METAIRIE - As a result of a freakish accident in the midst of a disappointing road loss, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton will be looking down on his team Sunday night against the winless Indianapolis Colts.
Down as in from a cramped coach’s booth located eight to 10 stories above the playing field inside the newly named Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
A broken left leg suffered in a sideline collision with tight end Jimmy Graham and two Tampa Bay defenders in the opening minutes of a 26-20 loss to the Bucs on Sunday has left Payton no other option but to work the Colts’ game from a more comfortable - and far safer - location than a potentially dangerous Saints sideline.
Payton is sporting a cumbersome leg brace after undergoing three hours of surgery Monday morning at Ochsner Medical Center to repair a torn meniscus and fractured tibia.
Thus, the plays will be communicated from Payton in the press box to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. on the sideline to quarterback Drew Brees on the field.
That Payton-to-Carmichael-to-Brees exchange could last well beyond Sunday night’s game. Payton is not expected to be able to put weight on his injured leg until early to mid-December.
“I also have to be smart and realistic,” said Payton, who isn’t expected to be on the field for pregame warmups or in the locker room at halftime. “I’ve got to pay attention to what the doctors are saying, and I don’t want to be stubborn or foolish. I don’t want it to become an issue that’s longer than it should be.”
Other than Payton being in the coach’s booth, Brees said he expects things to run smoothly on the sideline with assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams - each of whom has NFL head coaching experience.
Vitt served as interim head coach with the St. Louis Rams in 2005, and Williams guided the Buffalo Bills from 2001 to 2003.
“Is it going to be different? Yes,” Brees said. “I won’t know how different until we actually get into this first game. But I think the communication is already very good between myself and Pete and Pete and Sean that I don’t see us skipping a beat as far as the communication getting relayed and the plays getting in on time and all that stuff.
“There are a couple of more variables now in this thing: the extra couple of seconds that it takes for Sean to go to Pete and then Pete to go to me as opposed to Sean goes straight to me.”
Under NFL rules, a head coach or offensive coordinator on the sideline can talk to the quarterback via a helmet speaker from the time the play clock starts until 15 seconds remain before the ball must be snapped.
Payton is not the first notable football coach to be injured in a sideline collision, nor will he be the last.
For example, Penn State’s 84-year-old coach, Joe Paterno, shared Payton’s fate back in November 2006 on a short passing play very similar to the play that Payton got hurt on against the Buccaneers.
Doctors repaired a fractured shinbone and two torn knee ligaments in Paterno’s left leg after the veteran coach was walloped along the sideline against Wisconsin.
In 2008, then-Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis tore knee ligaments when a player was blocked into him on a punt.
Just as players and coaches for Penn State and Notre Dame carried on, so too will Saints players and coaches against the Colts and in subsequent games at St. Louis (Oct. 30), against Tampa Bay (Nov. 6) and at Atlanta (Nov. 13) - and beyond.
“(Payton’s situation) is not an excuse for us to lose,” Vitt said earlier this week. “It’s not an excuse to not prepare, because the excuses are out there if you want to take them. Our core players firmly understand that.
“There’s a personal accountability that comes with every coach and player, and we’re here to win.”
In other words, to borrow an adage from Payton’s playbook, it’s “next guy up.”
“There’s definitely a presence (Payton) has on the sideline that won’t be there now that he’s up in the booth,” Brees said. “I don’t know how we’re going to handle that, other than it’s something Joe Vitt being our assistant head coach and a big decision-maker now, he’s going to take on some of that responsibility. It’s the same with Pete and Gregg, who already has the presence with his defensive guys.
“I just think that’s an area, where it’s not like everybody has to be somebody they’re not. But it’s rather just, ?Hey, Sean is up in the box.’ If there’s a presence that needs to be had down on the field, one of the other guys will be the guy to do it.”