The Saints were foundering on defense midway through the 2015 season. After surrendering at least 34 points in three straight games, including 47 or more twice during that span, coach Sean Payton dismissed coordinator Rob Ryan and promoted Dennis Allen, a senior defensive assistant who was seeking to reestablish himself after being fired as coach of the Raiders the previous year.
At his first meeting with the players, Allen stood before the group and outlined a bold yet suspect vision. Instead of being an anchor that weighs down the team, he wanted the defense to at least be the equal of the offense, which under the creative and aggressive play-calling of Payton and the flawless execution of quarterback Drew Brees had ranked in the top 10 in scoring seven of the previous nine seasons.
"We want this team to win because of us, not in spite of us," he said.
That was the plan, but this was the reality: The Saints finished as one of the worst defenses in league history. They allowed 45 touchdown passes and a 116.2 opponent passer rating, marks of ineptitude that represented a 65-year high for a full season. They also gave up an average of 6.65 yards per play, the most of any team in the Super Bowl era.
At the time, "Because Of Us, Not In Spite Of Us" sounded like a bad slogan for training camp T-shirts. But fast forward to today and the words have become the mindset that has helped the 7-1 Saints affirm their status as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They are winning not only because of the efficiency on offense, but also the stinginess of the defense, which has given up only two touchdowns in the last 12 quarters and was instrumental in New Orleans going 5-0 while Brees was sidelined with a thumb injury.
A lot has changed with the unit in the four years between then and now -- defensive end Cam Jordan is the only holdover starter from 2015 -- but the sting of those struggles remains constant for Allen, who was reminded of the fickle nature of the game. He had gone from being viewed as a potential Boy Wonder as the league's youngest head coach in 2012 to possibly being ... overrated?
"Anybody that tells you they don't care what the public perception is is filling you with a lot of bulls---," Allen said recently. "Everybody cares to a certain extent. I want to be viewed as one of the better defensive coaches in our league. That's being truthful. That's being honest. Now, you can't let public opinion dictate who you are, but we all want that. And I want our players to get that recognition because I think they deserve that. For so long around here it has been all about the offense -- and rightfully so. They were performing at a high level while the other side of the ball was falling back. But I would argue that that was because there wasn't enough emphasis on getting the right players on the defensive side of the ball. Everybody had good intentions, but unless you've got a clear vision for the player, unless you've clearly identified how this person is going to fit into your scheme, you're not going to have consistent success."
The turnaround has been a collaborative effort that began with Payton and the personnel department bringing in talented players whose skill sets and athletic character fit the system and schemes he wanted to run. For a time the Saints lacked an identity on defense, unsure of whether they wanted to be a 3-4 or a 4-3 base front. They were a 4-3 under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012, but transitioned to a 3-4 the next year when Ryan took over as coordinator. By 2015 they weren't sure exactly what they were and decided to study the Seahawks and Patriots as possible blueprints for going forward. There was one problem: Although both leaned heavily on single-high safety coverages, each played the defense differently.
"Seattle was strictly a three-deep, zone defense with some matchup principles within it, while New England was all man-to-man across the board," Allen said. "That was two totally different mindsets and thought processes and philosophies of how to play defense. At that point I was like, 'Ooh, we don't really know what we want to be.' "
Ultimately they decided a 4-3 base was the best plan, but even then there had to be agreement on precisely what skill sets the team wanted at each position. That's where trust came into play. Allen had a specific vision of what he needed at each spot, and he voiced that to a receptive audience. It was not enough to say that someone was a highly productive player in college. The question was whether his skills could make him highly productive in the role the Saints envisioned.
Methodically, the organization has hit on many of its selections. In 2016 the Saints used their first-round pick on Sheldon Rankins, a stout defensive tackle who could stop the run and provide interior pressure, and a second-round selection on strong safety Vonn Bell, who could provide a physical presence in the run game. The next year they added a lock-down man-to-man corner in Marshon Lattimore in the first round and versatile safety Marcus Williams in the second round. And in 2018 they gave up a 2019 first-round pick to trade up for the 14th overall selection, which they spent on edge rusher Marcus Davenport.
Each has helped the unit go from "good to great," the challenge Allen laid out to them before the start of the season. The Saints have also strategically hit on their defensive free agents, bypassing bigger names for mid-level signings who could fill specific roles. In each of the previous two years they signed outside linebacker A.J. Klein and middle linebacker Demario Davis, respectively, versatile players whose physicality and agility they believed could help them against the run.
The ultimate decision about whom to bring in belonged to Payton, but Allen was more vocal in expressing his vision for what he needed, in part because of what took place in Oakland.
"The biggest thing I learned about myself, not necessarily while I was there, but after going through it, was that I know what I'm doing," he said. "Don't let somebody else influence you into doing something that you may not agree with. Use your voice. You can say to the personnel people: 'Whatever you give me, I'll make it work.' But that's not always the best thing."
