When people talk about the New Orleans Saints of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to evolve into the heart and soul of the organization’s best teams to that point in franchise history.
The term “Dome Patrol,” given to the team’s four starting linebackers, was synonymous with helmet-rattling, pad-popping tackles — especially in a six-year stretch from 1987-93 in which the Saints won 70 games and made the playoffs four times.
Rickey Jackson. Sam Mills. Pat Swilling. Vaughan Johnson.
The first three received most of the attention, but former Saints defensive coordinator Steve Sidwell contends that Johnson was every bit as good — which is why he’s taking his place alongside his three close friends in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday.
With Jackson, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer, and Swilling going after the quarterback, Mills and Johnson did a lot of the dirty work — often taking on extra blockers to free up Jackson and Swilling.
“The people who knew football back then realized that Vaughan was as good as any of those guys,” said Sidwell, who ran the Saints defense from 1986-94. “Rickey, Sam and Pat got a little more acclaim, but Vaughan played a position that’s harder to get acclaim.”
Sidwell remembers the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Johnson, who was taken by the Saints in the USFL Supplemental Draft after that league folded in 1986, as a versatile athlete with a rare combination of size and speed.
“What stuck out to me is that Vaughan was a wonderful athlete,” Sidwell said.
“He was big and fast, and he had an incredible ability to keep his feet. He moved like a gazelle, and when he drew a bead on you, he’d knock you silly.”
Indeed, the hard-hitting Johnson, who missed the first month of Jim Mora’s first training camp, was quickly welcomed to the linebackers corps led by Jackson.
By his second season, Johnson was a proven starter who would go on to cement his spot with the “Dome Patrol” — playing eight seasons with the team and being named to four Pro Bowls from 1989-92.
Together, Jackson (6), Mills (4), Swilling (4) and Johnson (4) combined for 18 Pro Bowls, and in 1992 they earned the distinction of being the first team with four linebackers in the annual all-star game.
NFL Films last year ranked them as the greatest linebacker corps in league history.
Johnson said recognition was never his thing as long as his peers knew who he was, which was evident when opposing players and coaches voted him to four Pro Bowls. He also was second-team All-Pro in 1989.
“I wasn’t into the publicity, like who’s getting this and who’s getting that,” he said. “I came to work every day and gave 100 percent; that’s all.”
It was plenty enough.
The “Dome Patrol” was a big reason the Saints allowed the fewest points and were second in fewest yards allowed in 1991 and ’92.
They won their first division title in 1991 and racked up 23 regular-season victories in 1991 and ’92.
Twenty-five years after walking into the Saints training camp, Johnson, who earned a spot in the Saints Hall of Fame in 2000, can look back fondly on the experience.
But it wasn’t a sure thing. Johnson said there was a large number of inside linebackers on the roster and he had a lot less time to prove himself.
“I wasn’t nervous, because I never thought I would have a problem making the team,” Johnson said. “They didn’t know anything about me. But I was confident I could make it given the opportunity.”
That was the key. He didn’t play in the first preseason game because he hadn’t picked up the defense yet and was told by Mora he’d play the second half of the next game.
On his first play, he remembered making a big hit on a ball carrier that drew oohs and ahs from the crowd, and the next play provided blanket coverage on the tight end.
Apparently, that’s all the Saints coaches needed to see.
“One of the good things was, Mora came from the USFL and he saw me play,” said Johnson, who was with the Jacksonville Bulls in 1984 and ’85. “I just had to refresh his memory.”
From there, Johnson fit in well with the other linebackers. They developed a strong bond that has lasted a quarter of a century, and Swilling said there’s a reason for that: They didn’t care who got the credit.
Jackson and Swilling came off the perimeter to combine for 152 sacks with Mills and Johnson in the lineup. Johnson lined up mostly on the weak side with Swilling, who earned first-team All-Pro honors twice and was the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 1991.
“I always said my success was predicated on Vaughan’s ability to play the run,” said Swilling. “A lot of the time, Vaughan would look over and give me the OK to go after the quarterback.
“He was a killer in the middle of our defense.”
Johnson, who also was a solid player against the run, had 100-plus tackles three times while with the team — including a career-high 114 in 1988.
Johnson was thrilled to find out he’s joining his sidekicks in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Jackson was inducted in 1999, followed by Mills in 2001 and Swilling in 2007.
“Playing with those guys made me a better player — and a more complete player,” said Johnson. “It was outstanding playing with those guys.
“We took great pride in that ‘Dome Patrol’ label, and I think our play indicated that.”