Following New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston coming in to start the second half of the Saints’ Week 10 game against the San Francisco 49ers and leading New Orleans to a victory, the talk was all about what the Saints offense was going to look like with Winston moving forward if starter Drew Brees was seriously hurt. Then, after learning that Brees suffered multiple broken ribs during the game, there was a high chance that it would be Winston’s time to shine as QB in New Orleans.
You know, that is until head coach Sean Payton took a flamethrower to all football media by giving Taysom Hill the starting reps at quarterback during the ensuing week of practice.
Hill getting the reps over Winston was crazy, right? I mean, they signed Hill to a pretty sizable contract this offseason that lent itself to him having some quarterback value, but Hill’s role to this point had primarily been as a utility back/tight end. For goodness sake, Hill had just 18 career passes in the NFL over the last three years.
But, as time passed, it was indeed Hill who made the start for the Saints, and not only that, there were no offensive packages for Winston in the game. Hill was the guy, and it wasn’t a gimmick. For a player who had been used as a different ingredient to victory in many different New Orleans recipes over the years, this was a new one. But it worked. Hill led the Saints to a 24-9 win over the division rival Atlanta Falcons, completing 18 of his 23 passing attempts for 233 passing yards and a 108.9 quarterback rating with 51 rushing yards on 10 attempts with two rushing touchdowns.
But, you and I are both smart enough football fans to know that the truth of games is often found beyond the box score, and I believe we learned four things following Hill’s first start as quarterback.
1. The Saints’ Defense Has A Super Bowl Ceiling
The Saints entered the 2020 season touted as one of the most talented teams in the league. That wasn’t just due to Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and that offensive line. On paper, their defense was stacked. Even if you figured they might need to find some plays at linebacker that weren’t a guarantee each week, there were not many weaknesses. But they got off to a tough start. They allowed more than 30 points per game in two of their first three games, and they had not held their opponents to fewer than 23 points once eight weeks into the year.
These last three weeks it’s been a different story—and there aren’t many defenses, if any, that have been playing better. Over the last three weeks, the Saints have allowed just 8.3 points per game, 238 yards per game, have recorded 21 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, and nine total turnovers. They straight-up embarrassed one of the most talented offenses in the NFL in Tampa Bay, locked down the 49ers, and put a clamp on a Falcons’ passing attack that came into this week second in the league in passing yards per game.
As Brees has struggled and they’ve needed more from the guys around him, the defense has caught fire, and they’re playing to Super Bowl-type potential.
2. New Orleans Can Make The Playoffs With Hill At QB
I’m not going to lie, I didn’t think New Orleans would make it look that easy, even against the Falcons. We’ll get to some of Hill’s struggles as an actual passer, because they were there, but the Saints averaged more yards per attempt and yards per completion through the air with Hill versus their season average. They also recorded more rushing yards (168) and a higher yards-per-carry average (4.7) against the Falcons than they were averaging throughout the season.
On accounts of output and efficiency, the Saints were better on the ground and in the air in Hill’s first start than they had been, on average, in 2020. That tells us they can win with Hill, especially against lesser talented teams. At 8-2, the Saints’ remaining six games are: at Broncos, at Falcons, at Eagles, versus Chiefs, versus Vikings, at Carolina. The Saints are more talented than five of those six teams, while two of them are in the bottom half of Football Outsiders’ DVOA defensive rankings, two are right in the middle, and two are borderline top 10.
Right now, even with Brees out, the Saints have more than a 90% chance to make the playoffs. They can accomplish that with Hill.
3. Hill Gives Saints Small Chance To Complete A Postseason Run
For as well as the Saints were able to move the ball against the Falcons, there were clear limitations in what Hill can do from a traditional quarterback standpoint. His first deep ball to Emmanuel Sanders was quite possibly the worst deep ball throw I’ve seen from someone in the NFL who was labeled a quarterback. His second deep attempt to Sanders wasn’t much better, as it took forward momentum, a full step in, and all of the arm strength he had just to get the ball about 50 yards down the field—and the receiver still had to slow up just to attempt the catch point. Now, before you say something like, “bet you can’t throw it 50 yards,” you would be correct, which is one of the many reasons I am not an NFL quarterback.
In a week where Aaron Rodgers, Justin Herbert, and others were putting on a show with their natural, at times, effortless arm strength, Hill was barely passable beyond 25 yards. He did have some nice deep crosses over the middle, mostly to Michael Thomas, between 15-25 yards, but not being able to attack coverages vertically is just asking for better defenses to figure you out. He showed good mobility, but that will only get you so far.
And that’s the main takeaway of this point. Hill will be able to win the Saints games against bad and middling opponents. But once they reach the playoffs, they’ll be facing better teams who will put more pressure on him, not just from the defensive side, but from the offensive side, too. It was a day where almost everything worked from a realistic standpoint with Hill, and the Saints scored just 24 points. That would be good for 18th best in the NFL right now. The Falcons had no real blueprint on what Hill likes to do and what the Saints would run. Once that runs out, I think you’ll see the struggles.
Hill was better and more effective than I thought he would be, but I would be very skeptical that it would be enough for a deep playoff run against good teams.
4. Sean Payton Should Be Talked About As Coach of the Year
The biggest X-factor for how well the Saints could do with Hill, both in the regular season and the postseason, is Sean Payton, who needs to be talked about as one of the top options for the Coach of the Year award. The Saints started the season 1-2, and Payton has them on a 7-game heater. That’s with offensive limitations, struggles with Brees, and now with two different quarterbacks behind him. Payton has sparked what is now a stellar defense, and the Saints are currently in possession of the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
There are a handful of great coaching performances happening this season. What Brian Flores is doing in Miami, Mike Tomlin having the Steelers at 10-0, and of course Andy Reid and the defending champions still looking like one of the league’s elites. But if guys like Tomlin and Reid are high on the odds list because of their success, Payton should be right there. It hasn’t always looked as pretty as we thought it might be when we were making predictions at the beginning of the year, but having the No. 1 seed with six games to play deserves recognition.
- Aug 22, 2022
- Aug 22, 2022