If you try to work your way inside against the Saints defense, the going isn't any easier. Mills and Vaughan Johnson, the other inside linebacker, have each been to the Pro Bowl twice. "If all four of us don't make the Pro Bowl this year, it'll be a disgrace," says Swilling. Four linebackers in the Pro Bowl? It has never happened. The Steel Curtain Steelers had three—Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Andy Russell in '76—but four? A case could be made.
The 5'9", 225-pound Mills, known as the Field Mouse, plays the strong side. Too small, they said, when he washed out in trials with the Cleveland Browns and the CFL Toronto Argonauts in 1981. A year later he was teaching shop and photography at East Orange (N.J.) High when the USFL beckoned. He waded through a mass of 110 hopefuls at a Philadelphia Stars tryout before he caught the eye of Stars coach Jim Mora. He hasn't been out of Mora's sight since. They won two USFL championships together. Then Mora took over in New Orleans in 1986, and he invited Mills to join him after the USFL expired seven months later.
An instinctive player blessed with wrestler's strength and leverage. Mills immediately became the defensive signal-caller. "Too short to get low on, and if you cut him, he gets right up and scrambles into the play," says 49er guard Guy McIntyre. "He's a real pain in the neck to play against, and he's so smart he puts other people in position to make plays."
The same year Mills arrived, Swilling joined the Saints as a third-round draft choice, and Johnson showed up from the Jacksonville Bulls of the USFL. At 6'3", 235 pounds, Johnson is equally gifted as a downfield cover guy and as a big sticker at the point of attack. "They call him the Werewolf," says Green Bay Packer center Jim Campen. "You want to talk about a blood rush to the brain when he hits you...." With Jackson already in place—he had his Pro Bowl skins on the wall—the remarkable linebacking quartet was formed in '86. Before that year the Saints had never had a winning season. But in the six since then, New Orleans has had only one losing record, 7-9 in '86.
The pieces of the puzzle have continued to fall into place. Right end Frank Warren returned this season from a one-year drug suspension and became the anchor of the defensive line. The strongest lineman and the Saints' best penetrator, the 6'4", 290-pound Warren is having the finest of his 10 seasons with the team. For the first time New Orleans has the depth to do something the 49ers made a living doing during their Super Bowl era: rotate two complete three-man fronts to keep fresh legs for the fourth quarter.
The last piece to the defensive puzzle was the pass coverage. Maxie and Gene Atkins had been solid safety-men for years. Toi Cook, a converted free safety—"I used to beg them to let me try it at the corner," he says—started coming into his own as the right cornerback last year. But when the left corner, Robert Massey, was traded to the Phoenix Cardinals in the preseason, people wondered why. The answer was Vince Buck, a well-kept secret who had played nickelback as a rookie last season.
Going into the combine workouts before the 1990 draft, Buck, out of Central (Ohio) State, was rated as the second-best available cornerback, behind James Williams of Fresno State. But then he ran a series of 4.7 40s, while Williams was putting up a 4.29. "I was sick that day, nauseous," he says. "A scout told me to run anyway and get it over with. So I did. That advice cost me about $500,000."
The Saints wanted another look at him and sent a scout, Carmen Piccone, to Central State to work him out. Piccone clocked him in 4.51. Although Buck wasn't a burner, something was appealing about him—his size (6 feet, 198 pounds), his break to the ball when he was supposedly beaten. "When we had our draft meeting," says Mora, "Carmen stood up at the table and fought for him."
"I'd been in an auto accident two weeks before the draft," says Buck, "and I had a bruised chest and elbow, and a cut over my eye. Then I started hearing that people were saying I'd broken my leg. I didn't rate my chances too highly at that point."
Still, New Orleans took him in the second round, and now he's playing at All-Pro level. He was tested three times in man-to-man coverage against the Niners. The results were a three-yard completion to wideout John Taylor, a completion to wideout Jerry Rice for a one-yard loss and a pass to Rice that Buck knocked down.