METAIRIE, La. — As the Saints cope with Sean Payton’s injury, the coach’s recovery could be the hardest part.
While team doctors were pleased by the results of surgery on Monday to repair a torn meniscus and broken tibia in Payton’s left leg, there remained a number of questions pertaining to how the Saints will adapt to their head coach’s inability to walk normally for weeks.
“It’ll be interesting how that all plays out,” quarterback Drew Brees said, adding that he was confident Payton would find a way to turn the situation to the Saints’ advantage. “It’s uncharted territory for all of us.”
Payton is not expected to be able to put weight on his injured leg for about eight weeks, said Dr. Deryk Jones, the team’s orthopedic surgeon who operated on the coach. Jones added that a full recovery could take three to six months.
So it will be a while before Payton again paces the sideline, where he usually juggles the responsibilities of calling offensive plays, coaching up players on certain assignments and sometimes not so cordially seeking clarification from referees about officiating decisions.
“He’s just got a kind of presence and moxie that when you’re on the sideline you look for,” Saints offensive guard Carl Nicks said. “He’s yelling and he’s calling the plays. He’s getting everybody situated. You can take it for granted. He’s our leader, you know? So it’s kind of weird” not having Payton roaming in front of the bench.
Payton was hurt during New Orleans’ 26-20 loss at Tampa Bay on Sunday when Saints tight end Jimmy Graham was tackled into his coach along the sideline. Payton remained in the hospital on Monday for observation and was expected to be discharged Tuesday and back at work by Wednesday. Brees said he’d been told that Payton had equipment set up in his hospital room so he could go over video a s the Saints look to correct mistakes from the loss to the Buccaneers and prepare to host Indianapolis on Sunday night.
“Knowing him, he’s trying to get through this as quickly as possible so he can get to the facility and start game-planning,” Brees said. “I know he’s got his little film set up there at the hospital, so he’s going to be grinding while he’s trying to fight through the pain and not move his leg too much.”
After Sunday’s game, Payton said he expected to call plays from the booth while his mobility is limited. That presents some new challenges because NFL rules do not allow coaches in the booth to communicate directly with players on the field through the ear pieces installed in the helmets of the quarterback and the designated defensive captain. Payton normally sends offensive plays direct ly to Brees.
Brees said offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. will probably end up sending in the plays from the sideline after getting them from Payton.
“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,” Brees said. “Is it going to be different? Yes. I won’t know how different until we actually get into this first game doing it. But I think the communication is already very good between myself and Pete, and Pete and Sean. … I really do n’t see us skipping a beat.”
Assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who is also the linebackers coach, oversaw the process of reviewing the Buccaneers game at Saints headquarters on Monday and expected to work with the staff on the game plan for the Colts on Tuesday. He said the Saints are well-suited to adapt to the absence of their head coach from the sideline.
“The core of our football team has won a world championship. The core of our football team has been through a lot, whether it’s been displacement for (Hurricane Gustav in 2008), whether it’s playing in London, whether it’s playing in a Super Bowl,” Vitt said. “So the foundation is here and the foundation is strong, and when you have these types of players on your football team, they a id in getting over any mini crisis that you may have because of their maturity, because of their commitment and their accountability.”
Vitt said his first concern is for Payton to get well physically, and that he has little doubt that the head coach will find a way to effectively work around the limitations imposed by his recovery.
“He’s going to do what he always does. He’s going to adapt to the situation. I think that’s one of the things that makes him an elite coach,” Vitt said. “We’ve got to see exactly where he is in the next day or two and it’s going to be his call. But this coaching staff has been together for a long time and it’s going to be up to us to work through these challenges.”
Brees added that if Payton does leave the sideline for the booth for a while, he might find some benefits in seeing the game from a different vantage point.
Brees drew a comparison to when he was benched for several weeks early in his NFL career.
“I felt like I gained a ton of perspective, kind of taking a step back and seeing things from the sideline after being the one in the game for so long,” Brees said. “Sean is the eternal optimist where he’ll find a way to gain some sort of positive experience from this. So maybe there’s something he’s able to see or recognize from up there that he wasn’t from the field, and therefore, when he goes back on the field, it’s something that will help him as a coach, a play-caller and that sort of thing.”