NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In the 16 years that New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. worked under Sean Payton, they often looked as if they were watching a different game from the same sideline.
The combustible Payton paced around with an intense glare, his emotions pouring forth from unhinged gesticulations and sharp-tongued exclamations. The bespectacled Carmichael was picture of cool, calm calculation, rarely raising his raspy voice.
But there’s style, and then there’s substance.
All while Payton built a reputation as an offensive guru as Saints head coach from 2006 to 2021, Carmichael was among his most trusted assistants.
“I always felt like Pete was an unsung hero on that offensive staff,” said retired quarterback Drew Brees, who became the Saints’ career passing leader between the 2006 and 2020 seasons. “His personality is such where he’s just not as vocal at times, and yet that mind is always working.”
Veteran running back Mark Ingram compares Carmichael to a “mad scientist” whose “finger prints are all over the DNA” of the offense.
While Payton and Brees were spearheading the Saints' assault on offensive records, "Pete was right there for all of that,” Ingram said.
When Payton retired after last season, the Saints promoted defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to head coach. Allen retained Carmichael, saying that he expects New Orleans’ 2022 offense to be “very similar to what it’s looked like around here in the past.”
The first test comes Sunday, when the Saints visit Atlanta — and Brees predicted Carmichael would be ready.
“There is not anybody, ever, who has been more well prepared than Pete Carmichael, and I’m saying for every meeting, for every practice, for every game,” said Brees, whose relationship with Carmichael dates back to 2002, when they were with the Chargers in San Diego.
Both moved to New Orleans in 2006 — first Carmichael as Saints quarterbacks coach, then Brees during free agency. By 2009, the season of the Saints' lone Super Bowl triumph, Payton had promoted Carmichael to offensive coordinator. That title means considerably more now that Payton has moved on, succeeded by a head coach who oversees the defense.
“Obviously, Sean was the biggest part of what this program was," Carmichael said. "It’s different now, but you accept that challenge. You get excited about it.”
Carmichael’s elevation to New Orleans' principal offensive coach should go smoothly, if 2012 is any guide.
That year, Payton was suspended in connection with the NFL’s bounty investigation. Carmichael oversaw the Saints' offense, whose 410.9 yards per game ranked second in the NFL behind only New England. The Saints’ 28.8 points per game ranked third.
Carmichael also called plays for a number of games in 2011 after Payton’s leg was broken in a sideline collision in Tampa Bay. That offense averaged an NFL-record 467.1 yards per game.
Carmichael will “do well, because he’s done it,” Payton said. “It would be different if it was his first assignment.”
Brees said Carmichael is as quick and decisive in his play calling as any coach he knows.
“That says everything about his ability to think ahead to what the next play call is going to be,” Brees said.
Meanwhile, Carmichael's approach to calling a game is nuanced in the way he considers not just the down and yards to go, or how opposing defenses deploy personnel, but also his quarterback's need for rhythm and confidence, Brees said.
For example, Brees explained, “You've got to know as a play caller, ‘Ah, you know what? I’ve got all these great plays on the call sheet, but our QB's struggling a little bit and I just need to get to a play that I know he knows by heart.'
"That's kind of the road to getting the confidence back before you start dialing up this other stuff,” Brees said.
Carmichael downplays his influence, emphasizing contributions from other staff.
“We all get together. We all have ideas," Carmichael said. "It’s just kind of narrowing down that list to the volume that you can do for that game.”
Payton's system was inspired partly by the “West Coast” offense of the late former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh. The scheme spread out defenses by giving quarterbacks multiple passing options of various distances, including dump-offs to running backs.
“The basis of (the Saints' offense) from '06 to now, there’s a good percentage that’s still the same — just evolving and changing maybe to fit your players,” Carmichael said.
This season, the Saints expect to have a strong running game led by Alvin Kamara. They also have the potential — thanks to the return from injury of top receiver Michael Thomas, and the additions of receivers Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave — to open up the passing game with QB Jameis Winston.
“The Saints did amazing things with Pete Carmichael on the mic," Winston says, referring to when Carmichael's voice was the one coming through the ear piece in Brees' helmet a decade ago. "So, we all believe in him.”
Notes: Thomas practiced on a limited basis Friday and was listed as questionable for Sunday's game as he works his way back from a mid-August hamstring pull. Safety Tyrann Mathieu also was listed as questionable after missing Friday's practice with an illness.
AP Sports Writer Joe Reedy contributed to this report.
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