Opinion: Saints shouldn’t delay inevitable severance with Dennis Allen

I’ve seen enough: it’s time for the New Orleans Saints to move on from Dennis Allen. His team hasn’t improved over 10 games to start their season — if anything, they’re losing each week in the exact same manner they started what’s looking like a doomed campaign. When he was coaching the Raiders, Allen went 4-12 twice, then lost his first four games before being fired. He’s on the same path this year with a team largely agreed to be more talented than those he once inherited.

Allen is returning the same results now that he did a decade ago with the Raiders with a penalty-rife team that can’t consistently play well on offense, defense, or special teams. This team was built on the strength of Allen’s defense, which has collapsed without him being able to fine-tune it after his promotion to head coach. The offense has disappointed, and a typically-stout special teams unit has been one of the NFL’s worst despite little change over previous years.

If they couldn’t take care of business against a two-win Pittsburgh Steelers squad starting a rookie quarterback with a bum ankle, which teams can they defeat?

There’s no use waiting around to find out. They aren’t mathematically eliminated from playoff contention yet, and that’s not going to happen for a while considering how bad the other NFC South teams are, but the Saints would be 0-3 against those same teams if not for a last-second blocked field goal in Week 1. Allen isn’t going to be the Saints head coach for 15 years like Sean Payton was. Whether he’s dismissed this week, in a few months, or in a year or two, this story ends with the Saints showing him the door. He hasn’t earned any benefit of the doubt in these results, or faith that we’ll see a major turnaround.

And if they’re smart, the Saints won’t delay the inevitable. Here’s how it could happen:

General manager Mickey Loomis was chiefly responsible for hiring Allen, and you’d think he would be the one to give Allen his pink slip. But Loomis isn’t under much pressure to make a change here. He’s the longest-tenured general manager in the NFL, with rare job security for someone in his position. He deferred to Sean Payton on personnel moves after hiring him back in 2006, and that’s been the case with Allen at head coach, too, as seen by Allen’s unsuccessful push to trade for Deshaun Watson earlier this year.

Loomis is safe, so it’s unlikely he’ll take any initiative in parting ways with a coach in-season. He hasn’t hired a coach from outside the building in 16 years. If change is coming, it’ll have to be spurred by other decision-makers like team president Dennis Lauscha and owner Gayle Benson. Benson okayed her other pro team’s head coach change not too long ago, with the New Orleans Pelicans firing Stan Van Gundy after an underwhelming debut, but this situation it was for the Pelicans at that time. Allen was hired to get the Saints to the playoffs, and instead they risk losing a top-four draft pick to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Maybe Benson takes it upon herself to order a change. Maybe Lauscha and Loomis agree amongst themselves that it’s necessary and petition Benson for her approval. Whoever broaches the subject and however it’s discussed, it’s got to happen soon. So let’s say the Saints fire Allen after his 3-7 start. What comes next?

First, they’ve got to name an interim head coach. And the Saints have several good options in the building. Offensive line coach Doug Marrone has worked as a head coach for two different teams in the NFL and he could lead the Saints through their remaining eight games. That would allow the coaches on defense and special teams to focus on putting out their own fires, with Marrone’s experienced assistant Zach Strief keeping things moving along the offensive line.

Other options for interim head coach would include special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi (who interviewed for the full-time job when it was available), co-defensive coordinators Kris Richard and Ryan Nielsen, and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. (more on him in a moment). But to be frank, Rizzi’s unit hasn’t played well enough to think giving him more responsibilities would benefit anyone. Richard and Nielsen have full plates as it is, too, and Carmichael asked the Saints for a reduced role after Payton left the team. Calling the shots as head coach probably doesn’t appeal to him.

There have been too many issues offensively for Carmichael to remain the play caller, so it’s a good thing the Saints put passing game coordinator Ronald Curry in that position during the preseason. He’s also their quarterbacks coach (and before that, their wide receivers coach) with five years of experience in their offense. He’s an ideal candidate for pivoting to as the offensive play caller. Give him a shot and see if he can more creatively make use of the team’s talent. Or at least help break some troubling trends. New Orleans ranks third in the NFL in run plays called on second down after a first-down incomplete pass, but they’re among the least-effective teams in those situations with just a 21% success rate. Maybe Curry can get more out of the offense than Carmichael has.

Maybe other position coaches get moved around on top of these changes. Some could be let go altogether. If Marrone is named interim head coach and Curry given the play caller title (if not the offensive coordinator position outright), tight ends coach and run game coordinator Dan Roushar could help with the offensive line after Marrone’s attention is split elsewhere — he’s held that job title with the Saints in the past. Defensively, either Richard or Nielsen might become the full-time coordinator, or they could stick with the current system. Richard has more experience as a defensive play caller in the NFL, but his secondary has been a major problem with missed tackles and penalties. He might benefit from taking a step back to focus on that.

This version of the Saints is not a playoff team regardless of who’s coaching them right now. They’ve got too many areas of concern to work on and too little time to do it. Maybe they climb back to .500 before the end of the season after making these changes, but that probably won’t be enough to get them to the postseason now that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have figured some things out and improved to .500 themselves. New Orleans has lost twice as many games as they’ve won. Without the promise of a prime draft pick to look forward to, all they can do at this point is play for their pride.

