The scientific method involves six basic steps. First, one must make an observation, ask a question, or form a hypothesis; after that comes predictions, tests, data analysis, conclusions, and results. Quarterback evaluation isn’t an exact science—despite many peoples’ efforts to make it one—nor is it as simple as the process you used back in your sixth-grade science fair. But the elements used to rate a signal-caller aren’t too different from those procedures. And though Sean Payton’s Taysom Hill experiment has not followed the form of typical quarterback trials, we finally got the initial results of Hill as a starting QB on Sunday.
Through the first three-plus years of Hill’s tenure in New Orleans, Payton used him as a do-it-all gadget player who registered snaps at receiver, tight end, and on special teams. Hill has been used in plenty of wild-cat formations at quarterback, too, but prior to this week, Payton still didn’t really know what he really had in Hill. So with Drew Brees on injured reserve with multiple rib fractures and a collapsed lung, Hill earned his first-ever start at quarterback for the Saints—and he guided them to a 24-9 victory over the Falcons.
Sean Payton with a notable retweet pic.twitter.com/mKwc3xz4rG— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) November 22, 2020
When Brees went down last week, many questioned whether New Orleans would turn the offense over to Hill or free-agent signing Jameis Winston, the former no. 1 overall pick who spent the last five seasons as the Buccaneers’ starting quarterback. Winston took over primary QB duties when Brees exited last week’s win against the 49ers. But this week, Payton rolled with Hill, who entered Sunday with 18 career pass attempts and zero passing touchdowns, 98 rushing attempts and four rushing touchdowns, as well as 28 receptions and seven touchdowns.
Hill did what he needed to. He completed 18 of 23 passes for 233 yards on Sunday. He didn’t throw a touchdown—he hasn’t thrown a touchdown since November 26, 2016, when he was playing for BYU—but he did run for 51 yards and two scores. Against a 3-7 Falcons squad that struggled mightily to move the ball in the second half, it proved to be enough.
TAYSOM SHAWN HILL!!!!! #ATLvsNO | : FOX pic.twitter.com/Z2HbG6ycSO— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) November 22, 2020
Some of Hill’s success should be attributed to Payton’s game plan, which heavily incorporated play-action passes. Entering the week, New Orleans had attempted the third-fewest play-action pass attempts in the league, using it on just 16 percent of passes, according to Pro Football Reference. But many of Hill’s completions on Sunday came because of play-action.
This was an objectively good throw pic.twitter.com/hKQRsRNDmG— Kaelen Jones (@kaelenjones) November 22, 2020
When Hill’s in the lineup, defenses are forced to account for his scrambling ability; the Saints rushed the ball 36 times and attempted 23 passes on Sunday. But New Orleans’s pass game was also noticeably more aggressive, with Hill pushing the ball downfield to both intermediate and deep targets. Aside from the incorporation of designed carries, Hill’s downfield attempts marked the starkest contrast from what New Orelans’s Brees-led offense has looked like this season. Brees’s arm strength has declined over recent years and his 5.8 intended air yards per pass ranked lowest among starters this year (minimum five starts); Hill averaged 6.5 intended air yards per attempt Sunday, per Next Gen Stats.
Hill also did a solid job of getting the ball to the Saints’ best offensive playmakers early and often. He made the most of a healthy Michael Thomas, targeting him 12 times for nine completions and 104 yards. Running back Alvin Kamara didn’t record a catch, but he had 13 carries for 45 yards and a score, becoming the first player in NFL history with 500 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in each of his first four seasons.
The Saints also benefited greatly from another standout performance from their defense. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked eight times—Cameron Jordan logged three, while Trey Hendrickson and David Onyemata each registered two sacks. Ryan completed 19 of 37 passes for 232 yards and two interceptions. Atlanta went 2-for-14 on third down and was shut out in the second half. New Orleans entered Sunday with the NFL’s no. 5 defense in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. Since returning from their bye in Week 6, the Saints have held opponents to 24 points or less in each of their last five games.
Over the next few weeks, the Saints face the Broncos, Falcons, and Eagles, and against those teams, a game plan that features a sturdy defensive effort and a Hill-led offensive attack could be enough. But the Saints are legitimate title contenders, and with Brees out for at least the next two weeks, their potential rests entirely on Hill’s arm and legs helping their offense remain one of the NFL’s most high-octane units. It’s still too early in the Hill-at-QB experiment to tell what the future will hold, but so far, it’s off to a successful start. Now we just need to see more results.