Potential Head Coaching Candidates to Replace Sean Payton

Adam Forsythe / January 25, 2022

In typical offseason fashion, the New Orleans Saints are making noise early in the headlines. When NFL insider Ian Rapoport reported early on Sunday morning that Saints head coach Sean Payton had not yet committed to returning for the 2022 season, most Saints fans were met with a whirlwind of confusion.

The confusion was finally put to rest on Tuesday afternoon when Nick Underhill, journalist for NewOrleans.Football, dropped the bombshell news that Payton is retiring from the NFL.

Now that Payton’s intentions have been made clear, the Saints will be looking towards the future of their organization. For the first time in 15 years, the Saints are in the head coaching market. There are plenty of options available for the team to investigate. Here are three options that make sense for the organization going forward.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – NOVEMBER 24: Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen of the New Orleans Saints reacts during a game against the Carolina Panthers at the Mercedes Benz Superdome on November 24, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

1. Dennis Allen

Current position: Defensive Coordinator, New Orleans Saints

Dennis Allen seems like the most obvious replacement for Sean Payton. The New Orleans Saints defense was historically bad before Allen took over as the defensive coordinator near the end of the 2015 season. Since then, Allen has created a consistently improving product. In 2015, the Saints defense ranked 31st in yards allowed and 32nd in points allowed. Due to improved personnel and Allen’s coaching, this unit has ranked within the top 15 in both categories during each of the past four seasons.

The 2020 and 2021 seasons are the best statistically on Allen’s resume. In 2020 the defense ranked 4th in yards allowed and 5th in points allowed. The unit also forced 26 total turnovers and amassed 45 sacks. In 2021 the Saints defense continued their dominance by allowing the 7th least yards and the 4th least points to opposing offenses, while also forcing 25 turnovers and sacking opposing quarterbacks 46 times.

The Saints 2021 season included a shutout in week 15 against the high-powered Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense. Dennis Allen was thrust into head coaching duties for this game because Payton tested positive for COVID-19 and was unable to lead the team due to NFL regulations. While many considered this coaching performance by Allen to be his audition for a head coaching gig, few people likely thought it could be his audition to take over permanently as the Saints head coach.

Allen does have prior head coaching experience, though it did not go quite as well as his time as a DC for the Saints. Allen spent three years as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders during which he only amassed eight total wins.

Despite his previous struggles as a head coach, Dennis Allen has proven through his work with the Saints that he is ready for another opportunity to lead a team to success.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – JANUARY 09: Los Angeles Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi looks on before a game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Raiders defeated the Chargers 35-32 in overtime. (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)

2. Joe Lombardi

Current Position: Offensive Coordinator, Los Angeles Chargers

Now that Sean Payton is choosing to step away from the game, the Saints could look towards one of his former assistants to take over his head coaching duties in the Big Easy. Lombardi had spent many years with the Saints prior to taking over as the Chargers OC this past season. He worked as an offensive assistant from 2007-2008 before taking over as the team’s quarterbacks coach from 2009-2013 and again from 2016-2020.

During his time as quarterbacks coach, Lombardi worked with a quarterback named Drew Brees, a name that a few Saints fans may have heard before. With the help of Lombardi’s coaching, Brees put together a legendary career in New Orleans that cemented him as a future Pro Football Hall of Famer.

Lombardi’s success with quarterbacks continued when he joined the Chargers before the 2021 NFL season. Under Lombardi’s coaching, quarterback Justin Herbert continued to develop and delivered a great statistical season for the Chargers. Coming off a rookie-of-the-year campaign in 2020, the former Oregon Duck improved in both passing yards and touchdowns as he compiled 5,014 yards and 38 touchdowns through the air.

Not only did Herbert improve his play, but the entire offense became one of the league’s most powerful under Lombardi. The Chargers ended the 2021 season ranked as the 5th best team in terms of points scored and the 4th best team in terms of offensive yards.

The Saints struggled mightily in 2021 on the offensive side of the ball. Offensively, the team finished 19th and 28th in total yards and points scored respectively. Both rankings serve as the lowest of the Sean Payton era. The offensive performance of the team can be attributed to several different factors, but perhaps the most glaring is overall player health. The team started off the season without their superstar wide receiver in Michael Thomas due to an ankle injury that held him out for the entire season. Additionally, the Saints started four different quarterbacks over the course of the season due to injuries.

Despite the team’s injury plague that affected the 2021 season, the offense has some exciting key pieces in Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas that have proven how explosive their presence can make this offense. Additionally, the Saints will likely be looking to add another playmaking wide receiver via free agency or the NFL Draft.

Finally, another major point that could connect Lombardi to the Saints head coaching gig is the quarterback position. Jameis Winston is set to become a free agent soon. While the team could elect to resign the quarterback that they deemed their starter at the beginning of the 2021 season, the Saints could also look at many of the enticing options available in free agency or a young signal caller via the NFL Draft. Superstar quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson could become available to the Saints during the offseason. Moreover, the team could look to a younger option in the NFL Draft such as former Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett. The opportunity to develop a rookie quarterback could be a key factor in the team’s decision for its next head coach with Sean Payton now retired. What better option for this development than Joe Lombardi who has proven to be quite successful at just that.

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 29: Offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell of the Los Angeles Rams calls a play during a team scrimmage at SoFi Stadium on August 29, 2020 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

3. Kevin O’Connell

Current position: Offensive Coordinator, Los Angeles Rams

In today’s NFL, many teams are searching for the next wunderkind head coach. A perfect example of this idea arose when the Los Angeles Rams hired a 30-year-old Sean McVay to be their head coach in 2017. Since then, McVay has lead the Rams back to relevancy and has consistently boasted a top-tier, highly explosive offense. Teams may not have to go far to find the next potential star in the making.

In 2020, the Rams hired Kevin O’Connell to be their offensive coordinator. After the 2020 season, O’Connell was tasked with the difficult job of reworking the offense to fit the play style of their new quarterback for the 2021 season as the team traded its previous starter, Jared Goff, to the Detroit Lions for quarterback Matthew Stafford.

With Stafford as the signal caller and O’Connell as the architect of the offense, the Rams orchestrated a successful 2021 season. The high-powered offense ranked 7th in points scored and 9th in offensive yards on the season. Additionally, wide receiver Cooper Kupp enjoyed an insanely impressive season as he hauled in 145 receptions for a total of 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Sean McVay’s coaching connections have developed into solid head coaches as former coordinators Zac Taylor and Brandon Staley are succeeding with their respective teams. O’Connell could be the next name to add to that list.

The Saints could benefit greatly from the offensive boost that O’Connell may provide. An offense featuring Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and likely another playmaker to be added during the offseason sounds quite intriguing.

While some fans may be opposed to hiring a young head coach like O’Connell, who is now 36, he could prove to be just what the Saints need. After all, the last time the Saints hired an offensively-minded head coach, it turned out pretty well for them.

Be sure to follow Gumbo Sports on Twitter: @GumboSports

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