Countdown to Saints Season Opener: Dennis Allen takes over
METAIRIE – For the last 16 seasons, the New Orleans Saints were Sean Payton’s team.
His title was head coach, but his fingerprints were all over the organization – from the street sign engraved N. Compete St. that the players passed each time they went to the outside practice fields to key slogans painted on the walls in the hallways of the locker room.
When Payton was out of the team’s headquarters while serving an NFL suspension for the 2012 season, a larger-than-life picture of him featuring the words “Do Your Job” hung above the indoor practice field.
So even when Payton wasn’t there, he was kind of there.
But this is different.
Payton is gone for good this time and now it’s Dennis Allen’s team that will open the 2022 season against the Falcons next Sunday in Atlanta.
“It’s different,” center Erik McCoy said, “but it’s a good different.”
McCoy didn’t mean that it’s good that things are different, but rather – given that change was necessary after Payton resigned in January – the change that was made was a good one.
Executive vice president of football Mickey Loomis said it’s “been a good thing” that the team took on Payton’s fiery personality for 16 years.
N. Compete Street is still in place and the change at the top wasn’t obvious during training camp except that it was Allen and not Payton who was blowing the whistle and addressing the players at the end of each practice.
But the way the coaches and players conducted their business wasn’t appreciably different (at least to outsiders), nor does it figure to be as the regular season proceeds.
“I don’t think you’re going to look out at practice and go, ‘Oh my God, everything is different,’” Allen said.
Of course the Saints hope that the similarities include the degree of success that the team enjoys under Allen after Payton’s teams won 63 percent of their games, seven division championships (and claimed two wild-card playoff berths) and captured the franchise’s only Super Bowl title after the 2009 season.
Allen’s track record as an NFL head coach couldn’t be much different from Payton’s than it is.
He was hired as head coach by the then Oakland Raiders before the 2012 season. At the time the Raiders were widely seen as a dysfunctional franchise, not having had a winning season for the last nine years before Allen’s arrival from Denver, where he had been defensive coordinator for one season after being hired away from his position as Payton’s secondary coach.
But the Raiders did manage to go 8-8 in each of the last two seasons before Allen took over and he lasted less than three full seasons. Allen was fired after losing the first four games of his third season (in 2014), finishing with eight wins and 28 losses overall
“I’m much further along,” Allen said in comparing the start of his second tenure to his first. “I’m much more comfortable sitting in this seat than I was at that point in time. I was 39 years old and had been a coordinator in this league for one year. I’ve seen a lot more happen between that time and this time. I’m much more relaxed and comfortable in that environment now.”
Allen returned to the Saints for the 2015 season, assuming the title of senior defensive assistant on a staff that featured Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator. Allen replaced Ryan in Week 11 as the Saints were on their way to finishing 31st in total defense.
The Saints were 27th in Allen’s first full season as defensive coordinator, then leaped to 17th in 2017. They were 14th in 2018, then 11th, fourth and seventh.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan recalled “the culture change in the locker room – guys buying in and doing things the right way” when Allen returned.
“You see the fruits of the labor in the banners up there,” Jordan said, nodding toward the NFC South division title banners from 2017-2020 hanging in the team’s indoor practice facility.
Allen said he expects his teams’ primary characteristics to be that they’re “smart, tough and compete,” which would be consistent with Payton’s.
By all accounts Allen’s promotion from defensive coordinator was well received by the players. The defensive players knew Allen the best, but the offensive players also were pleased.
Linebacker Demario Davis said Allen has “captured the locker room.”
“At the end of the day he’s just being himself and players are always going to respond to coaches that are themselves,” linebacker Demario Davis said. “If that person has been themselves it’s going to make you calm, it’s going to make you relaxed, it’s going to make you ready to respond.”
Davis, an 11-year veteran, said he’s “learned a lot of football” from “a ton of coaches” and Allen is “probably one of the smartest guys I’ve ever had the opportunity to be around.”
“He has a great ability to study teams and know what they’re going to do and understand situations and put us in the best situation to be prepared for those situations,” Davis said. “It’s because of the way he’s constantly thinking through that and preparing us not only to be able to anticipate and be aware of it but to be confident in what we’re doing about it.”
Running back Mark Ingram II said the Allen hiring was “huge, keeping the DNA the same.”
“It’s not like it’s a full rebuild here,” Ingram continued. “I think you have a team that can make a lot of noise and make a run at it. I think keeping the culture of the team the same is huge and I think we’ll all benefit from it.”
No one knew at the time that it was an omen of what was to come, but New Orleans got a sneak preview of Allen as Saints head coach late last season. Payton had to miss the game against the Buccaneers in Tampa because of COVID and he picked Allen to serve as acting head coach.
The Saints defeated the reigning Super Bowl champions 9-0, holding a team led by Tom Brady scoreless for the first time in 15 seasons.
That low score doesn’t figure to be typical going forward, though Allen’s first team does figure to be noted primarily for its defense just as Payton’s teams were noted primarily for their offense.
Allen retained long-time Payton lieutenant Pete Carmichael as offensive coordinator and said the 2022 offense won’t be “too dissimilar” to ones that Saints observers have become accustomed to.
Just as Payton entrusted Carmichael with coordinating the offense while the head coach was the primary play-caller, Allen has entrusted the coordination of the defense to line coach Ryan Nielsen and secondary coach Kris Richard while Allen maintains play-calling duties on game days.
“It’s hard to turn your baby over,” Allen said.
Ingram said Allen has done “a great job” of trying to keep the day-to-day operation of the team “as normal as possible” while “adding his own kind of flavor to it.”
Allen has gone from being a respected supporting actor in Payton’s ensemble to being not only the head of the ensemble but also one of the most prominent citizens in New Orleans and all of Louisiana.
“I understand the role of the head coach in this city, and it’s a little bit different than other places,” Allen said. “I understand that, I appreciate that and I welcome that. It’s exciting and I know that this city loves this football team and has a close connection with this football team. And I know what it means to this city when we have success.”
Jordan said last season that he was concerned that the Saints might lose Allen when other teams starting looking for a new head coach – before New Orleans unexpectedly found itself doing the same.
“When you’ve had as much success as a defensive coordinator as he’s had,” Jordan said of Allen, “the resume starts to look real shiny and real good and someone is going to throw one of those offers that you can’t pass up. Luckily it was us.”
(Next: Part 3: Pete Carmichael steps into the spotlight)
Click here for the entire Saints countdown series.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…