 36-20 loss.

It was an incredibly bitter way for such a fine season to end. And in retrospect, it was the effective end of this period of ascendancy led by Mora. Three mediocre seasons followed. Mora eventually left for Indianapolis. The hiring of Mike Ditka later in the 1990s was a bust. It was not until 2000 that the Saints finally returned to the playoffs—and won a game. And not until Sean Payton arrived in 2006, did the franchise again see a consistent contender.