As some of you might remember, last year for the New Orleans Saints 50th Anniversary season, each week I would retell a moment in their history in one of my weekly columns.
The story I was most excited to tell was the 1990 season-long holdout of Bobby Hebert. It had everything; the quarterback who wanted more money, the old school general manager unwilling to budge an inch, NFL players fighting for free agency, and the New Orleans kid suddenly starting at quarterback for the Saints.
It also happened to include one of the defining trades in Saints history. So I thought it would be great fun to try and tell the oral history of how everything went, with as many of the key people involved who were still around and would talk.
Mike Detillier was a wonderful help and was able to give great background, insight, and was gracious enough to get me in touch with Bobby Hebert. Unfortunately, I felt I needed Jim Mora’s participation to really be able to deliver a great and complete oral history of the entire episode. Mora politely declined. So my dreams seemed dashed and so an unfinished column sat on my computer for over a year.
Then, one night this summer, I got to talking to Mike Detillier on Twitter and was I lamenting how Mora’s and other Saints front office people from the 1990’s lack of cooperation sort of froze everything. But as Mike and I talked, I realized how great a story the entire Bobby Hebert hold out saga was.
So while it might not be a complete and as thorough an oral history as I wanted, it’s still one hell of a story…
It started with a collapse on national TV
Everything actually began in 1989 on a Sunday night in November against the Los Angeles Rams. The Saints coughed up a 17-3 fourth quarter lead as Flipper Anderson set a then-NFL record for receiving yards in a game with 336. The Saints offense collapsed in the second half as their only points came from a Dalton Hilliard 35-yard pass to Eric Martin. Hebert was awful, got sacked four times, and the loss basically ended the team’s playoff hopes.
The next week in Detroit, Hebert continued to struggle, Jim Mora benched him, as the Saints lost 21-14 and didn’t score in the second half. So enter the local kid, John Fourcade, to start at quarterback in Buffalo. In the snow, Fourcade threw for 300 yards and 2 scores as the Saints won 22-19. He was just as good the next week on Monday night football, throwing 3 touchdowns as the Saints defeated the playoff-bound Philadelphia Eagles. In the season finale. He threw two more scores and ran for another as the Saints routed the Indianapolis Colts 41-6.
The New Orleans Saints, it seemed, would have a full blown quarterback controversy heading into 1990, except Bobby Hebert didn’t have a contract and free agency was just something the players were working to get.
Hebert thought Saints would trade him
While fans might have been expecting a training camp battle between Fourcade and Hebert, the one person who wasn’t expecting it was Bobby Hebert. He fully expected to get shipped out of town.
“I really thought the Saints would trade me off, but I had no idea what would eventually happen. I just wanted to get paid like most starting quarterbacks in the league and I had skins on the wall. Jim Finks felt as though he owned me for my football life. Gil Brandt, with the Cowboys, had a saying that players are like cattle and owners are like ranchers. Ranchers can always get more cattle. That was Finks' mentality too. I just wanted to get paid like most starting NFL quarterbacks and because Fourcade had some success late (Finks) didn't feel as though I should get paid that kind of money.”
Finks had other ideas
While Bobby expected to be traded, the Saints general manager at the time, Jim Finks, had other ideas. Mike Detillier explains how Finks operated. “Jim Finks was old school and he was going to make Bobby pay the price. What got Bobby really upset was that the Oakland Raiders had a good deal on the table to trade for him and he would have gotten market value and Finks refused to trade him off because of spite.
He wanted to break Bobby's case and felt others were going to learn a lesson from it. It was a matter of principle. Finks had the ultimate voice. Tom Benson wanted the Saints to come to a deal with Bobby, but Finks in his contract had the final say on football matters. Finks was head strong to win without Bobby and even at the expense of his team.” As training camp opened most fans sided with Saints management, besides Fourcade was spectacular those three final games in 1989, so did the Saints really need Hebert anyway?
As Mike Detillier explained, Bobby was sort of a man standing alone. “At that time most fans backed Jim Finks, no question about it. People might say different, but fans were pro-Finks. The media, mostly Buddy Diliberto and Peter Finney backed Bobby. Many media guys backed Finks too. Jim Finks told me something smart about being a surrogate for Bobby because we grew up on the bayou together. I just felt he needed to add firepower offensively for Bobby and get him a deep threat. He bristled mightily with my thoughts, along with Buddy D's and Finney's.”
As the season neared Bobby still wasn’t expecting to miss the entire year. “I thought maybe Coach Mora and Mr. Benson might get involved and I would get a deal done with the Saints, but I moved to California and was working out thinking Al Davis would trade for me. It just didn't happen. But I would say late preseason, probably after the third game and it got heated between us in negotiations.
