NFL Football

Winston praises Payton as Saints assistants deal with COVID

(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

By SCHUYLER DIXON

AP Pro Football Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) Jameis Winston sees a silver lining in a COVID-19 outbreak that has sidelined six offensive assistants for the New Orleans Saints.

It's coach Sean Payton.

"We got to experience one of the best offensive mind head coaches ever in the game one-on-one like a staff meeting running the team," the veteran quarterback said Wednesday after another practice for the displaced Saints on the TCU campus in Fort Worth, Texas. "I've never been in that room of watching tape with Sean, of going through situations with Sean and voicing how he would like something done.

"I do care about the health of our coaches, and I want them to get them back. But if they just want to let him run the meetings, I would really enjoy it."

Payton said a group of his offensive coaches, along with the team's nutritionist and a player, have tested positive for COVID-19. New Orleans was starting its third week of practice in the Dallas area because of damage in southeast Louisiana from Hurricane Ida.

The 16th-year coach didn't identify by name any of those who had tested positive. But Payton later indicated those missing from in-person preparations included an offensive line coach, a receivers coach, a running backs coach and two tight ends coaches. Payton said all are vaccinated.

Two people familiar with the situation told The Associated Press on Tuesday that six offensive assistants had tested positive. That person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the team and NFL at that point had not made a public statement about the matter.

Later Tuesday, Michael Thomas - who already was ineligible to play the first six games while on the club's physically unable to perform list - was placed on New Orleans' COVID-19 reserve list.

The outbreak put the Saints in the NFL's enhanced mitigation protocols, meaning mandatory masking inside facilities, daily testing and grab-and-go meals.

Payton said players didn't break into the smaller position groups they would under normal conditions. The coach said receivers, running backs and quarterbacks met. Winston, who has repeatedly praised Payton, enjoyed it.

"You have so many voices from different coaches and different agendas that a coach might want to get done throughout the day," said Winston, who threw five touchdown passes without an interception in his New Orleans debut, a 38-3 victory over Green Bay last weekend. The Saints (1-0) visit Carolina (1-0) on Sunday.

"When you've got the main guy, the guy who really runs the show, our primary leader running the show and voicing to you what he wants, how he wants it, why he wants it, that's what you live football for," Winston said.

The names of most others who tested positive were not expected to be released in the short term because of federal medical privacy laws.

It is unclear how long those who tested positive will remain isolated from the team before they may return to the field or in-person meetings.

"Protocol obviously is enhanced with the team and the staff, and that's part of it, and then those that have tested positive, like everyone else, test daily now," Payton said. "They're going to need two negative tests essentially before they can be back in the building and working. And so we don't know the timing or the timeframe on that."

The positive tests occurred after the victory over the Packers in Jacksonville, Florida, where the game was moved from the Superdome because of Hurricane Ida.

The Saints spent the first week after the preseason practicing at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys, before moving to TCU last week to start preparations for the opener. There's no clear indication when the Saints will return to their facility in suburban New Orleans. Now, there's a COVID-19 issue.

"I think it fell right into how we've been adjusting here in Dallas," Winston said. "One thing I admire about our head coach, he doesn't blink an eye. He really embraces those situations. He voices to us how we should embrace it. We just team up with him and we roll with him."

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Updated September 15, 2021

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