Stabler’s time with Saints better than many remember

(Photo: Montgomery Advertiser)

When it was finally confirmed Wednesday evening that infamous NFL quarterback Kenny Stabler had died due to complications from cancer, the expected began.

Quotes from various members of the Oakland Raiders, NFL Network specials on the Raiders during the Stabler years and countdowns about the top 10 quarterbacks of the 1970s flooded media outlets around the nation.

It all made sense and was certainly appropriate.

To longtime fans of the New Orleans Saints, though, the memories of one of the league’s best southpaw quarterbacks ever had nothing at all to do with Al Davis or the Silver-and-Black.

Sure, Stabler played for the Saints in only three seasons from 1982-84 and that stretch was little more than punctuation on all of the national reports on his death.

Over three decades later, however, Stabler’s impact on the Black-and-Gold is certainly worth remembering.

Stabler arrived in New Orleans in 1982, three years after playing a key role in depriving Saints’ fans of their first winning season and postseason berth. In 1979, New Orleans was forced to settle for an 8-8 record, thanks largely to a 21-point fourth quarter engineered by Stabler on Dec. 3.

It was Monday Night Football. A win would have gotten the Saints to 8-6 with only two games left. New Orleans jumped out to a 35-14 halftime lead, only to suffer a heartbreaking 42-35 loss.

Stabler started eight of nine games during the strike-shortened 1982 season, which ended with the Saints going a respectable 4-5 to set the stage for a promising 1983 and another run at the franchise’s breakthrough campaign.

What so many Saints fans most often recollect from that season was the final play of the final game. It was a 42-yard field goal by Rams’ kicker Mike Lansford to give Los Angeles its only offensive points of the game in a 26-24 win, forcing Saints’ fans to swallow yet another 8-8 season.

The frustration went deeper than that.

In week two, the Rams scored 16 points in the fourth quarter to nip Stabler and the Saints 30-27.

In week four in Dallas, the Cowboys returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown in the fourth quarter and then sacked Stabler for a safety and a 21-20 comeback win over the Saints.

At the time, some wondered if Stabler indeed was a Riverboat Gambler – literally.

In week nine, it was another tough loss, 27-21 at Buffalo.

Three week later, memories of that 1979 Monday Night loss to the Raiders returned. It was week 12 and a Monday Night win over the New York Jets would have gotten the Saints to 7-5.

New Orleans led 28-14 going to the fourth period, somewhat in part to 190 yards on 12-of-19 passing with a touchdown and an interception from Stabler. Instead of a pivotal win, though, Kirk Springs returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter for a 31-28 win.

The frustration boiled over with that season-finale home loss to the Rams in a game that New Orleans led the entire way until the game’s final play.

In his early days in Oakland, Stabler and the Raiders fought the label of not being able to win the big one. In their case, it was the AFC Championship Game.

The Raiders finally broke through with the Super Bowl title in 1976.

At a very different level, the Saints got oh so close to being winners for the first time during the Stabler years at 4-5 in 1982, then 8-8 and then 7-9 in 1984.

He should have been the Saints’ first winning quarterback in 1983. In the big picture of his career, it would just have been a nice little notch on the end of his belt.

To Saints’ fans at the time, it would have meant the world.

While that didn’t happen, several other firsts did take place during his three years in New Orleans. In week three of the 1983 season, Stabler led New Orleans to its first overtime win with a 34-31 win over Chicago.

And although he wasn’t a full-time starter any longer by 1984, the Saints earned their first-ever Monday Night Football win in the Stabler years, ironically 27-24 over his old Raiders’ nemesis, Pittsburgh.

To many around the country, those three years in New Orleans must have seemed a bit strange after so many years in Oakland.

They actually were quite fitting, however. Stabler was never really a West Coast guy. He’s a native of the Gulf Coast being from Foley, Ala.

He actually died on Wednesday just a hop, skip and a jump from the Superdome in Gulfport, Miss.

It would take three more years before the Saints finally got that winning season at 12-3 in 1987.

The first playoff win didn’t come until 2000 – a 31-28 win over the Rams when the Rams’ speedy returning dropped a late punt.

Had Springs done that 17 years earlier, Stabler’s legacy in these parts would have loomed much larger.

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