Indianapolis – The New Orleans Saints were going to experience a change within the coaching ranks on special teams, given that savant Mike Westhoff – a 45-year coaching veteran, 32 in the NFL, the last two with the Saints – was retiring after the 2018 season.
Coach Sean Payton made sure it was a positive change.
By adding Darren Rizzi to his staff as special teams coordinator, Payton figures he added a coach who’ll ensure no performance dip from a unit that was among the league’s best in several categories last year.
Punter Thomas Morstead led the league in net punting average (45 yards), and the Saints allowed league lows in punt returns (12) and punt return yards (60). Kicker Wil Lutz made a franchise-record 26 consecutive field goals. Taysom Hill and the punt team successfully executed three fake punts, Hill and defensive end Alex Okafor blocked a punt, and linebacker Craig Robertson made crucial stops on a fake field goal and a fake punt to give the ball back to the offense.
To that, New Orleans will add Rizzi’s weighty resume.
In the past eight seasons with Miami, Rizzi’s units led the NFL with 11 blocked punts and were second with 22 blocked kicks. In his 10 seasons with the Dolphins, three special teams players were named to four Pro Bowls and five players were named to the NFL All-Rookie team in the past six years.
Last season, Miami was eighth in the league in punt return average (10.5).
"We felt our kicking game, last year and the better part of the year before, has been as good as it’s been since I’ve been here,” Payton said. “Mike Westhoff gets a ton of credit for that. He’s a heck of a football coach and brought a lot to us as a team. There were four or five games this year that we won because of special teams.
“So the change wasn’t as much, ‘We’re going with a new guy.’ Mike was getting ready to retire – we’ll still invite him back and have him back as much as possible. Darren will be able to come in now. He’s someone who has had great experience and great success in our league. So that was kind of a transition that took place at the end of the season.
“As a coach, you kind of keep track of…there’s certain coaches in this league you may know, there’s other coaches you may have just heard good things about. Tony Sparano, who was a close friend of mine (Sparano died in 2018), was at Miami and hired Darren into the NFL (in 2009). And Tony spoke extremely high about him.
“And then, (Saints assistant head coach/tight ends) Dan Campbell worked with him. And then, (Saints assistant general manager/college scouting director) Jeff Ireland had been with him. Those type of relationships and past experiences of guys on your staff are invaluable when you’re trying to hire the right guy.”
General Manager Mickey Loomis said it was easy to see, based on the accomplishments of Rizzi’s units, that he was the right man for the Saints.
“He’s had success in the league as a special teams coach,” Loomis said. “Our crew last year did a great job, we had really good special teams and we’re looking forward to continuing that with Darren and (assistant special teams coach) Phil (Galiano).”
Galiano was special teams coach for Tampa Bay in 2012-13 and, most recently, as Penn State’s special teams coordinator/assistant defensive line coach in ’18.