Why New Orleans Saints are glad coach Dennis Allen is 'keeping the DNA the same'

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  • Mike TriplettESPN Staff Writer

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    • Covered Saints for eight years at New Orleans Times-Picayune
    • Previously covered LSU football, San Francisco 49ers
    • Iowa native and University of Iowa graduate

METAIRIE, La. -- Dennis Allen's transition to the New Orleans Saints' head coaching job has been a smooth one by all accounts.

Well, mostly.

“We’re such creatures of habit,” said the Saints’ former defensive coordinator, who confessed to one particular misstep from a few weeks ago. “I left the locker room and went up to my office, and I just walked up the back way and down the hall and walked into what is now [co-defensive coordinator] Ryan Nielsen’s office. And I was like, ‘Oh damn, I just walked into the wrong office.’

“He was in there, and I started up some sort of conversation and acted like I needed to talk to him. And then at the end, I was like, ‘I gotta admit something: I really just came to the wrong office.'"

To be fair, though, Allen has made a point of trying to keep things as normal as possible so far this offseason.

The vibe has been much different than it was when Allen’s mentor, Sean Payton, first arrived in New Orleans 16 years ago and did all he could to change the culture. Payton made tweaks to just about everything, down to signs hanging in the locker room and jersey colors at home games.

Allen, on the other hand, is proud of the culture he helped Payton and much of this current Saints coaching staff and roster build over the course of five straight winning seasons from 2017 to 2021 before Payton decided to step away from the job in January.

“Why would I change things just to change them?” Allen said. “We’ve done a lot of good stuff around here. So you’re gonna see a lot of the same stuff.

“Now, the way I present the message may be just a little bit different than the way Sean presented it ... kind of putting my own flair on it.”

Players and coaches seem to widely appreciate that approach from the 49-year-old Allen, who is trying to find the success in his second head coaching stint that eluded him when he struggled to an 8-28 record with a much less established Oakland Raiders from 2012 to 2014.

“That’s huge, just keeping the DNA the same,” running back Mark Ingram II said. “It’s not like it’s a full rebuild here. We have a team that can make a lot of noise and make a run at it. Obviously, we have to improve and get better and gel as a unit. But I think keeping the DNA of the team, the bloodline of the team, the culture of the team the same is huge.”

It helps that everyone -- including offensive players like Ingram -- has seen Allen’s results on the defensive side of the ball. Under Allen’s watch, the Saints have ranked fourth in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed over the past three seasons. Last December, they became the first team to shut out Tom Brady in 15 years with a 9-0 win on the road against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Although the Saints missed the playoffs at 9-8 in an injury-ravaged 2021 season, their 58 regular-season wins over the past five years rank second in the NFL to only the Kansas City Chiefs.

Even players who just joined the Saints in free agency, like safety Tyrann Mathieu and receiver Jarvis Landry, spoke about being attracted by the established culture in New Orleans -- despite the head coaching change.

“The level of consistency is nice. It’s something that you rely on. It’s something you already trust,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “[Allen is] someone we already trusted. So when you say, ‘Hey, this is for the better of the team,’ you believe that. It’s not like a new guy coming in saying, ‘Hey, this is how we’re gonna run the team’ and you’re like, ‘Damn, do I buy in or not buy in?’

“You know what our defense is about, and that immediately brings credibility.”

That consistency is felt throughout the coaching staff, where Allen retained longtime offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. and promoted assistants Nielsen and Kris Richard to the roles of co-defensive coordinator. The biggest staff change the Saints made this offseason was rehiring former Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone as offensive line coach -- after Marrone previously served as Payton’s offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2008.

Allen was also part of Payton’s original staff from 2006 to 2010, including the Saints’ Super Bowl-winning 2009 season, before he became the Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator in 2011 and Raiders coach in 2012. Allen returned to New Orleans in 2015.

“What we do works and what we do is effective. And let’s be honest, Dennis has been a part of developing that,” said assistant offensive line coach Zach Strief, who was a rookie when Payton and Allen first arrived in 2006. “[Allen] has been a big part of building the culture and the structure. So even though Sean was the head coach, some of it might have come out of [Allen's] brain.”

The most noticeable change players and coaches pointed out was a slightly enhanced attention to detail. Not that Payton didn’t sweat the small stuff -- he absolutely did -- but Allen is approaching everything with fresh eyes, including meeting times and practice drills.

“DA’s always been about the minutiae, and it’s been interesting to see him attack with that same idea on the offensive side that everything needs to be exact,” said Jordan, who said he has so far resisted the urge to poke fun at Allen for anything -- or even to complain when the now-impartial head coach doesn’t credit the defense for enough sacks in practice.

“I’m just trying not to get on his nerves,” said the often-rambunctious Jordan -- who admits he may have some firsthand experience with that.

“I will fall in line and say ‘Sir, yes sir’ ... for the time being.”

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