Saints new head coach focused on showing change can be OK

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Dennis Allen
(Photo: Parker Waters)

METAIRIE – Change can be difficult.

The New Orleans Saints have seen quite a bit of change in the last year.

Quarterback Drew Brees retired 11 months ago and Sean Payton stepped aside as head coach barely two weeks ago.

That’s a lot of change to endure – the two central figures in the most successful era in franchise history, an era that lasted a decade and a half.

A new era officially began Tuesday afternoon when the organization officially introduced former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen as Payton’s replacement.

Forced to accept change, owner Gayle Benson and her primary lieutenants – Mickey Loomis (executive VP/football) and Dennis Lauscha (executive VP/business) – opted for minimal change with Allen’s promotion.

They chose him over five other candidates that received interviews – Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, Detroit defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, former Miami head coach Brian Flores, former Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson and Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy – “an exceptionally qualified group of coaches,” Benson said.

Allen represented the first change at the top of the Saints coaching staff since Payton’s hiring in 2006. Loomis noted that there have been longer lists of “U.S. Presidents and Popes” than Saints coaches during his tenure.

When Allen interviewed with Loomis and the rest of the search committee last week for six hours (Loomis’ estimate) or 6½ hours (by Allen’s estimate), Allen said he had been interviewing for a lot longertha either estimate – “12 of the last 16 years.”

Allen arrived in New Orleans in 2006 as a low-level defensive assistant on Payton’s first staff.

“From a professional standpoint,” Allen said, “that was the greatest thing ever to happen to me.”

Allen was promoted to secondary coach after two seasons and was part of the staff that helped the Saints win the Super Bowl after the 2006 season. After the 2010 season the Denver Broncos hired him as their defensive coordinator.

After one season with the Broncos the Oakland Raiders hired him as a 39-year-old head coach.

Allen’s tenure was disastrous – back-to-back 4-12 finishes followed by a 0-4 start that led to his dismissal in 2014.

Naturally, one of the most popular topics of questions at Tuesday’s news conference dealt with Allen’s tenure in Oakland, what he learned from it and why he figures to be a better coach at 49 than he was at 39 (or 40 or 41).

Allen said little more than the situation in Oakland featured “different circumstances” than New Orleans, which was a polite way of avoiding the obvious – that the Raiders were a dysfunctional franchise.

About the only specific lesson Allen said he learned from that experience was “just be me.”

Allen’s failure in Oakland enabled him to return to Payton and the Saints in 2015. The new coach said he told Benson that the Saints are “as quality an organization as there is in the NFL.”

“We hated it when he left in 2011,” Loomis said, “and we couldn’t have been more excited in 2015.”

Loomis cited Allen’s “leadership skills, teaching skills and football acumen,” before summarizing that he’s “just a damn good football coach.”

Allen is replacing a damn good football coach and he said he’s “at peace” with the reality that at least in the short term virtually everything he does will be judged by outsiders on how it compares with Payton.

“What a great example to follow. That’s how I look at it,” said Allen, who referred to Payton as someone “I consider to be a Hall of Fame football coach.”

It was Payton’s offense that defined his tenure, though Allen’s defense became an increasingly significant complement during the last seven seasons.

Allen said his offense won’t be “too dissimilar” to Payton’s.

“We’re going to be a physical offense,” he said. “We’re going to run the ball, we’re going to create explosive plays. We’ll be a smart offense and not have a lot of negative plays, protect the ball good, be good in situations.”

Allen said he will remain involved in the defense’s game plans and perhaps even in play calls.

“It’s hard to turn your baby over,” he said.

He plans to continue with a physical defense featuring strength on the line of scrimmage.

“It’s a big man’s game,” he said. “It’s not what you play, it’s how you play. It’s a tough, physical game and that’s how you have to play it.”

Allen said on multiple occasions that any coach “is only as good as the players he puts on the field.”

Like Payton he will be heavily involved in choosing the team’s players.

“One of major roles of a head coach is to be heavily involved in personnel,” he said.

The Saints have a bunch of important personnel decisions to make with several key players due to become unrestricted free agents and the need to upgrade the roster through free agency and the draft.

Even after a year the team does not have a clear-cut successor to Brees. Jameis Winston, who was the starter last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 5, is due to be a free agent. Taysom Hill, who lost a training camp battle with Winston to be the starter, is due for foot surgery.

Allen said he wants his quarterback to be “winner, someone with a strong work ethic, someone who can lead men.”

The new coach said it was too early to comment on Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara’s arrest on a felony charge of battery last weekend in Las Vegas.

A native of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Allen called New Orleans “one of the most passionate and energetic cities in all the world.”

“Our team is going to mirror our fan base – tough, smart highly competitive,” he added. “We’re going to play with a passion and energy that opponents will be either unwilling or unable to match.”

The Saints have had five consecutive winning seasons and narrowly missed a fifth consecutive playoff trip this past season.

“We have a foundation and a culture of winning that already has been built,” Allen said. “I’m going to try and continue that and build on that.”

He went on to call the job “a perfect fit.”

Allen said the “biggest message” he gave during his job interview was, “I felt like I’m the best guy for the job,” adding “my body of work in New Orleans more than qualifies me for the job.”

His job is to show that change can OK.

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on 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…

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