Ralph Malbrough / Contributing Writer
NEW ORLEANS - “Winning is only half of it. Having fun is the other half.” - Bum Phillips
Last Friday Bum Phillips died at the age of 90. He is remembered as the cowboy hat wearing, tobacco spitting, and folksy coach of the Houston Oilers. In all obituaries written about Phillips his time as head coach of the New Orleans Saints was merely a footnote. If not for a heartbreaking loss in 1983, history would have been a lot kinder to Bum Phillips’ time in New Orleans.
30 years ago the Saints stood 8-7 and faced the Los Angeles Rams with the winner claiming a playoff spot. Bum had inherited the 1-15 Saints in 1981 and in three years had them on the cusp of the franchise’s first post-season birth.
He did it by having maybe the greatest draft in team history. Bum refused to use the Saints computer system to help with the draft because why would a cowboy need a computer? He proved he didn’t need one by selecting George Rogers, Rickey Jackson, Frank Warren, Hoby Brenner, Johnnie Poe, Hokie Gajan, and Jim Wilks in 1981.
His 1982 draft wasn’t nearly as good but he added Morten Andersen, Tony Elliot, and Brad Edelman. The Saints had never a talent infusion even close to that in their history to that point.
Bum was about two things; running the football and playing tough defense. He did it in Houston with Earl Campbell and had nearly made a Super Bowl and was intent on doing it in New Orleans.
Bum’s problem in New Orleans was he couldn’t find even close to competent quarterbacking. He couldn’t get along with Archie Manning so in 1982 he traded Archie to Houston for a washed up offensive tackle named Leon Gray. Bum swapped a 33-year-old Archie for a 37-year-old Kenny Stabler. Bum also had drafted Dave Wilson in the 1981 supplemental draft. Why have one bad quarterback when you can have two?
I was originally planning on writing a column on the 1983 season for the week the Saints played the Rams. As research I watched every Saints game of the 1983 season. Yes, I know I have issues.
Ken Stabler’s 1983 season, considering the Saints were in serious playoff contention, has to be one of the worst quarterbacked seasons in team history. Anytime you talk worst ever and Saints it’s a very high bar. Stabler managed to clear it with the following stat line: 14 starts, 9 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 61. You really had to see it to appreciate Stabler’s terribleness.
He had the mobility of a statue and managed to get sacked for a safety late against the undefeated Dallas Cowboys as the Saints pulled off the unbelievable feat of going from leading by a point to losing the game by a point. He threw a critical pick six as the Saints melted down on Monday Night Football against the New York Jets and coughed up a 28-14 fourth quarter lead. If you want a modern day equivalent think Blaine Gabbert but older, slower, and the personal grooming habits of a hobo.
The season ending game in 1983 against the Rams to me is the worst loss in team history. It was worse than San Francisco in 2011 or any of the Jim Mora playoff defeats. The Saints had never played in a game so big and they won the turnover battle, had only two penalties to the Rams nine, and outrushed Los Angeles 142 yards to 78 yet still lost.
Kenny Stabler threw an awful pass Johnnie Johnson returned for a score. Watching Stabler quarterback the Saints is something you can’t erase for your memory and if I wanted to torture a terrorist I’d play his 1983 season on a loop.
The Rams did not score a point on offense until Mike Lansford kicked the game winning field goal with two seconds left. They returned not one but two interceptions for scores. They sacked Stabler for a safety and Henry Ellard returned a punt for a touchdown as well. I REPEAT THEY DIDN’T SCORE ON OFFENSE FOR 59 MINUTES AND 58 SECONDS!
Just wait, it gets even more excruciating. The Saints had the ball with under two minutes left and faced a fourth and one at the Rams 35 yard line.
If you are Bum Phillips what do you do?
You could run George Rogers a 33rd time and hope he increases his yards to 125 yards and then go party on Bourbon Street.
You could have Morten Andersen try a 52-yard field goal. Morten was having a great first season as the Saints full time kicker. He had made a 50-yard kick in overtime the previous week to keep the Saints alive. Remember though, in 1983 Morten wasn’t yet the legend he would become.
Bum chose instead to have backup punter Guido Merkens try to pin the Rams deep. First-string punter Russell Erxleben was injured on the Rams touchdown scoring punt return.
It was extremely conservative and if I was him I’d have tried to get the first down by running Rogers and risked what ended up being 15 yards of field position because Merkens punt was a touchback.
Bum’s decision was more than justified though because the Saints defense completely obliterated the Rams offensive line the previous possession. Bum was probably thinking, “They haven’t scored all day. I’m going to pin them back and my defense will dominate them like they have for 58 minutes.”
The next sequence of plays is why any Saints fan over the age of 50 still goes into panic late in a game even after a Super Bowl victory.
Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo would complete six of seven throws, *including what I believe to be a 4th and 25!
