NEW ORLEANS (AP) — It’s the dawn of the Dennis Allen era for the New Orleans Saints.
A regime change, yes. But hardly a house cleaning.
The new head coach was hired from within and is surrounded by familiar faces on the coaching staff and the roster.
“It’s not like it’s a full rebuild,” veteran running back Mark Ingram said. “You have a team that can make a lot of noise and make a run at it.”
Allen was New Orleans’ defensive coordinator for six-plus seasons before his promotion following the retirement last January of Sean Payton, the franchise’s all-time leader in coaching victories.
Allen plans to continue sending in play calls to a defense that not only ranked seventh in the NFL last season, but also has most of its prominent players back – and may well have upgraded the few it replaced.
Meanwhile, many of Payton’s offensive concepts live on.
Pete Carmichael Jr., an offensive assistant in New Orleans since Payton’s first season in 2006 – and the offensive coordinator since the Super Bowl season of 2009 – remains.
So, too, do several offensive leaders from five straight winning seasons, led by running back Alvin Kamara and receiver Michael Thomas. Jameis Winston, who went 5-2 as starter before a season-ending knee injury, also is back.
“Keeping the DNA of the team, the culture of the team the same, I think that’s huge,” Ingram said. “We’ll all benefit from it.”
Payton coached all but one of the past 16 seasons in New Orleans; he was suspended for all of 2012 in connection with the NFL’s bounty investigation into cash rewards for big and sometimes injurious hits during games.
He won 152 regular-season games, most of those with franchise all-time passing leader Drew Brees as his quarterback. Payton also coached the Saints to their lone Super Bowl triumph.
His last season in the New Orleans was also the first since Brees’ retirement. Despite injuries to Thomas, Kamara, Winston, and several starting offensive linemen, New Orleans managed to go 9-8. The Saints would have made the playoffs a fifth straight year had the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams not lost a late lead to San Francisco in their regular-season finale.
In replacing Payton with Allen, Saints general manager Micky Loomis picked a successor who went 8-28 in his only other head coaching job. That was with the Oakland Raiders from 2012-14 — a time of upheaval for that franchise.
Allen says he ha evolved as a coach since, but notes “the biggest difference is just the familiarity with me and the (Saints) organization — and when I say organization, I’m talking about players, coaches, administration, the owner.”
“The picture’s a little bit clearer to me now,” Allen added. “We got a pretty good squad and I’m excited about getting going.”
Last season, the Saints passed for the fewest yards of the Payton era by far, ranking last in the NFL with 187.4 yards per game through the air – about 47 yards per game worse than the previous low for a Payton offense (234.9 in 2020).
While part of the cause stemmed from the Saints needing to start four different QBs last season, another was the lack of an established receiver. Thomas missed the whole season with his ankle injury and Kamara, a prolific receiver out of the backfield, also was hobbled by a knee injury that sidelined him for four games.
Now Thomas is back on the active roster (albeit limited by a nagging hamstring recently), Kamara is healthy, and the Saints added veteran receiver Jarvis Landry, as well as rookie receiver Chris Olave, drafted 11th overall. Olave has looked the part in practice and in the Saints’ second preseason game, when he caught his first touchdown pass.
New Orleans had to replace both starting safeties after the retirement of Malcolm Jenkins and departure in free agency of Marcus Williams (to Baltimore). The Saints have brought in a pair of veteran free agents: New Orleans native and former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu, along with former New York Jet Marcus Maye.
Last season, the Saints’ kicking game took a hit when Wil Lutz, who’d handled every field goal from 2016 through 2020, missed all of 2021 with a core muscle injury. New Orleans tried four kickers who combined to miss five field goals and seven extra points. Lutz is back and kicked a 59-yard field goal at Lambeau Field in New Orleans’ second preseason game at Green Bay.
“It was great to see him kick it through,” Allen said. “Another positive step for him.”
The Saints’ defensive line combined for 31 1/2 sacks last season and could be better this season if 2018 first-round pick Marcus Davenport and 2021 first-rounder Payton Turner can stay healthy and give New Orleans a strong three-player rotation at defensive end, along with Cam Jordan.
The offensive line is also looking for a return to health and a boost from first-round pick Trevor Penning at left tackle. If Penning wins a starting job, he’ll join four returning starters in Ryan Ramczyk, Cesar Ruiz, Erik McCoy and Andrus Peat.
“We have all the pieces to be a successful playoff team this year,” McCoy said. “We just got to stay healthy.”