Sean Payton’s biggest decision will come down to his QBs’ decision-making
METAIRIE – Sean Payton’s biggest decision this preseason will be his choice of a starting quarterback.
He has not made such a preseason decision since becoming an NFL head coach when the New Orleans Saints hired him during the 2006 off-season.
The Saints signed Drew Brees to be their quarterback shortly afterward.
And that was that.
Brees retired in March after a 16-year run as the Saints starting quarterback during which he became the most prolific passer in NFL history.
Neither Jameis Winston nor Taysom Hill is expected to be Brees, who has the highest career completion percentage among quarterbacks who played five or more seasons (67.7), but both are expected to operate Payton’s offense in a manner similar to how Brees did.
“You’re wanting to see some of the traits that has made this offense go,” Payton said. “Yet, it’ll evolve and take on a new life of its own based on who’s playing quarterback. Our job is to give them opportunities to do things that they do comfortably and that they do well.”
The Saints took off Sunday after three training-camp practices and won’t practice in pads for the first time until Tuesday. They have three preseason games and lots of time to sort out who will start against Green Bay in the season opener Sept. 12 in the Caesars Superdome.
“We’re evaluating everything we are seeing,” Payton said. “We chart throws, we obviously understand what group they’re with and all those other things. I was taught early on as a coach, let’s evaluate what we see on film. That process is formulated by giving a lot of reps.
“Generally speaking, I think it’s important to have a stable leader in the huddle at the quarterback position.”
Winston is a strong-armed former No. 1 overall draft choice who started 70 games and passed for nearly 20,000 yards, threw 121 touchdowns and 88 interceptions while completing 61.3 percent of his passes in five seasons as a starter in Tampa Bay. He lost his job last season when the Buccaneers signed Tom Brady (and went on to win the Super Bowl), and Winston signed with the Saints as one of Brees’ backups.
Hill is a dual threat who was undrafted out of BYU and signed with the Saints after being released by Green Bay at the end of the 2017 preseason. He played more on special teams and at wide receiver running back, wide receiver and tight end than as an occasional change-of-pace substitute for Brees before starting four games last season while Brees was injured. The Saints went 3-1.
Winston and Hill have different playing styles, but those differences are less important than their respective abilities to make good decisions, complete a high percentage, minimize turnovers and lead a winning team – as Brees mostly did.
“We’re making money off decisions, not results,” Winston said. “As long as you get completions, we’re doing good, right? We’ve got a great defense, we’ve got a great offensive line.
“Defense, they get tired when they see completions. They want you to check it down, check it down, check it down, but I think that’s what Drew really perfected the last three years of his career: Just lulling defenses to sleep, then boom-boom-boom, over their head. And there you go, touchdown.”
Both Winston and Hill are better able to complete deep passes than Brees was at the end of his 20-year career that ended with two injury-plagued seasons while he was in his early 40s.
But even though the Saints might occasionally connect on deeper throws, their success is going to be based more on consistently identifying and choosing low-risk, yardage-gaining opportunities.
“We want the ball in our play-makers’ hands, but incompletions are not a bad thing,” Winston said. “It’s take what they give you. That’s one thing our coaches preach. On my wristband, I (have inscribed) elite progressions. We want to do that – me, Taysom, all the quarterbacks – we want to be elite in our progressions.
“Typically, someone is always open, so we want to be able to move through those progressions quickly and be able to get the ball completed.”
Winston threw just 11 passes as the third-string quarterback last season, though he did say that working with Payton and Brees gave him “a good grasp of the system.”
“But obviously reps are what’s important,” Winston added. “This year, I’ve probably got more reps in three days than I got all of last year. So it’s an incredible feeling to be able to go out there and have the opportunity to execute, because I’m more of a visual learner — I like to apply what we’re doing, apply certain concepts. I learn better that way.”
Hill spent the off-season preparing to be a starting a quarterback rather than honing the skills for the distinctive “Swiss army knife” role that has defined his career to this point.
“I came in a little bit lighter than I would normally come into camp,” Hill said. “Throughout my career here, I was always trying to find that balance of being strong enough to do what I was going to asked to do, but still be able to throw a ball and so forth. So there was definitely a transition there.”
Hill’s running ability provides opportunities that neither Brees nor Winston could take advantage of, but the onus is on him just as much as the others to make the right choice.
“My mindset is no different than most quarterbacks, that if there’s a guy downfield and you have an opportunity to get the ball out of your hand, then you’re going to do that,” Hill said. “I think the thing for me is there are certain coverages that are really enticing for a dual-threat QB to take off and run.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about having good plays, back-to-back good plays, first downs, moving chains to go and score. I do think it’s a difficult balance sometimes as a dual-threat quarterback to find that. But I try to stay true to my reads. And the great thing is if there’s nothing there, then I can make something happen.”
Hill has been in Payton’s offense much longer than Winston has, but even he doesn’t have the grasp that Brees developed over 15 years.
“As you talk about understanding the offense the way that Drew did, or Coach does, I certainly don’t feel like I’m there,” Hill said. “But every year you become more comfortable in what you’re doing.
“I think the emphasis is making the right decision. So it’s taking the shot downfield when you have it and then knowing when to check down to get to the next play. So I think it comes down to the right decision.”
Ultimately the most important decision will come when Payton chooses his starter.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…