Adds Payton: "We're in one of these industries that, by nature, can be very non-trusting. Dennis has got a tact about him that disarms people in a cordial way, in a very positive way. That goes a long way in any business. He is one of those guys who's secure in his own skin and is going to interject at the right time."
Despite its breadth and grandness, the NFL is really a small community in which word spreads quickly when a talented young coach emerges. Allen was one such person shortly after taking an entry-level position with the Falcons in 2002. He had worked as a secondary coach at Tulsa and Texas A&M, where he started at safety his final 21 games, and the Atlanta pass defense improved from 30th to 16th and tied for third in interceptions in his first season as an assistant.
His work continued to catch the eye of others, so much so that Payton sought to bring him to New Orleans despite not having an opening for a secondary coach. Instead, he hired him as an assistant defensive line coach in 2006 before promoting him to secondary coach two years later. Suddenly, Allen was on the fast track. He spent one year as the Broncos coordinator before taking the Oakland job after blowing away general manager Reggie McKenzie during the interview process. Allen was considered a long shot going in, but his passion, vision and football acumen wowed McKenzie. Young, personable and smart, he was viewed as someone around whom the Raiders could rebuild around after missing the playoffs nine straight years and failing to record a winning season during that time.
Looking back, it is not a stretch to say that Allen was destined for failure with the Raiders. He was a 39-year-old first-year head coach with a first-year general manager and a first-year owner in Mark Davis, who had taken over the previous October following the death of his father, NFL legend Al Davis. The team was $31 million over the salary cap, did not have a draft choice until the third round and would carry some $50 million in dead money against the salary cap that year. Worse, it was attempting to walk the very fine line between rebuilding while trying to win.
His year in Denver was his only experience as a coordinator before being hired in Oakland, and in the back of his mind there was still "a little bit of, 'Are you ready for this?' " Consequently he often held back even when his inner voice was telling him to speak up.
"Looking back on it, I wish I would have fought harder for some things," he said. "The whole time I was there, there was still that little bit of self-doubt. Now flash forward to me coming to New Orleans, I start coordinating the defense and we get a couple of talented players and this thing starts to turn around. I realized, 'You do what the hell you're doing. You know exactly how it needs to be done, so don't let anybody influence you any differently.' I know that under the right circumstances I was ready to be a head coach at that time, but I wasn't ready for that job, if that makes sense. Circumstance has a lot to do with success or failure."
It is a belief that has bled into his evaluation of players. For instance, when weighing whether to bring in a player, he is more mindful of the player's skill set than the player's reputation. For example, Davis bounced between the Jets and Browns in the three years before the Saints signed him as a free agent in 2018, but Allen looked at the circumstances of how Davis' previous clubs were going through a bit of turmoil and didn't offer the most stable environment. So he focused on the player's abilities and landed someone who led the team in tackles last season and has been a model performer on the field, in the locker room and throughout the community.
Same thing with cornerback Eli Apple, a former top-10 pick who was sent to the Saints before the trade deadline last year for fourth- and seventh-round selections. "I heard all the stories about Eli in New York with the Giants," Allen said. "He was supposed to be a bad dude; he and Landon Collins didn't get along; he got suspended and had some problems with the coaching staff. Blah, blah, blah. Well, this guy couldn't be any easier to coach. He comes to work, does the best that he can, and works his ass off for us. He's never been a problem for us. Never. He has been a perfect complement for Lattimore."
"DA is very detailed, very smart, instinctive," said Bell, who leads the team with four fumble recoveries and is second in tackles. "He's able to go with the flow of the game and put guys in the right position. He gives them fewer adjustments so they can play fast and play for each other. He loves a guy who works hard and gets the job done, and he loves to see the swag of the defensive player, the confidence. He loves a sense of urgency."
As the Saints' defense improves, so does Allen's visibility. Last January he interviewed for the Dolphins' head-coaching vacancy, and he's likely to get more opportunities this offseason if New Orleans makes a deep playoff run. But Allen is in no rush to go down that road again. He knows the next situation has to be right, because very few people get a third opportunity to lead a team.
"I've thought about this a lot," he said. "Would I like to be a head coach again? The answer is: absolutely, yes. But I want to make sure I go into a situation where we have an opportunity to have success. I want to know what the salary cap situation is, I want to know what the vision of the owner is, I want to know how involved he's going to be in the operation. I want to know who the general manager is, and I want to know exactly what his vision is as to how we're going to be successful.
"I don't want to go through what I've been through already. I got into this to have fun coaching the game of football. I enjoy coaching and love being around football and the competition. I love being able to call plays on defense and match my wits against whoever is calling plays on the other side. If the right job comes along, I think I'm better prepared to do that than I was before."
Part of the proof can be found in the growth of the Saints defense, which has matured into one of the league's best.