Now that New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton is back on the sideline, where he was for last week’s game against the Atlanta Falcons, it’s only a matter of time before he regains his play-calling duties.

But it won’t be because the Saints have been struggling under offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., who’ll gladly turn the lengthy play card back over to Payton when he’s ready to toss his crutches aside.

Carmichael, a longtime college and NFL assistant, has posted a 3-1 record calling the plays in to quarterback Drew Brees since Payton suffered a leg injury in an Oct. 16 game against Tampa Bay.

The 40-year-old Carmichael hasn’t done badly when you consider he had never called plays at any level in 18 seasons as an assistant coach — 12 of them in the NFL, including six with the Saints — before Payton’s injury.

He’s done so well that Payton and some of the offensive players are fearing Carmichael might wind up on the radar of some college or pro team in the near future.

As far as Payton is concerned, however, that’s not such a bad thing.

“I’ve said this to you guys before: I like it when my phone is ringing,” Payton said after Carmichael called a nearly flawless game in a 62-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 23. “Be leery if it’s never ringing. I think that means we’re finding the right guys.”

Doctors originally told Payton it would be eight weeks from the date of his surgery before he could put partial weight on his leg. But he targeted his return to the sideline for the first post-bye game on Nov. 28 against the New York Giants, then moved that up last week.

His next goal is to get rid of the crutches and grab the play card again, but if it’s against the Giants or another week or two down the line remains to be seen with the Saints enjoying their bye this weekend.

Even if Payton is just patrolling the sideline, he said the Saints are in capable hands with Carmichael.

“Everything we talk about with this program is not just players or front office or coaches,” Payton said, “it’s all about the team first and the individual accomplishments or accolades second.”

Even though he’s been with Payton as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for the past few seasons, Carmichael found himself in a strange situation after Payton was hurt early against the Bucs on Oct. 16.

Payton initially tried to make the calls from the bench, but when that didn’t work out he turned things over to Carmichael. A few days later, he found himself formulating a game plan for the contest with the Colts.

“You always go through the game plan in your mind saying, ‘At any time, coach (Payton) could ask what I think here,’” said Carmichael, who’s been courted twice by the Miami Dolphins but stayed with the Saints. “So in your mind, you’re always game-planning thinking about what to call.”

The two have been pretty much in tune with each other, however, since Carmichael, who was a quality control coach with the San Diego Chargers from 2002-05, became part of Payton’s first staff with the Saints in 2006.

Soon after Carmichael came aboard, Payton and the Saints signed Brees, whom Carmichael had worked with in San Diego, and all three soon found themselves on the same page as they went about putting together one of the NFL’s most productive offenses.

“We started building the offense and coach Payton had his playbook from the Giants and his playbook from Dallas, and really the concepts he wanted to run,” Carmichael said. “He would ask, ‘Was this a concept you would run in San Diego? What did you guys call it? Then that’s what we’re going to call it here.’”

“We were able to take some terminology he was used to and even in the PowerPoint presentation, when he came on his visit, we were able to present a package and offense in a way he was able to see and hear how it was going to be called in terms of that system that he was familiar with,” Payton said. “It was important that we stuck with what I knew, but there were some things that were easy to put into place.”

Still, Carmichael did his job in relative anonymity, even after offensive coordinator Doug Marrone left late in 2008 to become the head coach at Syracuse, and Carmichael took over for him the next season.

Payton joked after his injury that if Carmichael was among 10 people who walked into a room, no one would pick him out of the crowd as the Saints offensive coordinator.

Brees and several of his teammates agreed.

“Pete has always been an unsung hero, a guy that if you walk around the facility or watch on game day, you’re not going to notice him that much,” Brees said, “not until you get into a situation like this where all of a sudden you recognize what his contribution is to this team and our offense as the coordinator.

“It’s always unique when you have a head coach who calls the plays,” he said. “Sometimes, the offensive coordinator gets overshadowed as far as his responsibilities and contributions he’s making. I’m just happy to see Pete getting the credit he deserves for a lot of his contributions.”

Carmichael passes along some of that credit to being at Payton’s side and with him in meetings rooms for the last five-plus seasons.

“I give him all the credit because I’ve been able to watch him the last five years and he just rolls with the next call … he never hesitates,” Carmichael said. “He always has confidence in the plays that we have in the game plan. By the time Sunday roll around, you just feel good with what you’re going to call because we have great players.”