Dennis Allen immediately hit with the reality of being a head coach
Dennis Allen had a couple of immediate reminders of what he’s getting into.
The New Orleans Saints promoted Allen from defensive coordinator to head coach Monday on the 12-year anniversary of the highest point in franchise history – the victory over Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV.
The hiring, first reported by ESPN, came just hours after Saints star running back Alvin Kamara was released from a Las Vegas jail.
The life of an NFL head coach is filled with highs and lows, and undoubtedly Allen is just fine with that reality.
The anniversary reminded Allen, who was Tracy Porter’s position coach when Porter stepped in front of that Peyton Manning pass for the Pick 6 that clinched New Orleans’ only NFL championship, that he’s working for a franchise that can compete at the highest level – and did throughout Payton’s 16-year tenure.
Kamara’s arrest likely tempered the Super Bowl recollection with a reminder that head coaches deal with a lot of stuff that coordinators can observe from a safe distance.
Allen already knew this, having been head coach of the Oakland Raiders for 36 games from 2012-14. His teams went 4-12 in each of his first two seasons and he was fired after a 0-4 start in 2014. His 8-28 record was poor, but not terribly inconsistent with the Raiders’ track record at that time.
Oakland had gone nine consecutive seasons without a winning record before Allen’s arrival, though it did break even in each of the last two seasons before he was hired.
Allen’s firing created an opportunity for him to rejoin Payton, for whom he had been defensive line assistant (2006-07) and secondary coach (2008-10). Allen, who was defensive coordinator in Denver for one season (2011) between his first stint in New Orleans and his first head-coaching opportunity, rejoined the Saints as a defensive assistant in 2015.
He was named interim defensive coordinator when Rob Ryan was fired with the team ranked last in defense and 4-6 in what would become a 7-9 season.
Allen was named to the full-time defensive coordinator position for the 2016 season, in which the Saints finished 7-9 for a third consecutive season.
A renaissance began in 2017, triggered by a bountiful draft that produced Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams and Kamara.
The Saints won the NFC South that season, beginning a franchise-record streak of four consecutive division titles. Significant free-agent additions led by linebacker Demario Davis also contributed to the string of division titles.
But Allen was also a prime mover in the evolution of the team. The Saints no longer relied on Payton’s offense, directed by Drew Brees, to overcome average or worse defensive play.
Allen’s defense became a solid complement to the offense and even became the driving force on occasion when Brees missed five games in 2019 and four in 2020 due to injury before retiring after the 2020 season.
Last season the Saints were a defense-oriented team on which the offense struggled to provide an adequate complement to it. Still the Saints finished 9-8, narrowly missing the playoffs.
When Payton – and several key players – were forced to sit out the game at Tampa Bay on December 19 because of COVID, Allen served as acting head coach and the Saints defense dominated Tom Brady and the reigning Super Bowl champions 9-0.
Allen was widely considered a strong favorite to succeed Payton from the time Payton announced that he was stepping down 13 days before Allen’s hiring.
Executive vice president of football operations Mickey Loomis and the rest of the Saints brass did their due diligence, interviewing current special teams coach Darren Rizzi, former secondary coach Aaron Glenn (now the Detroit defensive coordinator), former Miami head coach Brian Flores, former Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson (who was subsequently hired by Jacksonville) and Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.
It was an impressive group, but Allen was the only who fit both of Loomis’ stated goals of finding someone familiar with the Saints’ “culture” and having been a head coach before.
Presumably Allen, who was 39 when Oakland hired him, learned many lessons from his failure in Oakland – and from 12 seasons working for Payton within that aforementioned culture.
Allen figures to be able to keep most of the Saints’ very good staff in tact, though he’ll have to find his own replacement.
Allen and Loomis will prepare for the first post-Payton season by deciding whether their 2022 quarterback will be Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill or someone not currently on the roster.
They have significant salary trimming to do to get under the cap while seeing if they can find enough bucks for key players such as tackle Terron Armstead, Williams and linebacker Kwon Alexander.
And then there is the Kamara issue after he was arrested Saturday night in Las Vegas on a felonious battery charge. His first court date is set for March 8.
As Allen pondered this well-deserved opportunity, he no doubt recognized that championship celebrations like the one that was widely recalled Monday don’t happen without dealing with complications like the one that developed over the weekend.
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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…