There are certain expressions in sports that we all cling to, and one of the favorites of fans and media alike is ‘numbers never lie’. Well sorry to disappoint you folks but sometimes they do, and this is one of those times. The Saints are statistically one of the worst defenses in the league, they allow 30 points a game, and without fail at least once a game they make a play that has the potential to give fans an aneurysm. Ordinarily under such circumstances you would expect the defensive coordinator to be on the hotseat, and in a normal circumstance that would be what I am writing about today. The Saints are not ordinary though, and their circumstances are anything but normal. In my opinion Dennis Allen has already shown more than enough that he is worthy of continuing on as the team’s defensive coordinator for a couple more seasons.
The reasons are simple. The Saints fired Rob Ryan because his defense was uncoordinated, inconsistent (both by production and scheme) and undisciplined. Dennis Allen’s unit has been far from perfect, but they have already demonstrated all three attributes necessary to prove his worth.
Simply put the Saints defense has shown improvement in each game this year, and not only from individual players but from the units as a whole as well. For the most part the Saints have slowly turned into a bend but don’t break defense that is stingy against the run, swarms to the football, and gives 100% effort at all times. That is the absolute best that can be expected at this point due to the injuries and lack of talent at key positions. Allen’s unit has quietly become very good against the run, and if it wasn’t for one awful game against Atlanta you could even say dominant. They give up fewer big plays than last year’s units, and continue to play through the whistle. Those are all improvements over last year, but also the team is impressively improving as the season goes on as well.
Allen’s unit is not only devoid of the embarrassing number of back breaking penalties and mistakes from last year, but they clearly see each other as a UNIT. Getting rid of Brandon Browner is definitely a huge boost to that, but you really don’t have to look any further than Kenny Vacarro vetoing the team’s Monday off a couple of weeks ago in favor of more time to watch the film. That kind of leadership and culture of accountability did not exist under Rob Ryan, and the play on the field matches it.
That isn’t to say they play mistake free football, there is a combination of rookies and players who don’t belong on the field out there right now (some are both), and that severely hampers their ability to consistently execute properly. The difference is that the effort is always there, and that you can see them learning from their mistakes. No defense is perfect and the young players are making some ‘young player’ mistakes, but with only one exception they haven’t had the kind of back breakingly stupid plays of the last few years.
This is the one that always seems to bother fans. “how can players who are paid millions of dollars not always give their all” they ask. The answer is simple, they’re human. They have the same kind of motivations, psychological baggage, and need for ‘something to fight for’ that the rest of us do. Your paycheck doesn’t determine your work ethic, I know busboys who work harder than some CEO’s I’ve met.
In sports, and in football in particular, giving maximum effort consistently is a hurdle that requires both physical and mental toughness. These guys put their bodies through hell, and a lot of the plays that make fans marvel at their ‘effort’ and ‘fight’ are the same plays that put them in an ice tub for the next week. That’s the reality of a professional athlete. If you ask someone to go through all of that constantly and give it everything they have…for nothing…you shouldn’t be surprised when their effort begins to wane.
However, when you give them something to fight for. When they can see tangible improvement, results, a sign that their efforts are not in vain. That is when you (as a coach) are able to draw out their maximum potential. When the defense becomes a unit and not just a collection of individuals wearing the same jersey, that is when you know you are beginning to build something. The fight this team has shown, the way they have done their best to overcome incredible adversity through their injuries to key starters, and the way they come together to consistently do everything they can realistically be asked to do to deliver on Sundays is impressive. Some of that is one the players themselves, but there is no question that the trust they have in Dennis Allen, and the trust he has EARNED with them by putting them in positions to succeed, is a huge component of that.
I’m not saying that this Saints defense is good, or even that I think they will be good next year. But I think it is very clear they at least have a chance to be good in the future if they add the right pieces they need to execute. Coaches need players to run their schemes and its up to Jeff Ireland and Mickey Loomis to give Allen the pieces he needs, but in my opinion he has already proven he deserves the opportunity to show whether or not he can produce a competent defense when given the right pieces to do so.