Championship windows open and close quickly in the NFL—especially for teams with aging quarterbacks. For the Saints, there’s no time like the present when it comes to making an all-out run at the Super Bowl. New Orleans is in win-now mode, and with Drew Brees’s retirement somewhere just over the horizon, the team has spared no expense over the past two offseasons aggressively maneuvering to keep itself established as a top NFC contender. That “all in” mentality—and the effectiveness of the team’s corresponding moves—will be put to the test over the next month and a half, with Brees reportedly looking at a six-game absence after undergoing surgery to repair a ligament in his throwing hand.
The team’s decision to trade a future first-round pick to move up and grab defensive end Marcus Davenport in the 2018 draft sacrificed long-term building blocks in the hopes that Davenport would be the missing piece for an ascending defense. The jury remains out on that move, and Davenport, along with the entire defensive unit, will have to step up in Brees’s absence. Even more important, though, was the team’s choice to trade a third-round pick to the Jets to acquire Teddy Bridgewater prior to 2018 and subsequently re-sign him this offseason to the richest backup quarterback contract in the league (a fully guaranteed one-year, $7.25 million deal).
Most teams don’t practice fucked—i.e., they don’t waste time preparing for the typically insurmountable loss of a future Hall of Fame quarterback—but the Saints spent cash and draft capital on Bridgewater with the aim of being an exception to that rule. If they were to lose Brees to an injury, the thinking certainly was, the team couldn’t afford to just punt the season; they needed to have a plan in place to keep their playoff hopes alive until Brees returned. New Orleans certainly would’ve preferred that Bridgewater remain nothing more than an expensive short-term insurance policy, but now the team is looking to collect on that claim. Let’s break down just what the Saints need Bridgewater to do—and what the team needs to do for him—during the next six weeks.
Bridgewater played three quarters and change in relief of the injured Brees in the Saints’ 27-9 loss to the Rams on Sunday. The 26-year-old former first-rounder was predictably ineffective coming in cold to run an offense calibrated for Brees’s incredible timing, anticipation, and precision as a passer. Bridgewater finished 17-for-30 for 165 yards with zero touchdowns and zero picks, and the Saints offense posted a meager 244 yards and failed to find the end zone—the second-worst passing total for New Orleans since 2013 and the first time the team has been held without a touchdown since December 2016 (and just the fourth time in the Brees–Sean Payton era). With a full week for Payton to tinker with the scheme to fit Bridgewater’s strengths and for Bridgewater himself to practice with the first team, the new Saints starter could be an effective point guard in a balanced, stripped-down system centered on taking pressure off the quarterback and putting it on the team’s top-tier offensive line and superstar playmakers Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara.
The Saints offense will take a hit in its efficiency and effectiveness going from Brees to Bridgewater. But the magnitude of that drop-off will depend much on how the team rallies around its backup quarterback. It all starts up front; as Payton lamented Sunday, New Orleans’s normally excellent offensive line struggled to keep the Rams pass rush in check. “Listen, if you’re not playing well up front,” said Payton, “I don’t care if it’s your Hall of Fame guy or your no. 3 guy. It’s gonna be difficult.”
Bridgewater took two sacks and was pressured on 35.3 percent of his dropbacks, per PFF, about 13 percentage points higher than Brees’s pressure rate (22.4) on the year. Of course, pressure is often correlated to quarterback play, and while there were a few instances when Bridgewater was indecisive and held onto the ball a little too long in the pocket, the backup quarterback’s average time to throw of 2.89 seconds came in just a hair slower than Brees’s average on the year (2.83 seconds). The Saints will need to clean up their pass protection going forward to give Bridgewater a better chance to run the offense.
The team will need more from the Kamara-led run game too. The superstar back finished with just 45 yards on 13 carries (3.5 YPC) against the Rams, and as a team, New Orleans gained just 57 yards on 20 totes. Those struggles will only be amplified going forward by the loss of Brees, which should change the way that opponents line up to defend the Saints. The beauty of the Brees-led passing scheme has been the way New Orleans marries its pass game with the run game, creating mismatches and keeping defenses off balance with a steady dose of punch-and-counterpunch, mixing downfield shots and smashmouth runs. With Bridgewater under center, that equilibrium could be thrown out of whack: His passing distribution from Sunday was highly concentrated in the short middle:
That makes it too easy for defenses, who will likely stack the box with the expectation that New Orleans will lean harder on its ground game and that Bridgewater will stick to the conservative, underneath passing attack we’ve seen from him in the past. Unless Bridgewater can make teams that load up to stop the run pay by attacking downfield, it could create a snowball effect that brings the whole system to a sputtering stop.
