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So far, the Saints have lost one of the NFL’s top wide receivers, Michael Thomas, and their quarterback, Jameis Winston, for the season, and they have played several weeks without Alvin Kamara, one of the league’s best backs, and starting offensive tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead.
Now, they have to play Tom Brady, the NFL’s leading passer, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are tied for the league’s best record at 10-3, without their coach – Sean Payton.
Payton tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday and will miss the game Sunday (8:20 p.m. eastern time, NBC) in Tampa because of COVID-19 protocols. He is expected to return to coach the Saints (6-7) in their following game on Monday, Dec. 27, against Miami in New Orleans.
The Saints just broke a five-game losing streak – the longest of Payton’s career – with a 30-9 win at the New York Jets last week with 145 total yards from Kamara, who had missed the previous four games. New Orleans’ previous win was on Halloween – 36-27 over Tampa Bay in New Orleans when Winston was lost for the season after falling awkwardly and injuring his knee because of a horse collar tackle by Bucs’ linebacker Devin White.
First, journeyman backup Trevor Siemian replaced Winston at quarterback. Then Taysom Hill replaced Siemian after four straight losses.
Thomas, who led the NFL in 2019 in receptions (149) and receiving yardage (1,725) and in 2018 in receptions (125), has missed the entire season with an ankle injury that also shortened his 2020 season.
Saints’ defensive coordinator Dennis Allen will be the interim head coach during the game. Payton has remained active in game planning through video and will continue to do so. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael will replace Payton calling the plays.
“Obviously, when you’re in a deal like this, it’s not an ideal situation,” Allen said Friday. “We found out in our meetings this morning. Sean’s our leader, and he’s the guy that’s been running the show around here. So, it’ll be a lot different.”
Allen is a former NFL head coach. He was 4-12 with the Oakland Raiders in 2012 and ’13 before getting fired in 2014 after an 0-4 start. He was with the Saints under Payton from 2006-2010 as assistant defensive line coach the first two seasons and secondary coach from 2008-10. The Saints won Super Bowl XLIV in the 2009 season behind a strong defense.
After the team’s second straight playoff appearance in the 2010 season, Allen became defensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos in 2011 before moving on to Oakland. Payton hired him back as a defensive assistant in 2014 after his firing in Oakland, and Allen became defensive coordinator in 2015. Allen has consistently fielded top defenses in New Orleans.
“He’s going to get us right,” Saints linebacker Kwon Alexander said. “He brings excitement, physicality. He has just been a great defensive coordinator all the way around.”
The Saints’ defense has been the lone consistent bright spot this season. New Orleans is No. 6 in the NFL against the run (95 yards a game), No. 11 in total defense (339.5 yards a game) and No. 11 in fewest points allowed (21.9 a game).
New Orleans is No. 18 in the league against the pass with 244.5 yards allowed a game. Brady leads the NFL with 4,134 passing yards and with 36 touchdowns. Brady completed 28 of 40 passes in the loss at New Orleans for 375 yards and four touchdowns, but he was intercepted twice. Safety P.J. Williams returned a Brady interception 40 yards for a touchdown and the 36-27 final with 1:24 to go.
“I’m excited to have the opportunity to go out there and perform on Sunday night,” Allen said. “I think our guys are excited about it. What gets added is a little bit more of the game management situations. We’ll handle all of those game management situations together, but I guess ultimately it falls on me in terms of how we’re going to manage the game. Certainly, having some head coaching experience helps situations like these.”
As the new COVID variant Omicron spreads throughout the NFL, though, Allen realizes he could lose coaches and players to the virus between now and Sunday.
“You always have to be prepared for anything that could come up,” he said. “Hopefully, we don’t have to deal with that. If we do, we’ll have to adjust.”
The Saints saw three players miss last week’s game because of COVID – running back Mark Ingram, who just exited the COVID list Friday and practiced, running back Ty Montgomery, who exited the list Wednesday, and defensive end Cameron Jordan, who came off it on Thursday. All could play Sunday.
The Saints will also be without starting offensive right tackle Ramczyk for the fifth straight game with a knee injury. Armstead, the starting left tackle who played last week, will miss his sixth game of the season with a knee injury as hellish 2021 continues.
Now, Payton, the Saints coach since 2006.
“Everything just kind of happened,” Allen said. “So it’s kind of hard for me to tell you how exactly everything is going to operate over the next 24 or 48 hours. Sean will be involved heavily as he always has been. We’ll do whatever is necessary to get the job done.”
This is the second time Payton has caught COVID. He was the first major NFL figure to catch the virus in March of 2020.
Payton also had to be replaced in 2012 when he was suspended for the entire season by the NFL for his role in a bounty conspiracy with the Saints during the 2009-11 seasons in which players received cash bonuses for hurting opposing players. He was replaced by assistant coach Joe Vitt, who was also suspended for six games for his role in the scandal, and by assistant coach Aaron Kromer. The Saints finished 7-9.
“That’s the guy who leads our ship,” Ingram said. “So, it’s obviously going to be different not having him out there.”