Opinion: Drew Brees' injuries leave Saints with QB decision that could define season — and beyond
After learning that quarterback Drew Brees could miss extended time with injuries that, according to multiple reports, include multiple rib fractures and a collapsed lung, the New Orleans Saints now find themselves faced with an intriguing decision while preparing to host the NFC South rival Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill?
That’s the question coach Sean Payton must decide. The outcome of the decision could dramatically shape the franchise both for the short and long term.
Payton on Monday afternoon declined to confirm an ESPN report on Brees’ status and also refused to name a starter.
However, by Wednesday when the Saints return to the practice field, players likely will have learned the direction their team is headed in the interim.
Winston, the 2015 No. 1 overall pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, signed with New Orleans this offseason in search of further development and redemption following the end of his five-year run as a starter.
Hill, an undrafted fourth-year pro, has distinguished himself as an impactful utility player for New Orleans, lining up at quarterback, tight end, fullback and wide receiver while also playing on special teams.
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It marks a second straight year the Saints have found themselves in this predicament. Last season, when a torn thumb ligament in Brees’ throwing hand sidelined him for five games, Payton turned to backup Teddy Bridgewater over Hill, who served as a fixture on offense through his wide range of positions. Bridgewater rewarded the coach by going 5-0 as a starter.
With Bridgewater having moved on to become the Carolina Panthers' starter, whichever quarterback Payton chooses this year will try to extend the team’s six-game winning streak and help the 7-2 Saints overtake the Green Bay Packers for the top spot in the NFC.
Both quarterbacks offer different elements.
Winston possesses greater experience having started 70 games for his career. The former Heisman Trophy winner and 2015 Pro Bowl pick also is the more decorated of the two. Blessed with a big arm, Winston last season surpassed the 5,000-yard mark, something only six other quarterbacks have ever done (Brees has done it five times), and recorded 33 touchdown passes.
As he demonstrated Sunday when he directed three scoring drives (two field goals and an Alvin Kamara touchdown), Winston gives the Saints the ability to execute an offense that resembles a Brees-led attack. Saints coaches simplify what they ask of the quarterback, but they wouldn’t have to overhaul the playbook to position him for success. Starting Winston also enables the Saints to continue to use Hill as the change-of-pace weapon to throw opponents off.
Going to Winston against San Francisco made sense because he had worked behind Brees all week and attended all of the quarterback meetings while Hill bounced from one position group meeting to another in preparation for his usual slash role. Turning to the multi-purpose threat as quarterback would have meant scrapping a chunk of New Orleans’ game plan for the 49ers.
Hill would bring another dimension to the position. The BYU product averages 5.5 yards per carry and, with his capability to execute run-pass option plays, would pose a threat of unpredictability.
However, Hill is a far less accomplished passer, having completed only 10 of 18 passes for his careerwith no touchdown passes and one interception to his name.
With Hill as his starter, Payton likely would have to more drastically change the way the Saints attack, which could prove disruptive.
The mark against Winston involves his history of poor decision-making. In his final season in Tampa, he threw 30 interceptions — the most by any player in a single season since 1988 — including an NFL record six returned for touchdowns.
Winston chose a backup role with the Saints over a chance to compete as a starter in 2020 because he believed Payton’s expertise with quarterbacks could help him reach his maximum potential. He likened that tutelage to a Harvard education.
But is half of a season enough to transform him into a more disciplined passer?
It was only a half of football, but Winston certainly seemed more conservative in his approach on Sunday. He completed six of 10 passes for 63 yards without any turnovers .
A move to Winston seems like the no-brainer given his experience and more expansive passing skill set. And many around the league expect the coach to settle on Winston for this week’s game against the Atlanta Falcons.
But the Saints' fondness for Hill creates some mystique, or at least the illusion of a debate. This offseason, the team signed him to a two-year, $21 million contract that features $16 million in guaranteed money. In 2021, Hill will make more than a handful of top quarterbacks still on their rookie contracts.
Winston, meanwhile, is earning just $1.1 million for this season.
As mentioned, Payton’s decision could help shape the future of the Saints’ quarterback position.
This could be the 41-year-old Brees’ last year, so this midseason stretch in his absence could serve as an audition for 2021 and speak to how New Orleans views Winston and Hill.
A nod to Hill seemingly would suggest that Payton views him as the quarterback of the future and that the coach would be comfortable having him shed his utility role after this season.
Turning to Winston could indicate that, in addition to believing the former Florida State product gives him the best chance to win now, Payton also wants to evaluate him extensively as a potential long-term replacement for Brees.
That’s not for certain, however. Bridgewater’s five-game stint last season wound up serving as a showcase for the rest of the league rather than New Orleans.
Either way, it all boils down to this: for however long Brees’ injuries sideline him, his replacement will receive a golden opportunity. The next man up will receive the chance to play for one of the game’s best play-callers while surrounded by one of the league’s top supporting casts. He will have the chance to contribute to a playoff run. And the quarterback selected also will receive the chance to solidify his future role.
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