METAIRIE, La. — Saints coach Sean Payton is prepared to quit calling offensive plays — something he loves and has done most of his career — if it helps him manage his entire football team better.
He also figures he has the luxury of delegating play-calling because his offensive coordinator, Pete Carmichael Jr., has done it before — and done it well.
“He’s been with us now, with me now, for going on 11 years,” Payton said of his bespectacled, baby-faced offensive assistant. “He has a great feel for what we’re looking to do.
“If I’m managing the game, or paying attention to what just happened on a punt return, we are far enough along in this process where it is easy for us,” Payton said.
Carmichael was the primary play caller in Drew Brees’ ear in Sunday’s season-opener against the Oakland Raiders. New Orleans lost, 35-34, but the performance of the offense was hardly to blame. Brees eclipsed 400 yards passing for the 14th time in his 16-year career, finishing with 423 yards and four touchdown passes.
The Saints play at the New York Giants this Sunday.
Against the Raiders, the offense finished with 507 net yards — more than any team in the opening week in the season.
It was reminiscent of some of the performances the Saints put up in 2011, when Carmichael was essentially forced into play-calling duties by a fluke injury to Sean Payton, who broke his leg when caught up in a tackle along the sideline at Tampa Bay in the sixth game of that season. Carmichael handled play calling for the final nine regular season games, when the Saints went 8-1 and scored 40-plus points five times, topping out at 62 once. That Saints offense set a still-standing record for yards in a season at 7,474.
The Saints also scored 45 points in their playoff-opening victory that season, and 32 points in their playoff loss at San Francisco.
With Payton suspended in connection with NFL’s bounty investigation in 2012, Carmichael again called offensive plays, and the Saints put up 6,574 yards, an average of 410.9 yards per game, which ranked second behind only New England (427.9 yards per game) that season.
Brees said Payton and Carmichael think so much alike when it comes to play-calling, the offense doesn’t seem to change much whether the voice he hears in his helmet ear piece is one of the other.
“It’s working out great. I feel like those guys are so much on the same page,” Brees said after practice on Wednesday. “Pete did a phenomenal job in ’11, a phenomenal job in ’12 and really did a great job on Sunday. He’s done a great job whenever he’s been called upon. He always has to be ready in that position. I mean, nobody thought in 2011 Sean would basically be knocked out of a game.”
Carmichael was part of Payton’s original coaching staff in 2006, starting as a quarterbacks and passing game coach. He was elevated to offensive coordinator in 2009, the season the Saints won their only Super Bowl.
In 2011, like now, Carmichael isn’t calling all of the plays. Payton talks to him through his headset throughout the game, and when Payton feels strongly about a particular play at a particular time, that’s what gets called, Payton explained.
“I can whistle into his ear and just say hey let’s think about this right here this next series. It is something that works and each week we’ll pay attention to, but he’s really on top of what we are doing offensively,” Payton said.
“As you are managing a game and you have someone like Pete (calling plays), there are a number of benefits,” Payton said. “It allows me that freedom to pay attention to the other facets a little bit clearer.”
And if anything needs attention right now, it’s the Saints’ defense, which ranked 31st in the NFL the past two seasons and this season has already struggled with injuries to defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who was New Orleans top draft choice, as well as starting linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and top cornerback Delvin Breaux. The Raiders piled up 486 yards in Week 1, second only to the Saints, meaning New Orleans’ defense once again ranks 31st, albeit only through one week.
Notes: Payton said Tuesday’s release of running back C.J. Spiller was accelerated by the need to sign another cornerback on the heels of Breaux’s injury. The Saints added B.W. Webb, who was practicing on Wednesday. The Saints had six running backs on the roster before cutting Spiller, who never produced as hoped after his 2015 signing. But Payton emphasized that Spiller was “a phenomenal guy (and) teammate,” and added that “the window in this building or this club’s not definitely closed.”