- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Reggie McKenzie just took a big risk.
Al Davis would be proud.
In his first move as the late Davis’ replacement at the helm of the Oakland Raiders, McKenzie, a longtime lieutenant in Green Bay, made a hire few could have guessed two weeks ago when he fired coach Hue Jackson after an 8-8 season. That man is Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.
Allen was hired despite having just one year experience as a coordinator and has no previous ties with McKenzie. At 39, Allen is the youngest active head coach in the NFL.
A former Raiders linebacker, McKenzie -- who was recommended to Oakland owner Mark Davis (Al Davis’ son) by former Oakland and Green Bay executives Ron Wolf and Ken Herock -- was expected to stick to his Green Bay roots. Packers assistant Winston Moss and Dom Capers were reportedly candidates, but it was Allen who emerged after an active 14-day search. McKenzie centered his search on Allen in the past day or so. An agreement was made after Allen was interviewed a second time Tuesday.
Allen is the first Raiders head coach who is a defensive specialist since Al Davis hired a 32-year-old John Madden in 1969. While Al Davis was partial to offensive minds, he certainly wasn’t afraid to hire a young coach and he no doubt would have saluted McKenzie for sticking to his gut and hiring the coach who he thought was the most impressive. This isn't the first time a hot-shot Denver assistant has become the Raiders’ head coach, either. Al Davis hired Denver assistant Mike Shanahan in 1988.
There is no doubt Allen has a chance to be a strong coach. He is regarded as one of the better young defensive minds in the NFL, and he had instant success in Denver while earning the respect of the Broncos’ defensive players.
Denver was ranked last in the NFL in almost every defensive category following the 2010 season. After Allen took over, the unit improved immensely in 2011 and the defensive resurgence was a big reason why Denver advanced to the playoffs after a 4-12 record in the previous season.
Prior to the start of the season, Allen talked about what he liked from his new players in Denver, and I'm sure he will have the same approach in Oakland.
“I think they’re trying to play fast,” Allen said. “I think they’re trying to play physical, and at the end of the day I’ve tried to preach to them, we’ve preached as a coaching staff, that it’s not really about the X’s and O’s but it’s about the way we go out there and play the game. That’s what we’re trying to do, and I think the guys are buying in and believing in it and trying to do that.”
Allen ran a 4-3 defense in Denver, and the Raiders could stay with the 4-3, as well. Oakland has a talented defense, but it sagged badly down the stretch as the Raiders lost four of their final five games. The Raiders gave up way too many big plays. Fixing that issue will be one of Allen’s top priorities, along with solving the Raiders’ penalty problems. Oakland set NFL record for penalties and penalty yardage in 2011.
He will also be expected to provide stability where the three past Oakland coaches -- Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable and Jackson -- could not. All three of those men created their own distractions at one point.
Allen has a reputation for being hard-working and for stability, as does McKenzie. The dysfunction at the top of the organization must end in Oakland. The Raiders have not been to the postseason since 2002 -- tied for the second-longest streak in the NFL.
In McKenzie and Allen, the Raiders have two young, hungry leaders. But there are risks. Allen, who was New Orleans’ secondary coach before getting the Denver job, is fairly inexperienced, and if it doesn’t work, people will question why McKenzie didn’t go for a more experienced coach or hire somebody he is more familiar with.
But give McKenzie credit going out of his comfort zone and hiring the man he felt best about. Al Davis certainly wouldn’t have had a problem with that.
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