Saints name Darren Rizzi special teams coordinator

METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints completed an overhaul of their special teams coaching staff on Monday by announcing they hired former Miami Dolphins coordinator Darren Rizzi.

Rizzi, 48, had lasted with three different head coaches during an impressive 10-year run in Miami. And he interviewed for the Dolphins’ head coaching job last month before they decided to hire Brian Flores instead.

The Saints, meanwhile, decided to move on from their trio of special teams coaches — veteran guru Mike Westhoff, Bradford Banta and Kevin O’Dea — despite their improvement in many special teams areas after they coaxed Westhoff out of retirement as a midseason replacement in 2017.

Westhoff, who turned 71 last month, recently told that he had not decided yet whether he was going to come back in 2019. But he now plans to retire after he was “surprised and very disappointed” that the Saints decided to fire Banta and let O’Dea’s contract expire.

Westhoff was considered a pioneer in the special teams game during his longtime stints with the Dolphins and New York Jets from 1986-2012 before he retired the first time.

The Saints have one of the NFL’s best punters in Thomas Morstead and one of the best kickers in Wil Lutz — and they led the league in net punting average in 2019 while allowing a total of just 60 punt-return yards. They also turned backup quarterback Taysom Hill into a special teams star over the past two years, which included a blocked punt, a 47-yard kickoff return and three successful fake punts in 2018.

However, the Saints’ return units have been just average, with none longer than 50 yards and no return touchdowns this past season. And they finished on a low note by allowing a fake punt to turn the tide of their NFC Championship Game loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

It’s also likely that the Saints wanted to pounce on a standout coach like Rizzi once he became available.

Rizzi began his tenure in Miami while current Saints assistant general manager Jeff Ireland was the Dolphins’ general manager. He also worked under current Saints assistant head coach/tight ends coach Dan Campbell when Campbell was Miami’s interim head coach during the 2015 season. Rizzi also held the title of assistant head coach or associate head coach with the Dolphins over the past four years.

Among other highlights, the Dolphins led the NFL with 10 blocked punts over the past eight years. And they ranked fourth in 2018 in longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings (though the Saints ranked second).

Before joining the Dolphins’ staff in 2009, Rizzi served as a head coach at the University of Rhode Island and the University of New Haven, among other college jobs.

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