Saints end losing season with a loss, but that doesn’t justify a coaching change
NEW ORLEANS – Tomorrow is “Black Monday” in the NFL.
It’s called that because it’s traditionally when most firings of head coaches take place – within a 24-hour window after the end of the season.
The New Orleans Saints season ended with an uninspiring 10-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in the Caesars Superdome.
The loss, which left the Saints with their worst record since 2005 at 7-10, featured a lot of characteristics that the entire season featured: poor offense, shaky place-kicking, erratic run defense and tackling as well as an outcome that seemed to fall short of what could have and arguably should have happened.
The Saints could have and arguably should have beaten a Panthers team finished with 32 net passing yards, that threw 15 passes and completed only five, which was just three more than New Orleans intercepted.
The Saints could have and arguably should have won a game that started with one of their most efficient drives of the season, but after using eight plays to travel 75 yards, the last third of which came on a touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to Chris Olave, they didn’t score during the final 56 minutes and one second.
As weak as their offense generally was – 304 total yards, 4 of 13 on third downs – they still had several other scoring opportunities that failed.
On their third possession they reached the Carolina 26-yard line, but stalled and Wil Lutz missed a 44-yard field goal.
On their next possession they reached the Carolina 20, but head coach Dennis Allen decided to go for fourth and 1 and Alvin Kamara, who would wind up with a season-high 107 yards, was stopped for a three-yard loss.
In the final moments of the first half, after a Tyrann Mathieu interception and return stopped the Panthers’ first scoring threat and provided the Saints with one, Olave, after gaining 12 yards to the Carolina 24 on a pass from Dalton, lost a fumble with three seconds left in the half.
After a Panthers offensive lineman fell on a Sam Darnold fumble in the end zone for a tying touchdown on the first possession of the third quarter, the Saints offense went completely stagnant and punted four straight times.
Still the defense kept the score tied and Daniel Sorensen’s interception and return gave the Saints the ball at the Carolina 35 with 1:36 left in the game. But 16 seconds and minus-2 yards later Lutz’s 55-yard field-goal attempt was tipped and never had a chance.
That gave the Panthers the ball at their 45 with plenty of time to get into field-goal range.
David Onyemata got just the Saints’ second sack of Darnold, whose game-long knack for avoiding New Orleans pass rushers far exceeded what his athleticism would suggest.
But the three-yard loss was followed by a 13-yard scramble that gave Darnold more rushing yards (32) than he had passing yards (22) to that point. But that changed two plays later when Darnold nearly doubled his passing yards with a 21-yard completion to former LSU receiver Terrace Marshall Jr.
That placed the ball at 24 and moments later Eddy Pineiro was kicking a 42-yard winning field as a game that arguably should have gone the other way ended along with a season that arguably should have gone in a more positive direction.
But the Saints earned this loss to the 7-10 Panthers, who beat Black Monday by 91 shopping days when they fired head coach Matt Rhule after a 1-4 start in which the only victory came against New Orleans.
The Saints also earned their losing record. Six of their losses were by eight or fewer points, but so were five of their wins. They were close to being better – and close to being worse – than their final record.
It should be noted that the total number of games missed by key players due to injuries probably exceeded the NFL norm. That doesn’t excuse their shortcomings, but it should be considered when making an evaluation on the eve of Black Monday.
Other considerations should be areas in which the team improved over the course of the season, not the least of which was the bottom line – a three-game winning streak entering Sunday’s game after an absence of consecutive victories prior to that streak.
Another is the fact that the team started taking the ball away more frequently and giving it away less frequently as well as getting penalized far less frequently late in the season compared to the 4-9 start.
The players didn’t quit on Allen and the staff, and Allen and the staff had the team mostly playing its best – and pretty well at that – down the stretch.
Now the elephant in the room on Black Monday Eve is Allen’s predecessor – Sean Payton, whose sudden resignation some 50 weeks ago gave Allen the opportunity he now has.
In-season calls for Allen’s removal that have been shared by many on social media and elsewhere often evaluate his performance in comparison to Payton.
It seems reasonable to assume that if he had coached this team under exactly the same circumstances that Allen faced, Payton would have guided this team to a better record than 7-10, though, of course, we have no way of knowing that.
But if a comparison to Payton, by far the best head coach in Saints history, one of the very best head coaches of his generation, and the overwhelming No. 1 choice of every NFL organization seeking a new coach, is the standard for deciding whether a coach becomes a Black Monday casualty or not, then a whole bunch of organizations (including a few that are going to the playoffs) will be firing their coaches.
But that’s an unfair standard.
The NFL has 32 teams; it doesn’t have 32 guys capable of coaching to Payton’s level. It’s hard to be a really successful head coach in the NFL, which is why the day after the regular season ends has such an ominous nickname.
In Allen’s case the Black Monday evaluation is strictly this: Did the 2022 season demonstrate that he’s incapable of handing this job or does he deserve more time to provide a more definitive answer?
Was Allen’s first season a success? No.
Was it a disaster? No.
Could it have been better? Yes. Should it have been better? Probably.
The evaluation that any organization pondering a change has to make is whether it is convinced that the current head coach can’t handle the job or that it is confident that it will find someone who can better handle the job.
The evaluation here is that Allen has not demonstrated that he can’t handle the job and there is no evidence that the Saints should be confident that a second search in 11 months will produce someone better able to handle the job than the person that the first search produced.
There is one caveat.
If Payton wants his old job back, an intriguing notion that seems more fanciful than factual, then moving on from Allen would be the better option.
But assuming Payton would not be Allen’s successor then the better option is to stick with the person who was chosen to be Payton’s successor after a thorough search.
In conclusion let’s consider this Payton element from a different angle.
Payton was hired nearly 17 years ago because he was considered one of the top offensive assistants in the NFL. He lived up to and exceeded that reputation and the Saints mostly were very successful during his tenure.
When the Saints had a defense that came close to matching the status of Payton’s offense New Orleans had an elite team.
When the defense fell far short of the offense’s standard, the Saints were an average team – which is essentially what they were this season under Allen.
Remember, Payton had four losing teams (not counting 2012 when he was suspended) and one that had a break-even record.
Allen was promoted to replace Payton because he had coordinated one of the better defenses in the NFL for several seasons.
After an uneven start in 2022, which included Allen’s adjustment to being head coach and the adjustment of defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen and secondary coach Kris Richard to being co-coordinators, as well as the injuries, Allen’s defense was as good as ever.
In the last six games, three of which came against playoff teams, the Saints allowed 13, 17, 18, 10, 10 and 10 points. If the offense had come close to the standard set by Allen’s defense, the Saints would have won all six games and would be getting ready to host a playoff game next week as NFC South champions.
But this offense – just like the defenses on Payton’s average teams – didn’t come close to the standard set by the head coach’s unit.
It’s incumbent upon Mickey Loomis and the front office, as well as Allen, to diagnose the offense’s myriad short-comings and fix them in the off-season.
Is Dennis Allen the right man to be the Saints head coach for the long term? We don’t know.
But we do know this: After one season we don’t know that he’s not.
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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…