In the early 1990s, the New Orleans Saints had arguably the best linebacker group in the NFL.
It’s also reasonable to say that the quartet was the best assemblage of linebackers on one team in league history.
For Saints fans, their defense was a source of pride as the organization had overcome two decades of futility and was finally a contender.
One of those vaunted linebackers for New Orleans was Pat Swilling.
When he retired, Saints legend PAT SWILLING had 12th most sacks in NFL history.
Tuesday, he's on Prime Time Sports! pic.twitter.com/B9d1lqKCmc
— D. Scott Alexander (@DScottAlexander) July 24, 2017
Swilling’s gift was sacking the quarterback, and he was very good at it.
He had already turned the sack into an art form in college, and as a pro, he would consistently post double-digit sacks.
This is the story of Pat Swilling.
“Too Tall” Influences a Young Swilling
Patrick Travis Swilling was born on October 25, 1964, in Toccoa, Georgia.
• 1991 NFL Defensive Player of the Year
· Led NFL with 17 sacks
• 5 Pro Bowls
• 4x All-Pro (2x First-Team)
• Led his team in sacks six times
• Member of Saints' "Dome Patrol" pic.twitter.com/BFRjASLDsa
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) October 25, 2020
He grew up playing basketball and baseball and only decided to play football by accident.
Swilling recalled, “I think I was about 12 years old. I’ll never forget this. I was sitting with some family and we were watching the Dallas Cowboys play. Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones came around the corner and he made a sack. They were talking about all the sacks he had and what a great pass rusher he was and I thought, ‘All he does is come around the corner and hits quarterbacks.’ I said to myself, ‘Man, I could do that.’”
That moment would be the impetus for Swilling’s professional future.
As he entered high school, Swilling joined the football team and never looked back.
“I was a big boy. As a freshman, I was about 6’3” or 6’4” and about 195-200 pounds. That’s when I started playing.”
Swilling soon developed his technique for rushing the passer and local rivals began to take notice.
In fact, one area resident was aware of Swilling’s potential and let him know about it.
“Billy Shaw lived in my hometown of Toccoa, Georgia. Billy Shaw is a Hall of Famer in the NFL. He played for Buffalo. He told me, as a 16-year-old, ‘One of these days, you will play NFL football.’ I looked at Billy Shaw like he was crazy.”
With the huge vote of confidence from a former pro football player, Swilling stepped up his game even more.
By the time he was a senior, Swilling had made himself into one of the deadliest pass rushers in the state of Georgia.
He was pursued by numerous high-profile college programs.
“I went on some visits to Auburn, Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Georgia. Initially, I committed to go to Auburn University,” said Swilling.
Not long after his commitment to Auburn, Swilling de-committed to attend Georgia Tech and play for coach Bill Curry.
Swilling Stars for the Ramblin’ Wreck
Curry had become the coach at Georgia Tech in 1980 and won only two games total his first two seasons.
That changed in 1982 when Swilling came aboard as a freshman.
The Yellow Jackets would improve dramatically in ‘82, finishing the year with a 6-5 record.
1982 – Georgia Tech vs Wake Forest
Glenn Spencer and Pat Swilling tackle a Wake Forest ballcarrier. The Wake player's helmet decal is backwards. Including the player's in the foreground as well. pic.twitter.com/5P4Zi2I7XZ
— Yellow Jacket Uniforms (@GTUniVault) May 14, 2021
While Swilling was making tackles and taking down signal callers, the Ramblin’ Wreck went backward in 1983, winning just three games.
Then, in 1984, the program won six games again, and there was a sense that things would get even better soon.
Swilling Sets Records and Helps Lead Tech to a Bowl
Georgia Tech finally had a breakthrough in Swilling’s senior year.
In 1984, the Jackets’ defense was especially nasty, and they were given the nickname “Black Watch.”
Defensive coordinator Don Lindsey gave the group the moniker after Scottish military forces that used the name in the 1700s.
Swilling led the Black Watch again in 1985 and reached new heights in his pass rush ability.
