NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints have a lot of things to fix after their first losing season since 2016, but the inability to finish games is what might haunt Dennis Allen the most now that his first year as head coach has come to an end.
Speaking in front of the media contingent Monday, Allen recalled specific losses:
There was Week 4 that came down to the Saints going 1-of-2 on 60- and 61-yard field goal attempts before falling short 28-25 to the Minnesota Vikings in London.
There was Week 6 when the Saints let a five-point lead in the fourth quarter slip away at home against the Cincinnati Bengals before losing 30-26.
Then there were divisional losses late in the season that potentially cost them a trip to the playoffs had the outcomes been different.
There was a Week 13 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when the Buccaneers scored two touchdowns in the last three minutes to erase a 16-3 lead and win 17-16, and then there was Sunday's season finale, when the Carolina Panthers kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired in the 10-7 loss.
“I think there were some opportunities for us to close some games out, finish some games, we didn’t get that done,” Allen said. “So I think that’s gonna be an area that if we can learn how to finish games and close some of those games out, not only this season but seasons in the future will be different.”
“Something different” will be key if the Saints are going to turn things around in Allen’s second season. Allen wasn’t ready to say what those differences were at his end-of-the-season interview session on Monday, or whether it’ll include staffing changes.
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael will likely receive the most scrutiny after the offense scored only 330 points, its lowest total since 2005.
“We’ll look at every aspect of our team, of our operation,” Allen said. “What are things we need to improve? And then we’ll come up with a plan moving forward.
"Obviously disappointed in the record. Don’t feel like – it’s certainly not the standard that we want to be here. Our goal is to win championships here. So this year in that regard was not good enough. I think we all know that, and we’re gonna work extremely hard this offseason to get those things fixed and put ourselves back in a position where we’re competing for championships.”
But what needs to improve won’t be as glaringly obvious as it was in 2016, Allen’s first full season at defensive coordinator. The Saints had a championship caliber offense under former coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, but Allen had inherited one of the worst defenses in the league midway through the 2015 season.
Allen has seen the team improve from 8-8 to winning a Super Bowl from 2008 to 2009, and from 7-9 to a playoff caliber team from 2016 to 2017.
“I’ve seen how you can turn that around,” Allen said, "and so, that’ll be our focus and what we’re trying to do moving forward.
Allen, who said he is moving forward with the expectation he's coaching the team in 2023, doesn’t believe the team is as far from turning things around as critics perceive it to be.
“I’m certainly going forward with that anticipation, that’s the indication that I’ve been given. And I’m excited about it,” Allen said. “Look, again, 7-10’s not where we want to be. But we’re not as far off as maybe some might think. But there’s areas that we have to improve on.”
The Saints don’t have one big issue that needs to be fixed: They have multiple.
Even kicker Wil Lutz, who returned after missing the previous season, wasn’t as reliable as he was in the past. Lutz made 74.2% of his field goals this season, by far a career low.
“Obviously I don’t think he kicked as well as he’s capable of kicking -- I think Wil would probably say that,” Allen said. "We all have, starting with me, we all have things we have to improve on and be better at. So I don’t think any of us can look ourselves in the mirror and say ‘I did everything exactly right this year.’ I think we all got to look ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘What can I do better to help this team be where we feel like we’re capable of being?’”
In previous turnaround years, the Saints had to make sweeping changes. They replaced their special teams coordinator, linebackers coach, wide receivers coach and defensive line coach. The Saints also struck gold in the 2017 draft, producing Pro Bowlers like Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk and Alvin Kamara.
All of that change led to five straight winning seasons. However, entering the season, the Saints preferred to keep the staff largely the same in the transition from Payton to Allen.
The Saints hired only two new coaches: Offensive line coach Doug Marrone (who was with the Saints from 2006 to 2008) and wide receivers coach Kodi Burns. Carmichael, who was the longtime offensive coordinator, was promoted to playcaller.
But the Saints found that keeping things the same doesn’t necessarily translate to success. The Saints' offense struggled to stay consistent, finishing 22nd in points and 19th in yards, the second season in a row when they struggled to find a replacement for Brees.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan said that the Saints became more comfortable in the back half of the season as Allen began to make things his own.
"It's one thing when you're going into an organization blank. It's another thing to say 'Hey, you're not trying to rock the boat, still trying to keep some of the same infrastructure that kept this organization propelled going forward,'" Jordan said. "He made it his own, but it took a little while. I think you saw the more comfortable he got with the offense, as well as the defense as well as whatever his role was, the more comfortable the team started looking."
Jordan also lamented the high amount of injuries the Saints dealt with the past two seasons.
"At the very beginning of the year, you saw the Atlanta game, when you have a fully healthy wide receiver corps, a fully healthy line, everything clicks the right way, you can put up some high points," Jordan said. "Then guys go down with injury, guys ... rotate in and out, on the offensive line as well, that instability doesn't bode well for a team that has a new head coach trying to figure things out. That's sort of a bug that's sort of affected us the last two seasons.
"You say 'Oh, when the Saints are healthy...' Well, s---, it's time the Saints get healthy."
Their defense, now under the direction of co-defensive coordinators Ryan Nielsen and Kris Richard, also took half of the season to find its footing. The Saints allowed 21.5 points per game in the first eight games of the season and only 15.3 in the last nine, excluding interception and fumble returns for points.
But despite the issues the Saints faced during the season, and the hurdles they have coming up (no first-round pick, no set quarterback and a less-than-ideal salary cap situation), Allen has hope for the future.
Allen said that he feels the team has a “young nucleus of players” to build around.
Rookie cornerback Alontae Taylor, rookie tackle Trevor Penning and rookie wideouts Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed have been some of the bright spots of the season.
Young veterans like linebackers Pete Werner (age 23) and Kaden Elliss (27), tight end Juwan Johnson (26) and defensive end Carl Granderson (26) are some others who impressed.
Johnson, a converted tight end only in his second year at the position, was one of the more impressive developments this year. His seven receiving touchdowns led the team and was tied for third among tight ends across the league.
“I was pleased with the way that we kind of changed the tide a little bit defensively,” Allen said. “The last half of the season, I thought we were one of the better defenses in our league. So I think there’s some foundational pieces that we can build on.”