By sheldon mickles
September 16, 2012
METAIRIE — In the aftermath of the New Orleans Saints’ 62-7 trouncing of the Indianapolis Colts last October, a sobering thought crossed the mind of Saints right tackle Zach Strief.
That evening, in front of a national television audience, Strief feared the Saints let the cat out of the bag in showing that Carmichael was a capable and talented offensive coordinator toiling in the considerable shadow cast by Sean Payton.
With Payton sitting high above the field in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after undergoing surgery for a fractured leg he suffered one week earlier, Carmichael had, for the first time in his career, the keys to the car in his hands.
He didn’t crash Payton’s sleek offense, which was well on its way to setting an NFL single-season record with 7,474 total yards, and actually kept the play-calling job after Payton returned to the sideline a few weeks later.
“It was one of those deals where Pete was kind of behind the scenes so much because of coach Payton’s ability to call games,” Strief said a few days after the Colts game. “It was awesome to see him step out of the shadows.
“Within NFL circles, I think a lot of people know what kind of coach Pete is,” he added. “But everyone else kind of has this belief that coach Payton is the offensive ‘staff.’ ”
Carmichael, who was mentioned as a candidate for the Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator job a couple of times in his six seasons with the Saints, later got interviews for Indianapolis Colts’ head coaching job and also talked to the Oakland Raiders about their head coaching vacancy.
Luckily, the 40-year-old Carmichael was passed over for both jobs.
It might have been unlucky for him, but fortunate for the Saints because he became an even more important asset when Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season for his role in the bounty scandal.
That led Carmichael out of the shadows again to call the plays for Drew Brees and the Saints’ record-shattering offense.
But as training camp, the preseason and Sunday’s regular-season opener against the Washington Redskins neared, Carmichael has made sure that he’s almost overshadowed as much as he has been in the past.
He prefers to deflect talk about his role in the Saints’ offense to the players and other assistant coaches that he’s worked with since coming to the team when Payton took over in 2006.
“I think we have a great coaching staff and a great group of players that have been in this system for the last couple of years,” Carmichael said. “Like we’ve been saying, we’re obviously going to miss Sean. We’re going to miss him significantly, but we feel comfortable with where we’re at and how we’re going to proceed.”
Carmichael said he is confident the Saints are going to thrive this season, much as they did when Payton went down last season.
In the final 10 regular-season games, with Carmichael sending the plays in to Brees, the Saints averaged 474.1 yards and 37.0 points per game.
That’s not bad for a coach who played college baseball, not football, at Boston College and never called a single play in an 18-year career that started at the University of New Hampshire in 1994.
Yet, Carmichael knew what to do and was ready to go when he walked into the locker room at halftime after Payton was injured against Tampa Bay.
“We came in, and he said that he couldn’t go back out (for the second half),” Carmichael recalled. “He said, ‘You got it.’ There wasn’t much time to sit there and think about what was going on.
“I felt like we had a great game plan, and it was just a matter of calling those plays that we had in for the game,” he added. “After that, it just a matter of doing what we had been doing, and we knew we would be successful.”
Interim coach Joe Vitt, who is suspended for the first six games of the season, is certainly confident — along with many of the players — in Carmichael’s abilities.
“After Sean was hurt, Pete called 95 percent of the plays, and he installed a lot of the offense during the week,” Vitt said when Payton had to leave the team in April. “I think Pete has proven, and our offense has proven, what they can do when Sean’s on the shelf.”
Brees is excited about the possibilities with Carmichael even though they’ve led the NFL in total offense four times in Payton’s six seasons with the club.
“Sean has a knack for just being able to pick the right thing at the right time,” Brees said. “That’s something we’re certainly going to miss, but I’m also confident in Pete’s ability to do what he needs to do, to put us in the best situations with the best chance to win.”
If that means passing the credit on to the team’s other coaches, that’s fine with Carmichael, who only gets uncomfortable when someone mentions him as a rising star among head coaching candidates.
“We’ve got good players and a great coaching staff,” Carmichael said, “so they’re the ones that deserve the credit.”
That’s something Strief has certainly noticed.
“Pete’s one of those guys that’s committed to the organization, and he’s committed to do whatever it is that’s asked of him,” he said. “Other guys would want notoriety so they could advance their careers. But he’s humble … he understands that he’s just a piece of the puzzle.”