During the first game of the year against NC State, Swilling was nearly unblockable as he tore through the Wolfpack line and sacked quarterback (and future pro) Erik Kramer seven times.
— Fueled By Sports (@FuelingSports) September 14, 2016
His performance set a program and NCAA record for the number of sacks in a game.
Swilling ended the season with 15 total sacks, which also set a school record.
Georgia Tech finished the year 8-1-2 and defeated Michigan State 17-14 in the Hall of Fame Classic Bowl game.
The win marked the first bowl victory for the Yellowjackets since 1972.
Swilling finished his college career with 285 tackles (second most in school history) and 23 sacks.
He was voted as a first-team All-American and played in the Senior Bowl.
Third Round Pick
There was no doubt that Swilling was a good linebacker.
His game against NC State and his 15 sacks in 1985 were known throughout the personnel departments of every NFL franchise.
Various organizations such as the Rams and Buccaneers were interested in Swilling as was Bill Parcells of the New York Giants.
“Bill Parcells had come to see me about four different times,” said Swilling. “The last time he came to see me, he said, ‘Son, I need an inside linebacker. But I like you”.
The one knock on Swilling at the time, however, was that he rushed the passer too much at Georgia Tech.
“At Georgia Tech, I was put in a situation where I rushed the passer almost every down,” explained Swilling. “In the NFL, they wanted to know if I could drop back into coverage and cover. I had to prove to the NFL that I could cover. That’s why I dropped from a late first-rounder or early second-rounder to a third-round pick”.
Sure enough, Swilling was drafted with the 60th overall selection in the third round of the 1986 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints.
— SaintsNOW (@SaintsNOW) October 17, 2016
Just like he had initially experienced at Georgia Tech, Swilling went to an organization that wasn’t known for winning.
Since its first season in the NFL in 1967, the Saints had never posted a winning record and had never ventured to the postseason.
In his rookie year, Swilling was a backup.
However, he was able to get four sacks and 26 tackles in limited action.
Swilling and the Saints Finally Break Through
Swilling’s rookie year in 1986 might not have ended with a winning record.
However, that season the Saints began to build a team that would become one of the most exciting in the NFL, enticing fans to return to the Superdome.
In addition to getting Swilling in the third round of the 1986 draft, New Orleans had also drafted running backs Dalton Hilliard from LSU in the second round and Reuben Mayes from Washington State with their first pick in the third round.
Both backs contributed heavily to the Saints’ offense, and Mayes would win NFL Rookie of the Year honors.
That same season, the United States Football League shut down and two more very important pieces of the puzzle arrived.
“…midway during camp, about the third week, the USFL folded. We look up and two guys get off the bus, Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson. No one could have ever understood how much they would end up meaning to our team’s success,” remembered Swilling.
It was at that moment that the Saints knew they had a special linebacking core.
— WHODATBOSS (@whodatboss) May 25, 2022
They already had veteran Rickey Jackson and a talented rookie in Swilling.
With Mills and Vaughan on board, opposing offenses were in trouble.
1986 also saw the arrival of head coach Jim Mora, who instilled a sense of discipline into the team that was sorely lacking.
Mora brought with him linebackers coach Vic Fangio, and Fangio delighted in designing defensive schemes for his squad to destroy offenses.
“We didn’t just line up, me and Rickey, and just come off the corner. We lined up with some intelligent information on what the offenses were doing week in and week out,” Swilling recalled.
After failing to make the playoffs in ‘86, New Orleans surprised everyone but themselves when they went 12-3 during the strike-shortened 1987 season.
— NOLA.com (@NOLAnews) October 18, 2016
The record represented by far the most wins in franchise history and was aided by a nine-game winning streak to end the year.
Swilling started 12 games and had an interception, three forced fumbles, and 10.5 sacks.
Although the Minnesota Vikings would spank the Saints 44-10 in New Orleans’ first-ever postseason appearance, Mills was voted to the Pro Bowl and Mora was named the NFL Coach of the Year.
The Dome Patrol
In 1988 and 1989 the Saints had winning records but didn’t make the playoffs.
