The Saints Issue

The Dome Patrol

Pat Swilling still feels that rush when he walks into a football stadium. In fact, says the legendary linebacker, he gets more of a rush now than he did when he played for the New Orleans Saints more than three decades ago. He just looks around in disbelief, honored and overwhelmed that he actually played football for 80,000, 90,000 — sometimes 100,000 people.

“I was there, man,” he tells me. “It is an indescribable feeling to know that you are one of, what, 1,500 guys in the world to get on that field and be a gladiator on Sunday? I don’t know if there is a word for that feeling. Even right now I get chills thinking about it. It’s just that wonderful.”

Swilling was one quarter of the “Dome Patrol,” the greatest linebacker corps in the history of the National Football League. The other three members were Rickey Jackson, Vaughan Johnson and Sam Mills. From 1986 to 1992, the four men terrorized the opposition and galvanized the New Orleans Saints to achieve what, at the time, were unimaginable franchise successes.

According to the NFL, among the Dome Patrol’s myriad achievements at the time include the fewest points surrendered and most turnovers forced, in 1991; and the fewest points surrendered the following year. Overall, they achieved a second-place ranking in points allowed, at 16.4 per game; a third-place ranking in allowed yards, at 289.8; a fourth-place ranking with 274 total sacks; and a seventh-place ranking at 123 total interceptions. The NFL reports: “No team held opponents to 200 total yards or fewer in that span more often than the Saints, who accomplished that feat 17 times.” (The nearest team only managed it 13 times.)

In addition, the Dome Patrol led the NFL in shutouts‚ which they did six times, tied only with the Buffalo Bills. The group helped take a flagging New Orleans team and give them an overall win count of 62 games, just behind the Bills and 49ers. To give some context to the magnitude of this achievement, consider that Buffalo and San Francisco were powerhouse teams, and played in Super Bowls regularly.

“We held teams to under 200 yards of total offense,” says Swilling. “That’s unheard of.”

Even that isn’t enough to convey precisely how astoundingly successful the Dome Patrol was. Until 1986 and the Jim Mora era of New Orleans football, the Saints had never had a winning season. In 1986, the team went into a rebuilding phase, and the following year, the Saints went an astonishing 12-3 for the season, reaching the playoffs for the first time. Except for 1990, when they went 8-8, the Saints, defended by the Dome Patrol, continued their streak, with winning records every season, and a total of four playoff appearances during the Dome Patrol regime.

In 1992, all four members of the Dome Patrol were chosen to play in the Pro Bowl, which never happens. Indeed, 1991 and 1992 saw the Dome Patrol as a unit reach the height of their abilities. It’s like the four linebackers could reach each other’s minds.

The Dome Patrol came together quickly, says Vic Fangio, the defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins, who in 1986 was the linebacker coach for the Saints. “Rickey Jackson was already on the roster that we inherited when we came to the Saints, and then we drafted Pat Swilling in our first draft in the third round,” he tells me. When the short-lived United States Football League folded, the Saints signed middle linebackers Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson, both of whom had dazzled in that league.

“Obviously, our knowledge of Sam Mills was immense from having him in the USFL,” says Fangio, who was defensive assistant coach for the USFL’s Philadelphia — later Baltimore — Stars. “We knew of Vaughan Johnson from coaching against him. We acquired Pat, just through the natural progression of the draft. We got three of the four in that one off-season.”

According to Swilling, Rickey Jackson was the key to the Dome Patrol’s early attempts at greatness. “When I got here, I looked around and I looked at him and I thought to myself, ‘If I could be half the player that Rickey Jackson is, we could be special. I could help him.’” Then, two weeks into training camp, a bus pulled up with USFL players that the Saints had the rights to. “Two of those guys were Vaughan Johnson and Sam Mills, and I watched them and thought, ‘Man, those two guys can play!’” That summer, he says, the linebackers realized that they had something really special. “And man, everybody worked their butts off.”

The linebacker corps evolved over the first year. Swilling began as a rookie, and played about half the time. The Saints made Johnson the starting inside linebacker by the fourth game of the season. By the second year, Swilling was a full-time player as an outside linebacker, and the four members of the Dome Patrol became full-time starting players.

“We had a lot of success defensively there, and it just seemed to be that those four guys together, usually, somehow, someway, made the plays to get the stops in critical situations,” says Fangio. “I remember our second year there, when the Saints had never had a winning season in the history of the franchise. Then finally we went to Pittsburgh and got our ninth win in our 12th game, which cemented our first winning season. It was all clinched with a goal line stand late in the game with those inside linebackers making some big tackles down there in the goal line area that preserved the win.”

