METAIRIE — The man who gave new meaning to the word “playoffs!’’ has some sage advice for the 5-7 New Orleans Saints, who are on the brink of elimination from the 2012 postseason hunt and an opportunity to play in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
“You’ve just got to keep grinding,’’ former Saints coach Jim Mora said. “As long as you’ve got a mathematical chance to make the playoffs, you’ve got to keep grinding.
“Even if you don’t have a chance to get to the playoffs, you’ve got to keep grinding. You’ve got to treat every game like it’s the most important game of the season and you’ve got to keep fighting. Sometimes when you keep fighting, when most people think you’re out of it, you end up getting in the playoffs like we did that year.’’
That year was 1990, the year quarterback Bobby Hebert sat out because of a contract dispute and Saints officials ended up acquiring quarterback Steve Walsh from the Dallas Cowboys early in the season for first-, second- and third-round draft picks.
After 12 games, the ’90 Saints were treading water at 5-7 and all but mathematically eliminated from the playoff race, which is the same position the 2012 Saints find themselves as they prepare to play the NFC East-leading New York Giants (7-5) on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
But a 3-1 finishing kick enabled Mora’s team to finish 8-8 and claim the NFC’s sixth and final playoff berth. According to Elias Sports Bureau, that team is one of five NFL teams since 1990 to lose seven of its first 12 games and reach the postseason.
And it did not come easy.
The Saints had to win their last two games to make it happen, first at San Francisco 13-10 in Week 16, then a heart-pounding 20-17 victory against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 17 on Monday Night Football.
On New Year’s Eve, in a sold-out Superdome, no less.
“Then, you’ve got to have some luck like we did, where the right teams lose and the right teams win, to get you where you have to be,’’ Mora said.
Morten Andersen provided the heroics, kicking a 24-yard field goal with two seconds remaining to send the Saints into the postseason.
“I remember the Superdome being electric that night (Dec. 31, 1990),’’ Andersen said from his home in Lake Lanier, Ga. “I had to kick it twice because the Rams blocked the first one. But they were offsides, so it basically was a chipshot.
“It was unbelievable. But that’s why you play 16 games. It’s not over till the final whistle of the final game, man. It’s how you finish. It took us down to the final two seconds of the season but we used every second. We got our money’s worth, and our fans got their money’s worth.’’
Just three days earlier, Mora launched into his now infamous profanity-laced rant with New Orleans TV sports personality Ron Swoboda on the possibility of playing a “useless’’ game on the last night of the regular season.
Twenty-two years later, the heated, yet comical, exchange between Mora and Swoboda remains “must-see’’ TV on the Internet. Just the mention of the incident recently seemed to raise the blood pressure of both men.
“Back then, as Mora would often do with the wrong person asking the wrong question, he would launch into them and I was always the wrong person with Jim Mora,’’ Swoboda said. “But I must say toward the end of our relationship it excited me to get him (mad).’’
“There’s never a meaningless game, I don’t care if you are 0-15,’’ Mora said. “There is a never a meaningless game. You play to win every game. No game is meaningless.’’
And that’s the approach Mora took with his team during the 1990 season when the playoffs seemed beyond the realm of possibility, first at 5-7 and again at 6-8.
Former Saints guard Jim Dombrowski, the team’s No. 1 draft pick in 1986, said this year’s team would be well-advised to approach every day with blinders on and stay focused on the here and now.
“My perception is they’re going to need some help, that this is out of their control,’’ Dombrowski said. “But if they lose another game, I would suspect that it may be mathematically impossible to even get to the playoffs. So, if you start worrying about the playoff picture now, then you’re not focusing on what you need to focus on and chances are you’re going to get beat and it’s going to become a moot point anyway.
“Look, they probably need to run the table. Well, you can’t run the table if you don’t win the next game. It’s all ‘coach speak’ and they are all clichés, but like most cliches they are based largely on truth and fact.’’
No doubt, Saints interim coach Joe Vitt has reminded his team of another old and tattered cliché — the future is now.
“There are no magical speeches,’’ Mora said. “It’s a philosophy and how Sean Payton and his coaching staff have prepared their team through the years. Joe knows what to say. He won’t ever quit and his players won’t ever quit. They’ll fight to the end even if they are eliminated at some point.
“But the NFC is a still crazy playoff picture. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.’’
Just ask Jim Mora.