At the time, the organization was part of the oddly configured NFC West, which included the San Francisco 49ers, LA Rams, and Atlanta Falcons.
The Niners were consistently tough to beat and typically ended each season at the top of the conference.
LA had a solid team as well and made an appearance in the NFC Championship game in ‘89.
That level of intra-conference competition meant the Saints had to work twice as hard just to win enough games to qualify for the postseason.
Although the playoffs were out of reach in ‘88 and ‘89, the “Dome Patrol” was still very much effective.
That was the nickname the New Orleans linebackers were given due to their unbending ferocity and leadership on the defense.
The #Saints Dome Patrol LB Corps of the late-'80s and early-'90s
Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson, Pat Swilling pic.twitter.com/O9zVf7qc5N
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) November 26, 2021
In Swilling’s rookie year, the Saints had the seventh-ranked defense in the NFL.
The 1989 group dropped to 11th overall, but Swilling made his first Pro Bowl when he personally dropped opposing quarterbacks 16.5 times and had 56 tackles.
He was also named a second-team All-Pro for the season.
The only thing missing was an offense that could keep up with the success of the defense.
New Orleans made their second ever postseason in 1990 when it went 8-8 and lost to Chicago in the Wild Card round.
During a Week 10 game that year versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, starting quarterback Bobby Herbert was out with an injury.
The defense was forced to step up and did so with ease, sacking the Bucs’ quarterbacks six times.
“The poster featuring Sam Mills, Vaughn Johnson, Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling became a must-have for #Saints fans”.
— Nación WhoDat⚜️ (@nacionwhodat) August 8, 2022
Swilling was part of the action as he piled up a career-best four sacks during the contest.
New Orleans won the game easily 35-7 and kept their playoff hopes alive.
Swilling had 11 sacks in 1990 and a career-best 63 total tackles and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the second time.
Defensive Player of the Year
It’s safe to say that the 1991 Saints defense scared the daylights out of opposing offenses.
In the midst of their 11-5 record (which won the conference), the New Orleans defense ranked first in the NFL.
Swilling was a man possessed and led the league with 17 sacks, one interception for a touchdown, and added 60 tackles.
For his efforts, he was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, made the roster of his third Pro Bowl, and was also named first-team All-Pro.
As much fun as the defense was having, the Saints’ offense was clicking as well and ended the year ranked eighth in the NFL.
Saints swag thread. Who you got?
Mine👇 Pat Swilling pic.twitter.com/BOatlUJINw
— FB_Helmet_Guy (@FB_Helmet_Guy) January 18, 2021
Unfortunately, during the Wild Card round against division rival Atlanta, the Falcons’ offense scored more points than the Saints and upset New Orleans 27-20.
One year later, Swilling had 10.5 sacks and 49 tackles and was named first-team All-Pro again.
The Saints won 12 games for the second time in six years, and the defense repeated as the best in the league.
Remarkably, all four Saints linebackers were named to the Pro Bowl (the only time in NFL history this has happened)
“In today’s NFL, you would never put four guys of that stature on the same team together,” Swilling said in 2019. “You couldn’t afford us today. When you look back on the history of what we did, it’ll never happen again.”
Despite all the positives, the franchise drew the ire of its fans when it continued to flail in the postseason.
For the third year in a row, the team underperformed when it mattered most and this time the Philadelphia Eagles ended New Orleans’ season in the Wild Card round 36-20.
Trade to Detroit
In 1992, Swilling was a restricted free agent, which meant that other teams could offer him a new deal, but the Saints could match it and keep him.
The Detroit Lions offered the pass rusher a three-year deal worth over $5 million, but New Orleans general manager Jim Finks matched it.
That forced Swilling to return to the Big Easy, but not without letting the world know that all was not kosher.
He publicly shared that he did not feel appreciated by Saints management, which was the main reason he had entertained offers.
For his part, Finks denied such claims while pointing out that Swilling had held out of training camp in 1989 and 1990.
“I don’t take that seriously. That’s posturing,” Finks said. “If I were that sensitive, I would have been out of this business a long time ago.”
