METAIRIE, La. – It’s not hard to see why the New Orleans Saints chose Dennis Allen to replace Sean Payton as its head coach.
Allen, 49, brings a continuity the franchise valued after spending 12 of the past 16 years in New Orleans. General manager Mickey Loomis insisted the Saints weren’t looking for the same type of overhaul that might be the case with the eight teams who fired their previous coaches. And this gives them a chance to keep much of their talented coaching staff intact.
Allen also brings excellence as a defensive coordinator who helped transform his unit into the strength of the team in recent seasons. Although he probably went into a little more detail during his interview with team executives and ownership last week, he could’ve just brought popcorn and the video from New Orleans’ 9-0 victory at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in December, when Payton was out because of COVID-19, and Allen led the team to the first shutout of MVP candidate Tom Brady in 15 years.
Finally, he brings experience as a head coach. Although Allen’s underwhelming 8-28 record with the then-Oakland Raiders from 2012-14 might have limited his opportunities around the league in recent years, the Saints and Allen firmly believe that his lessons learned in that first stint can be invaluable the second time around.
However, the same thing is true for Allen as it was for Payton – and as it would have been for fellow candidates like Aaron Glenn, Darren Rizzi, Brian Flores and Eric Bieniemy. Allen’s success will depend largely on whether he and the Saints nail the other monumental decision they have to make in the coming months: choosing the right quarterback.
One of Payton’s first decisions as head coach in 2006 was pushing for the team to gamble on free agent Drew Brees in the wake of a major shoulder surgery when the rest of the NFL was scared off. That one turned out pretty well.
Whether Allen can find his own version – or at least a close facsimile – ranks as the No. 1 question in the wake of his hiring:
Who will play quarterback?
Loomis said this was the No. 1 question every coaching candidate had for him throughout the hiring process. And Loomis insisted it would be a collaborative decision between the new coach and the existing power structure.
Jameis Winston is the likely front runner after he showed promise in the starting role this season, throwing 14 touchdown passes with just three interceptions while the Saints (9-8) started 5-2. However, there are three complicating factors: 1) Winston is an unsigned free agent; 2) Winston is still rehabbing from the torn ACL he suffered in Week 8; 3) The Saints will likely think big with this position – and that could potentially mean pursuing a trade for the likes of Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson, despite their salary cap constraints.
Obviously that will be easier said than done. If those quarterbacks are actually available, the Saints would still have to make the best offer – which could be difficult, since they don’t pick until 18th in this year’s draft. And those quarterbacks would have to be enticed to play in New Orleans without Payton and with some question marks at the skill positions and offensive line.
However, the point remains that the Saints are decidedly “all-in” on trying to win the NFC South in 2022 – especially now that Brady has retired. The Saints feel like they have one of the league’s more talented rosters, especially on defense. And they felt like they should have been a playoff team this season if they hadn't been one of the unhealthiest teams in the NFL.
How does this affect major personnel decisions?
The Saints have some pretty big ones on their plate beyond just the quarterback position. Left tackle Terron Armstead and safety Marcus Williams are both ranked among ESPN’s top seven pending free agents. And some past friction with star wide receiver Michael Thomas has led to questions about whether the team might consider trading him this offseason.
However, all indications are that Thomas and the Saints have been on the same page since he and Payton cleared the air last summer. And Loomis has stressed that the team isn’t looking for any sort of roster overhaul, either. Allen will likely work in collaboration with Loomis and the front office on all such decisions.
Although the Saints are projected to be about $70 million over the salary cap, we previously pointed out how they could create more than $100 million in space without cutting a single player through their usual method of converting salaries into signing bonuses. That doesn’t mean they can afford to keep everyone and acquire a top quarterback, though.
Who will run the offense, defense and special teams?
This remains to be seen.
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. and special teams coordinator Rizzi are obvious candidates to remain in current roles, though changes are possible. And Allen would likely want to retain much of a defensive staff that includes defensive line coach/assistant head coach Ryan Nielsen, secondary coach Kris Richard, linebackers coach Michael Hodges and senior assistant Peter Giunta, among others.
Choosing the defensive coordinator could actually be Allen’s most grueling early decision, with both Nielsen and Richard, in particular, having excellent qualifications.
Are the Saints playing it too safe?
Unfortunately, this is the kind of question that none of the nine teams with new coaching hires can answer for sure. Allen was an obvious choice for all of the reasons listed above. And he could very well follow the path of someone like Jim Caldwell, who led the Indianapolis Colts to a 14-0 start and the Super Bowl in 2009 after replacing former boss Tony Dungy.
But you can practically hear the hot takes that will surely come if things don’t work out.
Like "The Saints were trying to hold on to the past, but it wasn’t the same without Payton and Brees" or "They should have followed the blueprint of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who replaced Bill Cowher with an up-and-coming young coach they didn’t know in Mike Tomlin.”
This dilemma carries extra weight at a time when Black coaches are so poorly represented throughout the NFL. Perhaps the Saints should have bypassed existing relationships to go with a less familiar candidate like Flores, who just had back-to-back winning seasons as the Miami Dolphins’ coach, or Bieniemy or Glenn, who are awaiting their first opportunities.
After all, the Saints were gambling on an unknown when they hired Payton as a first-time head coach in 2006 – and that worked out pretty well too.