*Note: The video I have of the game loses sound the last five minutes and the picture gets messed up. Either way the Rams over came a personal foul and converted a ridiculously long pass on their final drive to basically crush 71000 people’s hearts a week before Christmas.
My heart sank watching it even 30 years later. The Saints were one fourth down from the Promised Land. If I had seen the game in person it might have killed me or at the very least gotten me to ask why God doesn’t love me.
Friends of Bum say the loss broke his heart and he never was the same coach after. If you watched that game or were there you understand.
When people die sometimes the tendency is to get nostalgic and leave out all the negative. I won’t do that here.
After the failure of Ken Stabler, Bum went and traded a number one pick for a quarterback equally as bad in Richard Todd. Todd started 17 games as a Saint and threw 14 touchdowns to go with 23 interceptions. In 1985 Dave Wilson quarterbacked maybe the worst game in Saints history in the season opener against the Chiefs. He went 2 for 22 and missed 18 passes in a row at one point. Bum’s choices in quarterbacks make Mike Ditka look like a quarterback guru. I’m not even kidding.
One of the great what if questions to me is, “What if Bum hadn’t traded the Saints 1983 number one pick for Bruce Clark would they have drafted another quarterback?”
The 1983 draft was stocked with six quarterbacks taken in round one and if the Saints would have had their pick they could have chosen Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien or Dan Marino. Every one of them won a playoff game and I know every single one was better than Dave Wilson or Kenny Stabler. If that happens Bum Philips would have been beloved in two cities because the Saints make the playoffs in 1983.
Bum’s time in New Orleans ended pretty awful as he got beer dumped on his head and he resigned with four games left in 1985.
Before he left Bum also drafted Eric Martin, John Tice, Steve Korte, Brian Hansen, Joel Hilgenberg, Jumpy Geathers, Jack Del Rio and Vaughn Johnson and Mel Gray in the USFL Dispersal Draft. Pretty darn good for the old cowboy. Jim Mora and Jim Finks came in, had a great draft in 1986, and the Saints were really good through 1992.
I’d argue behind Sean Payton and Jim Mora Bum Phillips is the third best coach in team history.
He didn’t win a playoff game like Jim Haslett but Bum was the first person the Saints ever hired who knew what the hell he was doing and he laid the foundation for the winning that followed.
Rob Ryan's Big Chart of Fun: All year long I’ll be charting how the Saints defense does under Rob Ryan in certain situations. For a full explanation of how it works read this. For all you people emailing me demanding to see the chart, the Rob Ryan Chart lives here.
Since the Saints were off there was no game to chart so how about a fun story? When I was 7 years old I dressed up as Bum Phillips for Halloween. I was an odd child. How many people will be going as Rob Ryan this Halloween? I’d say 75 percent of adult men in New Orleans and 90 percent of children. Ok, probably not but THEY SHOULD.
Last Week: 1-4
Buffalo (+12) vs. New Orleans: There is no way you can pick the Saints to win by double digits when we don’t know if Jimmy Graham, Cameron Jordan, and Jabari Greer will play. Besides, every Bills game this year has come down to the final minutes and head coach Doug Marrone has done a really good job keeping the Bills afloat with back up quarterback Thad Lewis. The Bills run the ball well and have a great pass rush led by Mario Williams.
The Saints need to start throwing to their wide receivers more because in 2013 only 27 percent of completions are heading their way. The Saints offense has become almost exclusively reliant on Graham and Darren Sproles.
For Buffalo to win the Saints will have to give them a couple turnovers and I don’t see that happening. I don’t think Rob Ryan will completely confuse the Bills but it will still be a game in the fourth quarter. If you think this is going to be a cakewalk and expect to be watching the Red Zone Channel by halftime to check your fantasy team, you will be very disappointed. Expect a three-hour grind it out win.
Carolina (-6) vs. Tampa Bay: The Panthers have scored 56 more points then they’ve allowed. Their roster is really good and might be good enough to save Ron Rivera’s job. I literally can’t dream up a realistic scenario where Greg Schiano is still coaching Tampa Bay in 2014.
Atlanta (+2.5) at Arizona: The Falcons aren’t any good but Carson Palmer is…Carson Palmer.
Denver (-13) vs. Washington: What I’m about to say might sound insane but I think the Indianapolis Colts showed exactly how to beat Peyton Manning. Manning’s arm strength isn’t good enough to make tight throws deep and at the sidelines. If you can get pressure or make him throw deep balls against the sideline he becomes mortal. Oh and the Bronco’s offensive line stinks.
I look forward to his annual playoff failure. I’m certain of it. This week though he’s totally dropping 50 on Washington.
Seattle (-10.5) at St. Louis: The Saints added quarterback Ryan Griffin to the regular roster so he wouldn’t sign with St. Louis. It’s a good move by the Saints because Griffin has potential but now that the Rams will be playing Kellen Clemens and maybe Brady Quinn at quarterback I’m guessing Griffin could have been starting by Thanksgiving for the St. Louis.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on facebook, follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.