New Orleans Saints adjust to life after Drew Brees
As the New Orleans Saints brought their record to 2-1 with Sunday’s 28-13 win over the New England Patriots, it is well worth having a look at the quarterback situation in the Big Easy.
No longer the ‘Aints of yesteryear, when it took the franchise 20 years to break .500 and another 12 to get past the Wild Card game, New Orleans have been in the playoffs in eight of Sean Payton’s eleven years as head coach, including decisively winning Super Bowl XLIV.
Payton is definitely something special, as is his counterpart in Sunday’s game Bill Belichick, and both of these skippers have been able to depend on a rock-steady quarterback for a large portion of their success, with Tom Brady providing so much January silverware for Foxborough and Drew Brees quietly putting up enormous numbers down on the bayou.
The Week 3 encounter was the first time in over 31 years, since Don Shula’s Dolphins faced Chuck Noll’s Steelers in week 4 of the 1990 season, where both coaches had over 140 wins each.
Quarterback choices in 2020
The 2020 season left many questioning the wisdom of Belichick choosing to go with Cam Newton as his starting quarterback, leaving the Patriots wallowing in a dismal 7-9 season, while Tom Brady took the helm at Tampa and led them to an improbable Super Bowl LV win over the favored Kansas City Chiefs.
Interestingly, the Bucs road to the final led them through New Orleans and an injury-weakened Drew Brees, whose broken ribs suffered in the Saints week 10 match-up with the San Francisco 49ers eventually led to his decision to hang up the cleats in the off season.
There is no doubt that Drew Brees’ departure left a gaping hole in the Saints lineup and Sean Payton, full-time strategist and sometime gambler, took a huge punt on the man that Tampa released in favor of Tom Brady.
Heads shook all over the French Quarter, tongues wagged in diners Uptown and hands flew into the air in heated discussions on Tremé street corners but Jameis Winston’s dazzling performance in week one seemed to justify the gamble. Winston threw for five touchdowns in the 38-3 win over the Green Bay Packers but in week 2 threw two interceptions while being sacked four times in the 26-7 loss to Carolina.
Payton's creative quarterback strategy
One of the most innovative coaching moves that Payton has ever made was his unorthodox use of backup quarterback Taysom Hill. Turning Hill into a utility player, Sean Payton put him in the backfield, on the end of the line, returning punts and any other job that might need a guy who was not afraid to mix it up. Never has a quarterback been used in this way to this extent.
Traditionally used as a holder for placekicking, the backup would be expected to workout in practice, get a couple of late-blowout reps and bide their time, sometimes half of their professional career, waiting for the crowned king to abdicate.
Indeed, when Brees was injured in the 2020 season, the Saints overlooked then-number two Teddy Bridgewater in favor of fan-pleaser Hill for the starting role, an event which played no small part in the excellent Bridgewater’s off season departure for pastures new in Denver. Hill put in a solid performance that day, showing that he could also function as a pocket passer if needed.
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Sunday saw a return to the late-2020 Saints offense, characterized by heavy reliance on Alvin Kamara’s running and Taysom Hill’s dual threat backfield presence. Payton’s squad managed to put in a solid day’s work and looking something like the Saints of the 1990’s and early 2000’s when New Orleans consistently had the NFL’s top ranked defense, the keystone to winning a game in which the Patriots got double the passing yards and more total offense than New Orleans, but had their running game completely shut down.
In the battle of wits between the two legendary coaches, Belichick is the more successful but Payton is definitely the more willing to risk the house. Napoleon said that he would rather have a lucky general than a good one, and down in the Crescent City I think they would agree with him. And while Tom Brady is leading defending Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay into a Week 4 match-up with a 2-1 record, the man he displaced is quietly matching that move in New Orleans.
This weekend’s homecoming against the New York Giants is a good time to let the youngest Heisman Trophy winner ever finally show some of that sparkle in the pros and prove to everyone that he is truly Sean Payton’s man for the top spot. The question is, can Jameis Winston settle into his role as a number one NFL Quarterback? We all know that he is good, now he needs to be a little bit lucky.
New Orleans face the New York Giants in the Caesars Superdome on Sunday, October 3rd. Kickoff is at 12:00pm CT / 1:00pm ET.