There have been two voices Saints quarterback Drew Brees has heard through his headset in the nine seasons he’s been in New Orleans, and, if he’s being honest, it has been quite difficult to tell them apart.
It doesn’t matter if it’s coach Sean Payton, who dialed up the Saints’ offensive plays from 2006 through the first part of 2011 and then again in 2013, Brees said.
And it doesn’t matter if it’s offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., who has been on the Saints coaching staff since Payton arrived in ’06 and called the plays from the latter portion of ’11 through ’12 and did the same in two exhibitions this preseason.
Numbers certainly support that. The Saints have finished first in yards gained four times, never ended up worse than sixth in that category and won a Super Bowl with Payton controlling the play card.
Meanwhile, in 2011, the Saints set the single-season NFL yardage record after Payton broke his leg on the sideline in Week 6 and Carmichael assumed play-calling duties the rest of the year. He then called the plays while New Orleans gained the second-most yards and scored the third-most points in the league in 2012, when Payton was suspended following the bounty scandal; and the Saints are considering giving Carmichael those duties for the upcoming season.
“It’s very similar,” Brees said after a training camp practice Thursday. “Pete has learned and come up under Sean now for ... going on nine years. I think there’s just a lot of familiarity there, a lot of very much the same style ... and I think that’s just (from) a lot of time together.”
Yet, it would be oversimplifying things to merely say the Saints offense has maintained its efficiency under both Carmichael and Payton simply because of the similarities Brees sees in the two men. As they all explain, an ongoing group dialogue they all participate in from the beginning of every game week through the end of each contest deserves as much credit.
Answering questions about the topic during a break in preparations for an exhibition in Indianapolis on Saturday, Carmichael said it’s Payton who spells out what he wants the Saints to do on offense in the days preceding games — even if it’s Carmichael who is piping in the plays to the quarterback.
However, that changes when games kick off and the Saints have used up the plays they typically script early in showdowns. Viewpoints from a variety of sources are welcomed as New Orleans then tries to react to the looks opponents are giving them.
“During the game, it’s a group effort,” Carmichael said of exchanges that usually occur when the Saints are on defense.
Suggestions about the run game come from offensive line coach Bret Ingalls, entering his second year with that title and sixth season with the Saints. He spent his first four years with the Saints coaching the running backs, and the first of those campaigns saw New Orleans field the sixth-best rushing attack en route to a win in Super Bowl XLIV.
Elsewhere, it’s up to the quarterbacks coach to observe from the press box, identify opponents’ vulnerabilities from above, and verbalize what he’s seeing for the play-caller, who has stood on the sideline as long as Payton has been in charge of the Saints.
That gig was Joe Lombardi’s from 2009 to 2013 before he left to become the Detroit Lions offensive coordinator in January, but these days that job belongs to Mike Neu, who was Tulane’s quarterbacks coach for two seasons starting in ’12.
“Whether it’s Sean calling the plays or Pete calling the plays, they’re getting advice,” Brees said. “It’s constant communication.”
So where in this picture is Brees, who is the only player in NFL history to pass for 5,000-plus yards in four separate seasons and was the MVP of the Saints’ sole Super Bowl victory?
It’s in the lead-up to games that Brees has his best chance to offer input about play selection, Payton said. Though he’ll audible at the line of scrimmage, he doesn’t get too involved in calling plays once games commence unless it’s in certain no-huddle packages or coaches are soliciting his thoughts about either what he’s seeing on the field or his gut instinct ahead of a critical situation.
“Through the work week is where you get a feel for feedback or what he’s real comfortable with,” Payton said of Brees. “When it comes to the game, he gets in a rhythm, he wants to play, and he’s got a lot of other things that he’s thinking about.”
Brees isn’t about to object, not when since 2012 he’s passed for the NFL’s most yards (10,339) and thrown more touchdowns (82) than anyone not named Peyton Manning.