Did Raiders offer Marcus Allen, draft pick for Hebert?
I always thought Finks would cave and trade me to Oakland, but even after Al Davis sweetened the potential deal, Finks wouldn't budge.”
What were the Raiders offering you might be asking? According to Greg Campbell, Bobby Hebert’s agent, Oakland offered future Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen and a 2nd round draft pick. Allen was feuding with Al Davis at the time, and even though he was 30 years old, still had over 1000 carries and 60 touchdowns left in him.
Jim Finks trading for Marcus Allen is maybe the greatest ‘What if’? Saints question ever asked but even the Saints starting 0-2 in 1990 and not scoring a touchdown wasn’t changing how Finks viewed things according to Detillier. “Finks refused to trade him. He wanted Bobby crawling back at his price to play football with the Saints. He knew Bobby grew up in Louisiana, had a home here, his family was here and thought he could break him down. It didn't happen.”
Saints gave up a lot of picks for Steve Walsh
Instead of caving and signing Hebert, Finks traded first, second, and third round draft picks to the Dallas Cowboys for Steve Walsh. It seems crazy now and made little sense at the time to fans but Mike Detillier says Walsh’s salary was especially appealing to cost conscious Finks. “He knew John Fourcade couldn't get it done and Steve Walsh was signed to a long term rookie deal.”
The 1990 Saints rallied to finish 8-8 and make the playoffs, but scored 20 or fewer points 11 times that year, including just 6 in the postseason defeat to the Chicago Bears. Jim Finks would eventually sign Hebert in June 1991 to a contract that guaranteed Hebert $1.3 million in '91, $1.45 million in '92.
Hebert's stand made difference for all NFL players
The Hebert year-and-a-half holdout changed the course of history not just of the Saints, Jim Finks, and Bobby Hebert, but the future of the NFL as well. For Bobby Hebert, he was part of the landmark free agency case McNeil vs. National Football League that struck down the Plan B free agency system when a jury ruled it too restrictive.
Hebert played a key role in that legal win for NFL players. “I was the last person called to testify and I explained my feelings on that this was America and I had a right to go somewhere else if another team wouldn't pay me market value.
After I testified, Gene Upshaw, who was in charge of the players, got a call from one of the lawyers from the NFL that they wanted to settle the case. We knew we won and you could tell by the expressions of the lawyers of the owners. We were popping champagne in the suite afterwards. We got the ruling in our favor and what we stood up for was for all Americans to test the market. Before that you couldn't see what your real worth as a player was. I spent two days in court and Judge Doty ruled in our favor. I was proud of what I did and knowing I helped others just like me. I just wanted to play and get paid fairly and Finks wouldn't have any of that.”
For the Saints, Mike Detillier says it’s hard to know if those three draft picks given up for Walsh could have helped to add a player who would have gotten them a playoff win. “I don't know what they would have done with those choices, but the inability to sign Bobby and pay him market value and use those picks to aid his receiving unit and secondary cost them plenty. The lack of top playmakers other than Eric Martin at wide receiver and weaknesses in the secondary eventually did them in at playoff time.”
According to Detillier, Finks never viewed the Hebert holdout as a mistake. “Finks told me he had zero regrets. Finks wanted to get his point across, similar to what he did in Minnesota with Joe Kapp (Finks was GM of the Vikings when they played in Super Bowl IV after the 1969 season). Kapp got them to the Super Bowl and wanted market value and Jim Finks balked. He eventually dealt Kapp to the New England Patriots and then made a trade for Fran Tarkenton.
Before Kapp hit big in the NFL, Finks traded two first round picks to the New Orleans Saints for Gary Cuozzo, who was a career back-up. Finks felt a quarterback and a wide receiver were the last pieces of the puzzle to build a team. Finks, along with Jim Mora put the Saints on the football map. But he really disliked players pushing the envelope for money.
He just would not adjust to the changing NFL. What he didn't figure on was Hebert's hard stance and that the players would win in court. That court case cost him his shot to be NFL commissioner. The new school owners wanted free agency because they built their fortunes far different from the old school owners. They felt free agency gave them a chance to win quicker.” Bobby Hebert believes he did what he had to do. “Had Jim Finks paid me market value he wouldn't have had to trade those three picks for Steve Walsh. I have no regrets for what I did. I was fighting for my rights as a player. The new breed of owners saw how Jim Finks was and it cost him the shot as commissioner. Jim was old school and so he cost the team the draft choices.