The Saints must counter loaded boxes with a bevy of constraints, too, the types of plays meant to keep defenses honest. Don’t be surprised if you see an uptick in screens, end-arounds, sweeps, and good, old-fashioned flea flickers. Kamara is as dangerous as they come when catching passes out in space, so the team will lean on his ability to break tackles and create in the swing pass and screen pass game. Backup quarterback and all-around utility man Taysom Hill is undoubtedly going to get involved in those types of keep-the-defense-guessing-type plays, and considering how often Payton was willing to use the versatile Hill when Brees was healthy, Hill could see major snaps going forward. I’d expect that play-action will become a bigger emphasis as well. Brees threw off play-action on just 19.4 percent of his dropbacks last year (while posting a league-best 143.8 passer rating with 11 TDs and zero interceptions), per PFF, and had notched just an 8.2 percent play-action rate this season. That’s near league-low numbers, and is about what we saw from Bridgewater on Sunday (8.8 percent), but the last time he was was a regular starter, back in 2015 with the Vikings, Bridgewater used play-action on 29.6 percent of his throws, third-most in the league. The Saints should aggressively up their play-action rate over the next few weeks.
That could help newly paid superstar receiver Michael Thomas get more involved as well. Thomas led the way Sunday with 10 catches for 89 yards, but his route variety looked far different with Bridgewater under center for half the game …
… than it did with Brees at QB in Week 1.
The dynamic playmaker is going to have to be a spark for the Saints’ receiving corps. Thomas has size, athleticism, and elite hands as a pass catcher, but in the next six weeks he won’t benefit from a quarterback with robotic accuracy. When Thomas gets one-on-one matchups and Bridgewater puts it anywhere in his vicinity, he needs to come down with the ball. Thomas will be flanked by recent free-agent signee Jared Cook, who could be a quick-pass option over the middle in the same way he was for Derek Carr and the Raiders in 2018. And Ted Ginn and Tre’Quan Smith give the team potential for the big play.
Fitting those pieces together in a scheme tailored to Bridgewater’s skill set, though, will be the key. Payton’s had the luxury of running his offense through an extraordinarily consistent and uncommonly savvy quarterback in Brees, who processes defensive coverages at a speed that’s matched only by a few of the league’s elite at the position. Bridgewater’s far more limited skill set puts a cap on what the newly extended head coach and play-caller can scheme up.
Of course, Payton has a general blueprint for Winning the Super Bowl With Your Backup Quarterback, which was drawn up by Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and then–offensive coordinator Frank Reich in 2017. Reich modified Philly’s offensive scheme to fit Nick Foles, and after a couple-week adjustment period, that unit was back to running at near-peak levels, especially in the team’s Super Bowl win.
If luck serves, the Saints will just have to get through a six-week period of the regular season before getting Brees back under center—but that stretch of games will be crucial for the team’s playoff hopes. New Orleans will travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks this week, then come home to host the Cowboys and Buccaneers, go back on the road against the Jaguars and Bears, and then return home to face the Cardinals before their Week 9 bye. If the Saints can muster even a 3-3 record in those games, it will give them a shot at contending in what’s currently a wide-open NFC South.
It’s tough to find silver linings for the Saints, a Super Bowl–caliber squad that just lost its future Hall of Fame quarterback. But the team’s shrewd decision to hold on to Bridgewater this offseason could end up being an incredibly prescient one. The backup turned starter drops into a high-pressure situation, but is surrounded by as good of a support system as he could’ve hoped for: The Saints boast what might be the best tackle duo in football, two of the most dynamic playmaking offensive weapons in Kamara and Thomas, and a coach who’s renowned for his play-calling genius. This opportunity has been a long time coming for Bridgewater, whose once-promising career was derailed by the devastating knee injury he suffered prior to the 2016 season. Bridgewater has a chance to not only help keep the Saints’ playoff hopes alive in 2019, but resurrect his career in the process.