30th anniversary of 12-3 a good time to turn it around!by J.W. Miller on 08/21/17
Since training camp opened, I’ve not heard anyone mention what a momentous anniversary the Saints organization is celebrating this season. For those who need a primer in Who Dat History, thirty years ago the Saints went from laughingstock to NFL respect. In 1987, the Saints posted their first winning season in team history. Optimists, who hold the majority of Who Dat Nation membership, might look at the 2016 season and be downright bullish about the Saints ability to turn around their current malaise on the 30th anniversary of their first taste of success. Could the 2017 Saints channel the 1987 team and bounce back from a frustrating three years to restore prosperity?
The parallels between the 1986 and 2016 teams are downright eerie. In 1986, the team lost five “winnable” games (that is, by less than a touchdown), but last year the team lost a remarkable seven games by six points or less. We knew in 1986, my first season with the team, that we were better than our record indicated. Our bright spot was a defense that ranked No. 7 in the league, so the task then was to improve the other side of the ball, which ranked a mediocre No. 19. In the groundbreaking 1987 season, the Saints improved the defense two slots, to No. 5 in the league, while the offense, thoroughly clicking behind QB Bobby Hebert and weapons such as Reuben Mayes, Dalton Hilliard and a sturdy offensive line, shot all the way up to No. 2 and achieved a major culture change.
The '87 Season of Respect began with a home opening victory over Cleveland, but after a road loss to Philadelphia the NFL Players Association went on strike, prompting the fabled replacement games. The Saints won two of three before the regulars reported back to work to host the dominant 49ers. In a raucous Superdome, the local heroes fell behind early, rallied to take an early fourth-quarter lead but let it slip away, 24-22. That game prompted Jim Mora’s famous “We ain’t good enough” rant in which he added the quasi-optimistic note: “We’re close, but that don’t mean diddly poo!” The team went on to prove that being close to the 49ers still was better than the field as they ran off nine victories in a row and their first playoff appearance.
In the seasons since, the team has rewarded its fans with the ultimate prize – a Super Bowl championship – although they have never ventured too far away from the first 19 years of futility. Overall, since 1988, the team has had only 11 winning seasons while finishing 8-8 or worse 19 times, and three seasons bottomed out at 3-13. So wouldn’t this be a fitting time to replicate 1987 when things changed forever? I’m very sensitive to the team’s three most recent seasons of 7-9, because owner Tom Benson tied the tin can to my tail after three years, 1993-95, that weren’t quite as bad – 8-8, 7-9, 7-9 – as the past three.
Sour grapes aside, the question on the table is whether the 2017 Saints can mirror their 1987 predecessors? It could happen, but in a different way. Whereas the ’87 offense was working to catch up to the defense, it’s the opposite this year. As long as QB Drew Brees stays healthy, the offense should stay close to its No. 2 ranking in scoring from last year. But how much of a leap can a defense that ranked No. 31 make? Can the 2017 defense improve enough that it doesn't negate the efforts of a solid offense that occurred time after time last year?
That much improvement would exceed the most conservative expectations, although Sunday’s victory over the Chargers was encouraging. The team flashed indications of a pass rush and solid play from a rebuilt linebacker corps. If they can remain relatively injury-free, 2017 could be an appropriate celebration of the franchise’s 30th anniversary of respect.