The year was 2006, when Dennis Allen was in his first year as an assitant coach for the New Orleans Saints. Allen didn’t have much NFL experience, yet he made an immediate impression upon fellow assistant coach Joe Vitt, now the Saints interim head coach during Sean Payton’s year-long suspension.
Vitt said he realized right away that Allen had what it takes to be an NFL head coach.
“There’s some people that have that ‘it’ factor,” Vitt said. “There’s some people, some coaches, not only are they extremely well versed at coaching their position but they have the people skills and game-day awareness and knowledge of the game that you just know that they’ve got that ‘it’ factor. And D.A. has always had that ‘it’ factor.
“So, when he left here and became the coordinator in Denver, we knew he was going to try. Dennis Allen has coached both ends of the ball now. He’s coached defensive line. He coached it here for one year in ’06, then he coached the secondary. He’s won a world championship, he’s succeeded as a coordinator. D.A.’s succeeded as a player at Texas A&M.”
And he’ll succeed in Oakland Vitt said, because Allen has succeeded at every stop during his football career.
“The only reason that D.A. was hired to be the coach at the Raiders is they wanted to go in a different direction and improve their football team,” Vitt said, “and as anyone knows, you’re going to go through tough times your rookie season as a head coach.
“That head coach and Reggie McKenzie are going to get the right people in there to fit the scheme that they’re playing, and it’s going to take a little bit of time. But you talk about two highly qualified guys that have won big-time at this level and know what they’re doing, that’s a great combination.”
Vitt was just getting started. He said fans need to be patient with Allen. His time is coming, even if it’s not in his first season with the Raiders.
“D.A. has been through tough times before,” Vitt said. “Let me tell you something about D.A. There’s not a more qualified guy to be coaching that team than Dennis Allen right now. … Dennis Allen is smart, Dennis Allen has great people skills. Dennis Allen knows how to teach, motivate and inspire.”
Then, perhaps in a slight toward the man Allen replaced, Hue Jackson, Vitt said Allen has the proper demeanor to persevere through tough times, whereas Jackson lashed out during his postgame news conference after the regular-season finale last year.
“Dennis Allen’s not going to go off the cuff and off the reservation by saying or doing dumb things,” Vitt said. “He’s going to have his football team focused and he’s going to have to get better. … So, D.A. is going to stay the course. He’s going to get people healthy, circle the wagons, and we’re going to get the Raiders best game of the year. We are well versed in that.”
When asked Thursday about his coaching aspirations, Allen seemed more intent upon looking forward, as is his wont.
He didn’t feel compelled to say things such as he always has wanted to be a head coach in the NFL or that this is the job he dreamed of from a young age. He’s all about the now.
“I never really thought about it that much; I really didn’t,” Allen said. “I was fortunate to be in a situation where I got this opportunity, and I’m thankful for that. I don’t really think about how I got here, I think about how I’m going to continue to work to get this team better.”
Raiders free safety Matt Giordano played for Allen with the Saints for one season, when Allen was the defensive backs coach. He, too, recognized that Allen was headed for bigger and better things before long.
“When I was there in New Orleans, I just looked at him as my position coach, but everyone knew he was fully capable of being a defensive coordinator or possibly a head coach,” Giordano said. “He understood the defense there so well. I was thankful to have him that one year as my position coach.”
— Allen said running back Darren McFadden took his injured right ankle for a test run Thursday, with trainers monitoring his every step.
McFadden hasn’t practiced or played in a game since he suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Nov. 4. He has missed five straight practices.
“McFadden was out today and ran around on the side with the trainers, which was, obviously, a good sign,” Allen said. “I don’t know whether or not either (McFadden or fellow running back Mike Goodson) will be able to play this weekend or not. But that’s a good sign that he was out here able to move around. These guys are working extremely hard to get back out here.”
McFadden was spotted at the team’s facility rehabbing his ankle at 6 a.m. today, another encouraging sign. Still, it’s a stretch to envision McFadden playing Sunday against the Saints.
