The Saints had their first .500 in 1979 at 8-8 under Dick Nolan. That means the franchise started their history with 13 consecutive losing seasons. The Saints wouldn’t have a winning season until 1987 which marked the time of their first playoff berth. Very few of us remember anything pre Jim Mora (if we even remember/paid attention that far back) and as a Saints history buff I think it’s important that we remember the “good ol’ days”. Except they weren’t good at all. They were horrible. Jim Mora’s first season was 1986 and the franchise finally started to see some success. That coincided with Tom Benson purchasing the team in 1985. So what I present to you below are the best players in Saints history prior to the team having any real success. That might seem silly, but these guys laid the groundwork amidst all the pain and suffering for the team to eventually turn things around. Or maybe they had nothing to do with it whatsoever. But I present to you the best of what was definitely the NFL worst. This is 11 starters on offense, 11 starters on defense, a kicker, a punter and a returner.
QB: Archie Manning (1971-1982)
This one was easy. He was the only quarterback in Saints history not named Drew Brees to make a Pro Bowl and he made two of them. Despite a 35-91-3 record and no help from his teammates, Manning provided exciting play, some memorable moments and a couple decent seasons.
RB: George Rogers (1981-1984)
To this day, despite only playing four seasons with the Saints, Rogers is 2nd all time in team history for rushing yards. He made the Pro Bowl twice and his 1,674 yards rushing in 1981 are still a single season franchise record.
FB: Tony Galbreath (1976-1980)
Galbreath was a short yardarge specialist and a terrific receiver out of the backfield. His 74 receptions in 1978 were the most ever in a season by a Saints running back until Darren Sproles surpassed that mark in 2011. Galbreath is 10th all time in Saints history with 33 scored touchdowns.
WR: Danny Abramowicz (1967-1972)
He’s one spot ahead of Galbreath with 37 career touchdowns. He made his lone Pro Bowl in 1969 and was the one bright spot in the early years. He’s 4th in team history in receiving yards.
WR: Wes Chandler (1978-1981)
His best season came in 1979 when he went over 1,000 yards receiving and made the Pro Bowl.
TE: Henry Childs (1974-1980)
This was a tough one between Childs and Hoby Brenner but I went with Childs because Brenner started in 1981 and went to 1993, so some of his best years were after 85. Childs made the Pro Bowl in 1979 and had over 800 yards receiving twice and 9 touchdowns receiving once. He’s 3rd in team history for both receptions and yards by a tight end and 2nd in team history for receiving touchdowns by a tight end.
T: Stan Brock (1980-1992)
Brock somehow never made the Pro Bowl but he’s a top 10 all time Saints for sure. He was immediate starter in his rookie season and was dominant right away. Not counting his success in the Mora years he was very good before that.
T: Don Morrison (1971-1977)
During his entire time in New Orleans he was an uncontested starter. He played 94 games as a Saint. I also considered Dave Lafary.
G: Jake Kupp (1967-1975)
You know you were good if you found a way to make a Pro Bowl on these brutal Saints teams. Kupp did so in 1969 and was a critical part of the few wins the team had during that time.
G: Emanuel Zanders (1974-1980)
Zanders was a starter all 7 years in New Orleans and played 87 games for the Saints in his career.
C: John Hill (1975-1984)
Hill was a very solid player for the Saints, giving the team 10 good seasons as a starter. He’s 17th all time in games played with 138.
DE: Bruce Clark (1982-1988)
His 10.5 sacks in 1984 earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl, so while he played for the Saints after 1985, his best season was pre-Benson/Mora.
DE: Bob Pollard (1971-1977)
Pollard was a durable starter for the Saints for 7 seasons. He immediately became a starter in his rookie year despite being an 11th round pick.
DT: Jim Wilks (1981-1993)
Wilks is 5th all time in Saints history with 183 games played. And while he had a very long and productive career, his best seasons were 1983 and 1984 where he posted 8 and 7.5 sacks respectively. For a physical interior player his sack totals were impressive. He’s 9th all time in career sacks.
DT: Derland Moore (1973-1985)
Moore is one of the all time greats in Saints history. He made his lone Pro Bowl in 1983 but played well throughout his career. He is 8th all time with 170 games played as a Saint. If sacks were recorded before 1982 it’s safe to assume he’d be on the all time list for the Saints in that department too.
LB: Rickey Jackson (1981-1993)
Jackson is a top 3 all time Saints player and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His 115 sacks are most all time in Saints history. He made six Pro Bowls in his career but half of those were 1985 or sooner. He was a huge part of the franchise turning it’s fortunes around. He’s second only to Morten Andersen in games played with 195.
LB: Jim Kovach (1979-1985)
He quickly became a starter after his rookie season and was a productive player for 7 years. He played on some bad defenses but did his best to hold it together.
LB: Joe Federspiel (1972-1980)
He probably deserved a spot in the Pro Bowl in 1975 and would have gone if he played on a better team. Federspiel was rock solid for 9 seasons for the Saints and is one of the best players in team history that no one has heard of. He played 130 games for the Saints.
CB: Dave Whitsell (1967-1969)
He was only with the Saints for a short period before retiring but his impact was immediate. He had 19 interceptions in 3 seasons with the Saints including 10 in 1967 which landed him in the Pro Bowl. Despite only 3 seasons as a Saint, he’s still 5th all time in team history for interceptions.
CB: Johnnie Poe (1981-1987)
His best season was 1983 when he had 7 interceptions. He’s 6th all time, one spot behind Whitsell, in team interceptions.
S: Tommy Myers (1972-1981)
He’s second all time in interceptions for the Saints with 36. He had at least one interception in each of his 10 seasons with the Saints and his best was 1979 when he made the Pro Bowl for his only time with 7 interceptions.
S: Dave Waymer (1980-1989)
He’s first all time in Saints history for interceptions with 37. While his best seasons came after 1985, he was already well on his way to being a star at that point.
K: Tom Dempsey (1969-1970)
I could have picked Morten Andersen who started in 1982 and is clearly the best kicker in franchise history, but he didn’t make his first Pro Bowl until 1985. Further, Dempsey held a record that stood for a long time and still captures one of the most memorable plays in franchise history. That would of course be his 63 yard field goal that beat the Detroit Lions at the buzzer. He would make the Pro Bowl in 1969.
P: Brian Hansen (1984-1988)
He punted 5 seasons for the Saints but it was his season in 1984 that landed him in his only Pro Bowl. He averaged 43.8 yards per punt and would never do better for the Saints.
KR: John Gilliam (1967-1968)
Gilliam was a role playing receiver and a decent kick returner, nothing more. But on the first play in franchise history, Gilliam took the Saints’ opening kick return 94 yards for a touchdown. What would follow was 20 years of misery but he got the franchise off to a magic start. That moment in franchise history lives on forever.