"But I was in the right place at the right time to help get free agency and get myself the money most starting quarterbacks were getting. Look, he traded Pat Swilling off to the Detroit Lions because Pat was making a ton of money and wanted a better deal. He thought Renaldo Turnbull could replace him and at a cheaper price. That didn't work either. The good news is that with that 1st round pick they got Willie Roaf. Was I mercenary player after the Saints cut me loose? People today throw that in my face that I left the Saints. I never left the Saints, they cut me and I needed to feed and clothe my family.
"I begged Jim Finks to trade for Anthony Carter because the Vikings didn't want to pay him fair price and he just flipped that suggestion off. Finks was old school. We could have used those picks to get AC. That team would have been something with Eric Martin and Anthony Carter.
"I have no regrets for what took place. I wanted to win for my community and the Saints fans, but what a lot of people don't know is that even Tom Benson at that time couldn't tell Finks what to do. Finks had partial ownership of the team and in his contract. The coach nor the owner could tell him what to do personnel wise.
So, I respect Mr. Finks, but he was on the wrong side of this issue. My regret was not winning a playoff game and getting to the Super Bowl. The NFL is all about winning and I give San Francisco full credit they were just a little better than us back then, but we had some great games against them and we won our fair share of them when I quarterbacked the Saints.
"If we were in the AFC we would have probably played against them in the Super Bowl. Coach Jim Mora was a great coach and we had the Dome Patrol along with Dalton Hilliard and Eric Martin, and the best kicker ever in Morten Andersen. It just wasn't meant to be for our group.”
*special thanks to Mike Detillier and Bobby Hebert for their time and assistance for this endeavor.
The Games Last Week: 1-4 Season: 1-4
New England (-4.5) at New Orleans: Since 2003 the Patriots are 36-4 following a loss. If that’s not scary enough, hidden in the Saints 29-19 game was how well Drew Brees played. Did you notice those big throws he made to Coby Fleener were all into incredible coverage, while Sam Bradford was throwing to wide open guys? On a bunch of throws against the Vikings, if Brees is just 6 inches off, the Vikings would have had multiple interceptions. New England might have stunk against Kansas City, but their secondary can still cover and a beat up Saints offensive line is probably the perfect cure for their struggling pass rush. The over/under on Brandin Cooks receiving yards Sunday is whatever the current national debt is. Trillions. Trillions. If the Saints can manage to have 11 guys on the field against Tom Brady for the first play of the game they will already have done something they couldn’t do against Minnesota. Progress must begin with the smallest step or something.
How confident am I in a New England win? If the Saints manage to win this game it would be the biggest upset in team history since the Saints defeated the defending Super Bowl Champion St. Louis Rams in Aaron Brooks first NFL start. It’s going to take a miracle.
I’m going to this game because it’s probably the last time as a Saints fan I’ll get to go to the Superdome and be able to watch two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. After Monday night I’ve decided I’m going to attend as many Saints homes games as I can, which might sound strange since the Saints look fairly likely to be bad or at best 7-9. The end is near for the Drew Brees Era. You know it. We can feel it, we can sense it. The end of this magical ride is closing in fast. Much like a favorite dying relative your instinct might be to stay away as the 2017 Saints slip into the abyss of awful because you’d rather not see Sean Payton and Drew Brees’ time in New Orleans end this way, but don’t let the ending ruin the good bye.
I was there at the beginning when Steve Gleason ushered in the Golden Age of Saints football, and I’m going to try to be there at the end when everything is over.
My excitement about a home opener couldn’t possibly be lower. I see no scenario where the Saints win, I’m just hoping Drew Brees is amazing and the game is entertaining. It will be for about three quarters. Patriots 37-24
Tampa Bay (-6.5) vs. Chicago: Get used to the basement of the NFC South kids; the Saints are going to be there a while.
Indianapolis (+7.5) vs Arizona: These two teams rivaled the Saints for ‘Worst Week 1’ honors. Bruce Arians had the same look of Sean Payton; the ‘I don’t have any answers to these problems’ look of sadness. The Colts not signing a competent backup quarterback while knowing Andrew Luck was hurt is a football felony. I’m still picking them. Colts 20-16 San Francisco (+13) at Seattle: The Seahawks offensive line is like the Saints cornerbacks; so horrible you want to look away but can’t.
Cleveland (+7.5) at Baltimore: The only difference between the Browns and the Saints is Drew Brees. Don’t believe me? Look at the rosters. The Browns are playing just as many young guys as the Saints. Results are gonna be about the same.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at Saintshappyhour@gmail.com, find him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at iTunes