Goodson has not been able to give it a go with his high-ankle sprain, Allen said. Same goes for injured defensive tackle Richard Seymour (knee, hamstring).
— It seems as if every coach or player has some sort of recollection of their dealings with late Raiders managing general partner Al Davis over the years.
Vitt laughed when asked about the first time he met Davis.
“You really want to know?” Vitt said, while laughing, in a conference call.
Sure, coach, fill us in.
“The year was 1981,” Vitt said. “I was in the league for three years, my first year was 1979 I was the strength coach and quality control guy for the Baltimore Colts under Ted Marchibroda. After three years there, we were fired, and after three years, I was 26 years old.
And I want to say the (scouting) combine workout that year was at the Pontiac Silverdome. Fired coaches, the club usually flies them to the combine workout or the Senior Bowl to try and help them secure another job. So there I am, I’m in the locker room, doing the player weigh-in, and there I spot Mr. Davis.
“So, I go up to him, I say, `Hey, coach, my name is Joe Vitt. I’m only 26 years old but I’ve been in the league three years. I was the strength coach, I was the quality control coach, I gave out the tickets on the plane.’ I told him all the wonderful accomplishments I had over my three-year-period with the Baltimore Colts.
“He looked me in the eye and said, `Son, when I was 26 years old I was the commissioner of the AFL.’ I crawled out of the lockerroom. And he never forgot that, and I never forgot that. I’ve always enjoyed my time and my conversations with them since then.”
— Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp reiterated what Allen has said, that second-year running back Taiwan Jones still has to earn the trust of the coaches before he gets more action in games.
The issues that remain, Knapp said, are Jones’ ball security and blocking assignments. Once Jones gets those down in practice, he will get more of an opportunity to show what he can do in games.
“I’ve got to see ‘em in practice first, consistently,” Knapp said. “And I haven’t seen it consistently in practice, and that’s what we look for, is perfection in practice.”
Knapp said he and Allen can tell whether Jones is ready by watching him in practice, there isn’t the need to see him in a game to make that determination. Jones still isn’t hanging on to the ball as well as the coaches would like.
“Sometimes it’s handoffs and sometimes it’s been on contact,” Knapp said of Jones’ struggles.
— Strong safety Tyvon Branch missed practice for the second straight day today. If he can’t play Sunday, Allen said Mike Mitchell will make his first start this season.
“If he’s able to practice tomorrow, then I’d anticipate he’d be able to play,” Allen said of Branch. “I would have some real concern if he’s not able to practice tomorrow.”
Allen is high on Mitchell because of his passion, desire and ability. The key for Mitchell is playing under control.
“He’s a very passionate player, he works extremely hard, he loves the game,” Allen said. “So, sometimes you just got to slow his heartbeat down a little bit and get him to calm down a little bit. I’ve been pleased with some of the things that I’ve seen Mike do. It’s important to him, and that’s what I like about him.”
Defensive coordinator Jason Tarver echoed that sentiment, saying Mitchell just needs to harness his energy and play within himself.
“I’m more than capable of starting in this league and being a very good football player,” Mitchell said. “I just got to slow my heartbeat down and go play good football. I’m really looking forward to this opportunity. I feel like coach saying that says a lot. It gives me an opportunity to go out there and earn their confidence, earn their trust and just go make plays.”
There won’t be much margin for error Sunday, with Saints tight end Jimmy Graham adept at working over the best of defensive backs.
— If Allen is bothered by the growing discontent of the fan base, he isn’t letting on.
“Hey, listen, I understand that that’s part of the business,” Allen said. “My focus is on doing whatever I can to make this team better. That’s all I can focus on.”
With that said, Allen said that he doesn’t encounter any hostility from fans.
“No. Listen, you can’t please everybody, and I understand that and I know that,” Allen said. “You have to try to do everything you can to give this team a chance to win. That’s the sole purpose and sole thought process of what we’re trying to do.”
— The Raiders sold enough tickets in advance of the league-mandated deadline Thursday so that they can televise Sunday’s game locally.
This marks the fifth straight regular-season home game that will be televised this season and 13th straight, dating back to the start of last season.