And that might be enough to at least keep the fanbase energized. Making a change at quarterback isn’t going to fix their problems, but Jameis Winston is at least more entertaining to watch as a go-for-broke gunslinger than Andy Dalton, who has been both boring and ineffective. Winston commits more turnovers than Dalton and he’d really suffer for playing behind an offensive line missing three of its five starters, sure. If he can pad Chris Olave’s stats and put together a fun highlight reel, though, it might be worth it. The Saints are rapidly approaching a point where they need to consider making changes just for the sake of it in hopes that something works out.

If Allen is dismissed and the coaching staff reshuffles and the offense is at least not a chore to watch, it’s worth it. Find a way to win two or three (hey, why not four?) of the eight games left on your schedule and build some positive momentum to take into the offseason. Speaking of which: let’s talk about why it’s better to move on from Allen a little early than waiting too long.

Well, the Saints should not hire whoever the interim becomes. That’s what got them in this mess to begin with. Any continuity with Payton’s tenure is a mirage. The team playing for New Orleans right now doesn’t resemble the squads he led in any phase. It’s best for the Saints to make a real effort to interview a variety of candidates and seriously consider them this time after just making a show of it in the wake of Payton’s surprise resignation.

So call up Eric Bieniemy again and see if he’s still interested, though that might be a hard sell after the Saints wasted eight hours of his time last go-around. Circle back to former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores (who just helped the Steelers defense smother New Orleans’ offense in their lowest scoring output of the season). Call on some names on the rise like San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and Dolphins offensive coordinator Frank Smith, who has 16 years of NFL coaching experience and is a former assistant offensive line coach in New Orleans.

What’s clear is that just trying to follow Payton’s template without the man himself isn’t working out. There are plenty of options outside the building the Saints could call up, and they owe it to their fans (and themselves) to explore those possibilities. They can’t go with another in-house retread and mistake continuity for competence.

And letting Allen go now gives them a head start on finding his replacement. Because Payton took a few weeks to choose to step down as head coach, the Saints were unexpectedly thrown into the hiring cycle after it had already begun. At least one of their top candidates for the job, Brian Daboll, accepted the New York Giants opening before the Saints even got a chance to speak with him. If the Saints kick-start that process by moving on from Allen now, it helps them out in the long run. They’ll be better prepared once they’re free to start interviewing candidates.

Where would Allen go from here? There’s a very strong possibility he ends up wherever Sean Payton is coaching next year, assuming Payton does make a return to the NFL like everyone seems to expect him to. Whether Payton is coaching the Los Angeles Chargers, the Dallas Cowboys, the Arizona Cardinals, or some other outfit, Allen gave him the most sustained success on defense. It would be nice if there were some way to get them back together in New Orleans, but that’s just unrealistic. This experience has critically damaged Allen’s credibility, and having his old boss come back and bump him back down and into his old office would be awkward-at-best. Whenever he and the Saints part ways, Allen needs a fresh start, and it’s a good bet he’ll team up with Payton again if given the opportunity.

As for Payton himself: the Saints are almost certainly going to try and recruit him once their head coaching job opens up again, even if that isn’t well-advised. They could spin it as him having needed a sabbatical after such a long run coaching the team, and he’s taken time to remind everyone that Loomis is one of his best friends in the world at every turn, but this goes back to credibility. We can’t make any bones about it: Payton quit on the Saints this year. He chose to walk away after steering them into the rocks with aggressive salary cap management and personnel decisions, and once the bill came due he left them with the tab. Again, we should fully anticipate the Saints to make an ill-advised recruiting pitch to Payton at some point. But they’d be better off making a fresh start just like he will be.

And hiring a new head coach would almost certainly spell the end of Jameis Winston’s time in New Orleans. They’ll want to pick their own quarterback to build around, and it’s unlikely he’d factor into their plans. Winston is under contract for 2023 but the Saints can trade or release him with little financial pushback, saving $4 million against the salary cap by doing so. It might spell the end for Taysom Hill, too, as a position-flexible playmaker that not everyone has an appreciation for. If that’s the case, Payton has already signaled his eagerness to take on Hill’s contract with a new team.

Big changes are on the way for the Saints, whether they’re ready or not. They can (and probably will) be stubborn and deny it and put them off as problems to answer on another day. Organizationally, the Saints have not made an in-season coaching change since 1996 when Jim Mora resigned after eight games, with Rick Venturi finishing out the season. They haven’t fired a head coach midseason outright since Dick Nolan was fired in 1980 and replaced by Dick Stanfel for the final five games, when John Mecom Jr. was the owner, Archie Manning was the quarterback, and brown paper bags littered the stands.

Firing Allen after Week 10 would be unprecedented given the team’s history. Many fans are experiencing the first bleak season of their lifetimes. And, again, unless pressure comes from the top it’s unlikely Loomis takes it upon himself to make a change now. But Benson has done what’s necessary to invest in the team, pad out its payroll, and put them in a position to compete before. Kicking off a change at head coach now would be doing the same thing, even if it’s more complicated than cutting a check and hosting some hospital executives and state senators for a luncheon. If they stay the course, they’ll set the team back even further. At this point all they can do to is mitigate the harm already done.

Story originally appeared on Saints Wire