REST IN PEACE, STEVE SIDWELL/Longtime Saints defensive coordinator, 78, brought a presence to sideline


Steve Sidwell made his mark on the National Football League, and he’s an iconic figure in New Orleans Saints history.

Sidwell, the Saints’ defensive coordinator from 1986 until 1994, was a no-nonsense kind of guy, a little gruff but actually warm at the same time. His baritone voice — his training camp command, “get off the ground,” immediately comes to mind — may have been his trademark, but ‘Sid’ was truly a Renassiance Man, a football lifer, husband and father, and definitely the greatest defensive coordinator the Saints have ever had.

Sidwell died on Wednesday night, according to a news release from the Saints. He was 78 years old.

“For nine years,” Saints owner Gayle Benson said in a statement, “Steve Sidwell played an integral role in the success of the New Orleans Saints, and helped develop several of the franchise’s greatest defensive players. The success of these teams and players continue to resonate with our organization and fan base to this day. My late husband, Tom (Benson), owned the team during Steve’s entire tenure and had a great affinity for him both as a coach and as a person.

“In addition to being an outstanding coach, Steve was also a dedicated husband, father and grandfather. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Sidwell family, including his wife, Kathleen, and his sons, Brad and Scott.”

Sidwell called the shots during the Saints’ “Dome Patrol” era, when they operated out of a basic 3-4 alignment with a quartet of linebackers seldom, if ever, seen in NFL history. Sidwell was selected to the team’s Hall of Fame in 2004, joining the four linebackers who comprised the backbone of the Saints’ defense for for seven or eight years.

Two of them are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, outside linebacker Rickey Jackson and the late, great Sam Mills, the 5-foot-9 signal caller of the Saints’ aggressive defense.

One of the others, Pat Swilling, was voted the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1991, after leading the league with 17 sacks.

The rugged Vaughan Johnson, who died in 2019, completed the Dome Patrol from his inside linebacker position. Johnson was known as one of the NFL’s hardest hitters, and he had amazing quickness for a strapping man who stood 6-foot-3 while packing about 250 pounds on a tight, muscular frame.

Sidwell was one of the older coaches on Jim Mora’s staff in New Orleans, and he was popular with fans and media types, too.

I reached former Saints cornerback Toi Cook via text message on Thursday night, and heard from him on Friday morning.

“Steve Sidwell was a GREAT defensive coordinator,” Cook said in his text message. “Looked who he churned out — (future NFL head coaches) Dom Capers and Vic Fangio.

“He’s really the Godfather of the great defenses we had with the Saints, in the ’80s and into the ’90s, and Dom and Vic have carried that philosophy until today. He made me a better player, and was one of the reasons I played 11 years in the NFL.


Sidwell spent 16 years in the college ranks before joining Ron Meyer’s staff with the NFL’s New England Patriots, in 1982. That’s when he first worked with Jim Mora, the future Saints head coach and an iconic figure in club history.

Four years later, Mora brought Sidwell to New Orleans, after his original choice to be the Saints’ defensive coordinator, Vince Tobin, left the team after a few weeks, to become the defensive coordinator of the NFL’s Chicago Bears.

Sid made an impact almost immediately.

In 1986, Mora’s Saints were in playoff contention into December, and finished 7-9. One year later, they made club history and captured the hearts of New Orleans and the entire Gulf South, with the first winning season in Saints history.

There was a strike that year, and three “replacement games” after the NFL Players Association voted to walk out two games into the 1987 season.

The Saints opened the season 1-1, and then went 2-1 in their replacement games, using players willing to cross the NFLPA picket line, including some veteran players, particularly toward the end of the strike.

The Saints returned to the Louisiana Superdome to resume the 1986 season, facing Joe Montana and the NFC West rival San Francisco 49ers.

The Saints outplayed the 49ers for nearly the entire game, but Mora’s squad had some offensive limitations, and Bill Walsh’s 49ers squad pulled out a 26-24 victory. That was the game the ignited Mora’s “coulda, woulda, shoulda” postgame meltdown, which served as the impetus for a nine-game winning streak that caught New Orleans and thereabouts by storm.

It was the second season in New Orleans for three members of the “Dome Patrol” — Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Pat Swilling. And by then, the Dome Patrol had become an NFL phenomenon. There was a slick poster of the four men, in black-and-gold military garb, standing next to a Hummer in front of the Superdome.

In 1992, all four Dome Patrol members represented the Saints in the Pro Bowl. Swilling was a first-team All Pro; Jackson and Mills were second-team selections to the All-Pro team. But the Saints still had limitations — namely, a pedestrian offense — and a tendency to rely on place-kicker Morten Andersen for field goals in low-scoring games.

Swilling was shipped off to the Detroit Lions after the season, and the Saints used one of the draft picks acquired in the trade for future All-Pro offensive tackle William Roaf, a Top 10 overall pick from Louisiana Tech.

I suppose we should cut to the chase here.

Those Saints never won an NFL playoff game, during Sidwell’s tenure with the Saints. They fell in the wild-card game to the Minnesota Vikings, 44-10, in 1987, followed by postseason losses to Chicago (1990), Atlanta (’91, in New Orleans) and then finally the Philadelphia Eagles to close the 1992 season.

There were more than a few frayed nerves at the Saints’ ancient practice facility on David Drive in Metairie.

Hall of Fame executive Jim Finks, the Saints’ general manager, died on May 8, 1994. I was toiling at the Brownsville Herald, on the border, in Texas, but was about to return to the Gulf South to take a job with the daily newspaper of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The magic had worn off, it seems, and after a 7-9 season, Jim Mora did the unthinkable.

He actually fired Steve Sidwell.

A few months later, Sam Mills signed a free-agent contract with the expansion Carolina Panthers, who would soon become the Saints’ divisional rival, first in the NFC West, and later with the creation of the NFC South in the early 2000s.

There were different schools of thought, as to why Mora chose to part ways with Sid. Sidwell would catch on with other NFL teams, first the Houston Oilers, and then the Patriots and Seattle Seahawks. He was a well respected defensive coordinator. He retired after the 2002 season.

Mora wasn’t long for the Saints, either, of course, stepping down on October 20, 1996, after a particularly dreadful showing in a 19-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Tom Benson made the boneheaded move of hiring a celebrity, the buffoonish Mike Ditka, to succeed interim coach Rick Venturi, and Ditka lasted three seasons. Jim Haslett, who was on Mora’s staff, had some early success with the Saints, including a playoff victory in the 2000-01 season, but the Saints wouldnt catch fire until the arrival of head coach Sean Payton and free-agent quarterback Drew Brees in 2006.

Those moves changed EVERYTHING.

After leaving New Orleans, Mora was the Indianapolis Colts’ head coach from 1998 until 2001. He had success, with star quarterback Peyton Manning, but the Colts went 0-2 in the playoffs, and that was that.

I don’t know what happened between Jim Mora and Steve Sidwell. Heard some stories, and I won’t repeat them here. I’d run into Sid at the Senior Bowl, in Mobile, from time to time, and I got to know one of his sons, Scott Sidwell, who is currently the athletic director at the University of Central Florida.

All I know is that in the late ’80s, the Saints captured the hearts of New Orleans and the Gulf South by finally fielding winning teams, even if they faltered in postseason play.

And Steve Sidwell and the Saints’ rugged defense were the essence of the team’s persona. Reliable linemen such as Jim Wilks and the late Frank Warren. The Dome Patrol. Defensive backs like Toi Cook, Brett Maxie and Robert Massey.

Rest easy, Sid. You will be missed.