Sean Payton doesn’t need crutches.
Less than a week after tearing up his knee, the coach of the New Orleans Saints might not be walking well, but he’s got perhaps the NFL’s best stable of assistant coaches to lean on.
Payton’s injury was an accident. Tight end Jimmy Graham plowed into Payton as he was being pushed out of bounds by a couple of Tampa Bay defenders. But it’s no accident that Payton has a virtual all-star team of coaches, who began preparing for Indianapolis about the same time the head coach was getting out of surgery, to help him through what should be only a minor and temporary crisis.
Payton’s expected to return to work Thursday; he’ll be in the coaches’ booth in the press box for Sunday night’s game with the Indianapolis Colts and on game days for at least a few more weeks. And while that will mean some adjustments, this is a staff built to handle a situation like this.
One thing Payton understood when he took the job back in 2006 was the importance of surrounding yourself with a good staff. He still has eight members of his original staff, nine if you count assistant special teams coach John Bonamego, who left for three seasons with the Dolphins but returned to the Saints this year. Even the “newer’’ members of the coaching staff are very much part of the family. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a former head coach, came in 2009 and brought along his son, Blake, as an assistant. That was also the same year Brian Young joined the staff, after playing defensive tackle for the Saints from 2004 through 2008.
Payton might not be strolling the sidelines anytime soon, but his system remains very much in place and everyone from the assistants to the players knows how things are done.
“We reminded the team that his absence in the earlier part of the week and not knowing how much he’ll partake in the latter part of the week is not an excuse for us to lose,’’ assistant head coach Joe Vitt said. “It’s not an excuse to not prepare. Because the excuses are out there if you want to take them.’’
The Saints aren’t going to be making or taking any excuses on Vitt’s watch. His style is that of a drill sergeant and his NFL coaching experience runs all the way back to the days when he was with the Colts, who were then still in Baltimore. He’s respected in the Saints’ locker room and all around the league.
“Ninety percent of the time in the NFL, that just means more money or a title to keep someone happy,’’ Payton wrote in his book “Home Team.’’ “But if you went to the dictionary and looked up 'NFL assistant head coach,' you’d see a picture of Joe Vitt.’’
Vitt, who did a stint in 2005 as interim head coach of the St. Louis Rams, was one of the first coaches Payton hired — a move that set off a celebration at the time because most veteran coaches were hesitant to move to New Orleans in the uncertain aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“Other than the signing of (quarterback) Drew Brees, this was the most important acquisition we made,’’ Payton wrote about Vitt’s hiring.
Vitt is also the linebackers coach, so with he and Gregg Williams running the show, Payton’s injury shouldn’t have any real impact on the defense.
But having Payton upstairs instead of on the sideline will create some logistical challenges for the offense.
“We’re going to work through all the mechanics,’’ Vitt said. “One of the things around here we take great pride in is our preparation. We’ll see what works for us. This coaching staff has been together a long time. We need to work through these challenges for our football team to win a football game”
But the experience of the offensive staff should be able to help cushion those challenges.
“(Payton) empowers our assistant coaches a lot anyway,’’ Brees said. “I think for all of us it’s business as usual, and then if there are adjustments that need to be made along the way, then we’ll make them and we won’t even think twice about it. That’s the way we operate.”
Brees already is anticipating one change. Brees said he expects Payton will call the plays from above and relay them through offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael on the sideline. In the past, Payton has communicated plays directly to Brees via radio.
“I think the fact that it’s going to be Pete’s voice now and he’ll be actually relaying the plays into me, that won’t be all that unusual for me,’’ Brees said.
That’s largely because Brees has at least as much history with Carmichael as he does with Payton. Brees played in San Diego when Carmichael was an assistant there. Carmichael came to the Saints as quarterbacks coach in 2006 and later moved up to offensive coordinator. And it doesn’t hurt that Brees is somewhat of a coach on the field.
“I’ve done that before, so you understand where the challenges are and it’s just the fact that (the play) has to get relayed,’’ Brees said. “There are a couple seconds earlier that you have to get the play out. I don’t know the setup up in the box, but I’m sure Sean will have it all laid out. I’m sure it will go off without a hitch.”
That goes for the defense and special teams as well. The only real difference you’ll see will be a few television shots of Payton sitting up in the booth.
Like always, he’ll be supervising his system with the people who put in place to help run it.