Saints can send another message by brushing off latest challenge

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Jameis Winston, Terron Armstead, Adam Trautman
(Photo: Parker Waters)

So far the New Orleans Saints are tops in the NFL in one important category – not allowing non-football stuff to adversely affect football stuff.

That skill will be tested once again this week at Carolina.

The Saints announced Friday that seven assistant coaches – Curtis Johnson (senior offensive assistant/wide receivers), Brendan Nugent (offensive line), Dan Roushar (run game coordinator/tight ends), Joel Thomas (running backs), Jim Chaney (offensive analyst), Declan Doyle (offensive assistant) and Phil Galiano (assistant special teams) – will not be at Sunday’s game because of COVID-19 protocols.

Earlier Friday, head coach Sean Payton said “overall it’s gone as well as can be expected” since the coaches (as well as injured wide receiver Michael Thomas) tested positive for COVID at the beginning of the week.

“It’s not always what you’re used to and yet those guys are zooming in the meetings, they were zooming in the evening meetings as we put in offense last night,” Payton said. “It went a little later and the number one thing is they are getting rested and healthy.”

The Saints overcame a truncated preseason, a displacement for opening-game preparations to the Dallas-Fort Worth Area and being forced to play a “home game” in Jacksonville, Fla. to put together the most impressive performance of NFL Week 1 in a 38-3 thrashing of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

They had barely settled back into their home away from home after that victory when they learned of the positive COVID tests.

“I think it fell right into how we’ve been adjusting here in Dallas and having to face more adversity since we got here,” quarterback Jameis Winston said matter-of-factly. “With us moving here to Dallas because of Ida, one thing I admire about our head coach is that he doesn’t blink an eye. He embraces these situations and voices to us how we should embrace them as well. We team up with him and roll with him.”

The absences essentially leave the offense in the hands of coordinator Pete Carmichael, quarterbacks coach Ronald Curry and assistant offensive line coach Zach Strief and the special teams in the hands of coordinator Darren Rizzi.

Winston said it was “a blessing in disguise” to for him and his teammates to experience the head coach being more hands-on in conducting meetings.

“We got a chance to experience one of the best offensive minds in the game, one on one, in a staff meeting running the tape,” Winston said. “When you get the main guy running the show and voicing to you what he wants, how he wants it, and why he wants it; man, that’s what you live football for. I’ve dreamed for that moment to happen, and for it to happen in front of the entire team, I think we all gained something from that.”

The COVID disruption was another opportunity for Payton and the Saints to adjust to a new challenge, ignore what they can’t control and make the best of what they can control.

“There are obstacles every week, right?” Payton said. “The job is to get the players to be ready and that’s what we’re paid to do. Yes, there are going to be curveballs, there are going to be setbacks. That’s all going to be part of a long season.”

It might be tempting to say that the performance against Green Bay suggests the Saints can overcome just about anything and still beat the Panthers, who are 1-0 (after beating the lowly Jets) but generally are considered inferior to the Packers and the Saints.

But nothing that any team does in one NFL game can be considered predictive of what that team will do in its next game.

Sure, the better teams are generally consistently good and the worse teams are generally consistently bad.

But nothing that happened in Jacksonville can be counted on to replicate itself in Charlotte on Sunday.

In fact one factor in the Saints’ eye-opening performance against Green Bay was the team-bonding that took place in DFW and the organization’s commitment to performing well for the psyche of its hometown and region.

Expecting to have a second consecutive near-perfect performance – even under very similar conditions – would be quite a challenge.

And trying to marshal that kind of emotional peak for a second consecutive week – especially amid the COVID complications – might prove to be a bit much to expect even from this resilient group.

So a far more stressful game against the Panthers compared to the one against the Packers would not be surprising.

The Saints’ curtain-raiser – in their first game since Drew Brees’ retirement – sent a message to the NFL that any expectation of a significant drop-off in the Winston era was premature if not plain foolish.

This team, which Payton said plans to return to New Orleans after its game at New England next Sunday, has a chance to send more messages in Week 2.

One, of course, is that last week wasn’t a fluke and another is that this latest challenge will be met as easily as the other challenges that accompanied the opener.

But this is also the Saints’ NFC South opener.

New Orleans has won four consecutive NFC South titles.

Sure Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl last year and is understandably the favorite to unseat the Saints as division champs.

But the Saints have dominated this division in recent years. They swept the six-game division schedule last season, including a 38-3 thumping of the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay in one of the few performances in franchise history that rivals the one last week.

New Orleans, which has won its last 10 regular-season games against division opponents, is the best team in the NFC South until someone in the NFC South proves otherwise.

Of course, it’s Tampa Bay and not Sunday’s opponent (or the Atlanta Falcons) that is the primary candidate to challenge the Saints’ supremacy.

But Carolina is up first.

It seems unrealistic to expect the Saints – who have a lengthy injury list and placed defensive end Marcus Davenport and linebacker Kwon Alexander on injured reserve – to be as dominant this Sunday as they were last Sunday.

But under the circumstances, another victory could be about as significant.

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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