METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Drew Brees is confident the Saints can replicate Sean Payton's record-breaking offense to a certain extent.
Yet the star quarterback also has come to terms with the fact that the mastermind of the schemes that have suited him so well won't be around, and that offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. is going to have to make his own gut decisions, and his own mid-stream adjustments.
"Every play-caller has their own stamp. Over time, that evolves," Brees said after Wednesday afternoon's practice. "We've got a system. We've got a way we do things. And certainly there's going to be a lot of Sean Payton in what Pete does, but Pete's Pete."
The Saints often point out that Carmichael took a leading role in shaping and calling the offense for the last 10 games of last season, after Payton's leg had been broken in a sideline collision.
Payton had to miss parts of practices and meetings, first while in the hospital for surgery, and then while in rehab and on crutches for weeks.
Still, Brees would often seek out Payton in the training room after meetings and the two would chat about upcoming games. Payton reviewed film and provided feedback to the staff, and he was always there on game day, either in the booth or on the sideline, to offer advice throughout a game about what was working and what was not.
That won't happen this year because of Payton's suspension in connection with the NFL's bounty investigation, and Sunday's regular season opener against Washington will mark the first true test of how the Saints can get along without him.
"The coaches are going to try as much as possible to keep everything the same. It's definitely coach Payton's philosophy, his plays," 2011 All-Pro right guard Jahri Evans said. "It's true coach Payton is a great offensive coach and great play caller. He showed that. But the plays are still intact, the majority of the guys are still here, so I don't see it deviating too much from his game plan and his style."
The Payton era has been defined by an elite offense that has broken numerous club and league records. The NFL records set by the Saints in 2011 included yards passing by a team (5,505) and a quarterback (Brees' 5,476). The Saints also set a record for total offensive yards with 7,474.
The Saints have finished four of Payton's six seasons first in the NFL in total offense. The worst they have been during that span is sixth in 2010, when their running game was decimated by injuries.
Coaches tend to say they are only as good as their players, which, if true, bodes well for Carmichael's success as a game-planner and play-caller. Most of the key offensive skill players from last year's record shattering unit are back, including running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, tight end Jimmy Graham, and receivers Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore.
There was a big loss on the offensive line: 2011 All Pro left guard Carl Nicks. But the Saints moved quickly to replace him with 2011 Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs.
Certainly, in comments since Payton's suspension, Carmichael has sounded confident in the offense's ability to keep rolling.
"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 and Brees also have the benefit of chemistry developed over a decade. Carmichael was on San Diego's staff the last four seasons in which Brees was the Chargers' QB, and the two came to New Orleans together.
Then there is this statistic: In the last 10 games of 2011 regular season, when Carmichael was the primary play-caller, the Saints averaged 474.1 yards and 37 points per game. They went 9-1 in that stretch.
"You just take a look at what they have been doing over the last number of years, not just last year. They have been very effective, efficient, almost No. 1 in every category," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "That is a combination of a lot of people on the same page. They will continue to do that. They have a system in effect, both in the running game and in the passing game. They have a philosophy. They've got their players back. ... Sean has done a great job of implementing that and having his coaches follow in his footsteps."
Notes: Interim head coach Aaron Kromer said Colston was rested during Wednesday's practice because of a sore left foot, but that he was expected to practice on Thursday. ... Kromer said if a federal judge decided to grant a temporary restraining order allowing players suspended in bounty matter to return to their teams, that defensive end Will Smith would be inserted back in the lineup. This week marked the beginning for Smith's four-game suspension. Kromer was less certain about linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who has been suspended since before training camp and has been working his way back from offseason knee surgery. "We'd just have to judge what kind of shape (Vilma is in) and what kind of knowledge he has of what's going on," Kromer said. ... CB Marquis Johnson, who had placed on injured reserve, posted on his Twitter page that he had reached an injury settlement with the Saints, allowing him sign with another team when he can pass a physical.
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