Rickey Jackson, who played with the Saints from 1981 to 1993, tells me that the Dome Patrol excelled because each of its four members held each other to astoundingly high standards. You just wanted to play your best to keep up with the guy next to you.

“You had three other great players, so you had to try to make sure that you made your plays, too,” Jackson says. “It was a good little competition thing where all four guys tried to be the best on and off the field. You wanted to hold your side up. Each of us had great things that we did and, together, we ended up doing even greater things.”

According to Fangio, the Dome Patrol’s pursuit of excellence and the competitiveness that resulted sometimes needed moderating — and that could be a challenge. “There was friendly, healthy competition between them. All four of them wanted to be the best, and stay the best. There was always a team-first , but I had to referee that sometimes.”

For example, after winning games, the coaching staff would sometimes give one game ball to a defensive player and one to an offensive player. “Sometimes all four of them played pretty damn good,” he said. “I’d have to pick one, obviously, and make the other ones mad, or at least one or two of them mad. They each usually thought they should have gotten it! But that’s healthy. Once you deal with the emotion of it, they all wanted to be recognized for their plays in a good way.”

In 1991, the NFL named Swilling as the Defensive Player of the Year. “There were so many highs,” he says. “We played some team football, and it was a wonderful feeling to be part of a group that enjoyed playing together. Look, don’t get me wrong: We were full of ourselves — but we were full of ourselves for the team!”

He went down the list. Rickey Jackson, he says, was “one of the toughest and best all-around football players that I’ve ever seen. Truly the most valuable player on anybody’s team. He taught me so much about the nuances of the game.” Vaughan Johnson, he says, “was six-foot-three, , and truly one of the greatest inside linebackers to ever play, truly a Hall of Famer — and had one of the biggest heads I’ve ever seen in my life! It would knock the daylights out of you.” He describes Sam Mills as a “consummate pro, and he was the glue that held us together. Rickey and I were the flamboyant guys on the outside, that everyone talked about and who made all the plays. But Sam and Vaughan did all the dirty work.”

Swilling credits Jim Mora, then the Saints head coach, for bringing out a lot of the team’s greatness. “He had a military background and, hey man, you’d better bring yourself to work every day, do your job, and go home. And if you didn’t bring it every day, he was on you.”

The name “Dome Patrol” came from a poster made by the four linebackers. After taking the photo, there was a lot of discussion about what they would caption it. As Swilling recalls: “Someone said ‘We’re standing in front of the Dome in the picture. It looks like we’re guarding it, like a police department. We’re the Dome Patrol.’ That’s where it started.”

But that’s not where it ended, says Swilling. “Any time I go to a game, all I hear is people still saying, ‘Dome Patrol! Dome Patrol!” Swilling, Jackson, Mills and Johnson have each been inducted into the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame. Between the four of them, they’ve been to the Pro Bowl 20 times. Jackson and Mills are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Today, Swilling’s son Tre plays for the 49ers. Mills’s son was, until last year, defensive line coach of the Washington Commanders.

Sam Mills died in 2005 of intestinal cancer. Vaughan Johnson died in 2019 of kidney disease.

Recalling their time together, Jackson tells me, “You know, everybody did what they did best. When we got in the weight room, when we practiced, when we played, we always brought our best. Sam was on my side and Vaughan was on Pat’s side, and it was exciting to see who would do what every week as far as their side and our side. Everyone was always showing off all that they could do.”

Fangio explains that it would be hard for any team to build something like the Dome Patrol ever again. First, he says, it was the sheer talent of the four players. In addition, they played before the dawn of the free agency era of the NFL. “So, we had all four of them for seven straight years, 16 games a year,” he says. “So obviously, in the same defensive system, there would be a lot of synergy between the four of them. They knew exactly how each other would play and how they would react to certain plays.”

And though a lot has changed in football over the years, not that much has changed that they would not dominate the field yet again if you turned the clock back. “It would still work,” says Fangio. “If those four guys could be in their mid-20s today, they would still be great players in today’s NFL.”

They certainly set a standard, and if, like Fangio, you started out in the NFL with such a group, it would be a double-edged sword. He says, “I consider myself to be very lucky to have been around those guys that early in my career.” It wasn’t just that they were good players, however. “What it did for me is set a high standard of what a good linebacker should look like. At times, some people around the league have thought I wanted too much, but the Dome Patrol standard was set very early in my career in the NFL, and I’ve always tried to maintain that standard.”

He continues, “These guys were highly talented and very, very coachable. And when you have that combination, things are going to be good — and they were really good. And they undoubtedly were the best group of linebackers on one team for an extended period that’s ever played, and likely will ever play, in the National Football League.”