The NFL Player’s Association believed that Swilling had a right to sign with any team he wished.
“It ought to be up to Pat Swilling whether he accepts offers from New Orleans or Detroit. Jim Finks doesn’t own Pat Swilling, and he’s acting as if he does. The problem is with the system,” the NFLPA’s Doug Allen said.
One year later, both teams were back at the bargaining table, and this time Swilling became a Lion.
Pat Swilling as a Lion pic.twitter.com/Um15yNXqN8
— Mike Foreman (@foremanm71) August 30, 2020
He was now unshackled by New Orleans management, but Swilling was also without his linebacking brethren.
Without Jackson, Mills, or Johnson to take some of the attention, Swilling was heavily targeted by Detroit’s opponents.
They slowed him down, but not by much, as he still collected 6.5 sacks, 29 tackles, five forced fumbles, and a career-best three interceptions.
That was good enough to get Swilling his fifth Pro Bowl invitation.
In 1994, Swilling only started seven games due to injuries, collecting 3.5 sacks and 28 tackles.
“While it’s no knock on Detroit, it took me two years to wrap my head around the fact that I don’t play with Vaughan, Rickey, and Sam anymore. I got hurt as well, so I was never the player they wanted me to be in Detroit,” Swilling uttered.
The Lions went to the postseason both years but lost in the Wild Card round each time.
That gave Swilling the distinction of being the only NFL player in history to play in six postseason games without getting a win.
Swilling is a Raider
Detroit’s management was scared by Swilling’s lack of production in 1994 and released him following the season.
He then signed with the Oakland Raiders in 1995.
Swilling made the Lions regret their decision when he bounced back with 13 sacks, five forced fumbles, and 36 tackles while starting every game that year.
In 1996, Swilling added six sacks and 26 tackles, then announced his retirement.
It would be short-lived, however, and after sitting out the 1997 season, he returned to the Raiders in 1998.
— AFL Godfather 🏴☠️👓🏈 (@NFLMAVERICK) October 25, 2021
By then, Swilling had slowed considerably and was used as a role player.
The Raiders failed to post a winning record during his time in Oakland, and playing football still wasn’t the same as when he was in New Orleans.
“I never again felt the love of the game like I did with those guys (in New Orleans),” said Swilling. “Football was fun. It wasn’t about the money. It was different.”
He would end his 12th season with two sacks and 17 total tackles.
During his career, Swilling had totals of 490 tackles, 36 forced fumbles, 11 fumble recoveries, 107.5 sacks, and six picks including one returned for a score.
He was a two-time first-team All-Pro, a two-time second-team All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler, NFL sack leader (1991), and NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1991).
Additionally, Swilling was named to the Saints’ Hall of Fame.
Shortly after leaving the game, Swilling got involved in politics and was a member of the Louisiana House District 100 for three years.
Swilling continued to be recognized for his playing ability long after retiring.
Congrats to #Saints Great Pat Swilling on being elected to the Allstate Sugar Bowl Greater New Orleans Hall of Fame!
— Saints Legends (@SaintsLegends) August 11, 2019
Swilling has been vocal lately about the fact that he, Johnson, and Mills have yet to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame alongside Jackson.
“How aren’t we in the Hall of Fame, based on our numbers?” Swilling asked aloud. “My numbers, Sam Mills’ numbers, Vaughan Johnson’s contribution and numbers are all there. I’ll never understand it. There are six or seven guys in the Hall of Fame right now at outside linebacker that don’t have my numbers. I’ve never even been nominated. How is that possible?”
Currently, Swilling works in real estate and development in the New Orleans area and finds joy in giving back to the community that supported him during his playing days.
“I always believed that I could play and play at a high level in the NFL,” Swilling said. “We were excited to finally bring New Orleans a winner and to make multiple playoff appearances. It was an honor to play with Rickey, Vaughan, and Sam. We made it very tough on opponents, especially when they came into our building.”
Swilling and his wife, Robin, have four children including three boys and a girl.
Two of his sons, Tre and Bruce, followed in his footsteps and played football for Georgia Tech.