METAIRIE, La. (AP) — During a time of transition, the New Orleans Saints looked like a franchise trying to figure out some things.
They were competitive throughout Dennis Allen's first season as head coach. But a series of failures at crucial moments cost them victories in a handful of tight games when winning just twice more could have put them in the playoffs.
“When you have an opportunity to put a team away, you have to put them away, and we didn’t do that this year — offensively, defensively, in the kicking game," Allen said Monday. "For us to be the type of team that I think we can be, that’ll be something that we need to improve.”
The Saints went 7-10. Technically, it's their worst record since 2005 — the year before the hiring of Sean Payton, who coached New Orleans to its lone Super Bowl title and nine playoff appearances before retiring after the 2021 season.
But before the regular season was lengthened to 17 games in 2021, the Saints had five other seven-win seasons between 2007 and 2016 (once while Payton was suspended in 2012).
The Saints' only championship followed seven- and eight-win seasons in 2007 and 2008. A seven-win campaign in 2016 was followed by four straight playoff appearances.
Allen — who said he anticipates being retained — was on Payton's staff, either as a secondary coach (2006-2010) or defensive coordinator (2016-2021) for the sharp improvements in 2009 and 2017.
“Look, again, 7-10’s not where we want to be. But we’re not as far off as maybe some might think,” Allen said. “I’ve seen how you can turn that around.”
Allen’s acumen for coaching defense appears undiminished, but New Orleans was done in by a combination of injuries to key offensive players — namely, receiver Michael Thomas — as well as a minus-11 turnover differential and other poorly timed mistakes.
The Saints also had to abandon plans to run the offense through quarterback Jameis Winston, whose early season back injury and erratic play caused coaches to defer instead to 35-year-old Andy Dalton.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan said Allen's first year overseeing the entire team while also remaining in charge of the defense was bound to be an adjustment. Lineup instability didn't “bode well for a team that has a new head coach trying to figure things out,” Jordan added.
The more comfortable Allen got in his new role, Jordan noted, "the more comfortable the team started looking.”
“This team had a lot of potential," Jordan asserted. “We just didn’t capitalize on it.”
Although a recent contract alteration gives the Saints more flexibility under the salary cap to part ways with Thomas this summer, Allen said no decision has been made.
“That was more of a, kind of, gives us, and him, just a little bit more flexibility,” Allen said.
Thomas set an NFL record with 149 catches in a season in 2019, but has played just three games in the past two seasons because of ankle and foot injuries.
“It’s a tough evaluation,” Allen said. “Yet I know when he’s been healthy for us, he’s been a game-changer.”
For the season, the Saints ranked sixth in yards allowed per game and ninth in points allowed — despite top cornerback Marshon Lattimore missing 10 games with an abdomen injury. In its last 10 games, New Orleans held nine opponents to 20 or fewer points, including five to 13 or fewer — and there was one shutout.
“The last eight weeks of the season, you'd say we were top two — top three at worst,” Jordan said. “But that's what we need at the beginning of the season.”
A number of younger players became significant contributors this season, led by rookies Chris Olave, Alontae Taylor and Rashid Shaheed, as well as third-year tight end Juwan Johnson.
Olave led the team in yards receiving with 1,042. Johnson had a team-high seven TD catches. Taylor, a cornerback, looked strong in pass coverage after coming back from an early season injury. Shaheed, a receiver and returner, had three touchdowns of 44 yards or longer.
Rookie offensive lineman Trevor Penning was plagued by foot injuries, but also showed promise. Surgery on his left foot caused him to miss his first 11 games. He finally got his first start Sunday and left late in the game with a right foot injury that also will require surgery, Allen said.
Still, Allen liked what he saw of Penning.
“There’s a young nucleus of players that I think we can build on,” Allen said.
The Saints likely won't bring back Winston. They could re-sign Dalton, but Allen said the club will “turn over every stone” looking for the best option at QB.
Currently without a first-round pick in this spring's NFL draft, New Orleans'' most realistic options at QB could be acquiring a veteran through a trade of free agency.
The Saints also will see if they can get a first-round draft choice from a team that wants to hire Payton, who has indicated he's interested in coming out of retirement, but remains under contract with New Orleans.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL