Have you ever asked why they don’t make the entire airplane out of the black box, or fill an entire Lynyrd Skynyrd album with guitar solos? The Saints are trying to answer a similar question with Taysom Hill. In Week 11, New Orleans handed lead vocal duties to Hill, who to this point had primarily taken snaps as a trick-play quarterback, tight end, and key special teams piece. Hill will be the Saints’ starter for as long as Drew Brees is out this season. Considering that Brees reportedly has 11 broken ribs and a punctured lung, that could be a long time.
This Taysom Hill experiment could shape the NFC playoff race and alter the trajectory of this season even if Brees is able to return in mid-December. It could also chart the course for the Saints’ future. Brees will turn 42 in January and is nearing retirement. Fellow New Orleans quarterback Jameis Winston is on an expiring contract. Hill, meanwhile, is under contract through 2021 after New Orleans gave him a $16 million extension this offseason. The next few weeks will determine whether the Saints entrust the next few years to a player who is 30 years old and has not thrown an NFL touchdown pass.
Hill was named the starter for Sunday’s game against the Falcons instead of Winston, who filled in when Brees left the Saints’ Week 10 win over the 49ers. Sean Payton didn’t say exactly why he went with Hill, but Winston’s 42 combined interceptions and fumbles over 16 games last season probably had something to do with it. While Winston did not play a single snap against Atlanta on Sunday, Hill completed 18 of 23 passes for 233 yards and rushed 10 times for 51 yards with two touchdowns in a 24-9 win. His 78 percent completion rate is the seventh-highest mark ever for a quarterback making his debut. Encouragingly, the Saints improved in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA. One game is a small sample size, but Hill’s entire career is a small sample size, so it’s worth parsing in more detail.
Let’s start with the good: The Saints restructured their offensive game plan around Hill, and it worked. Many people assumed New Orleans would implement a college-style scheme featuring a heavy dose of read-option plays to take advantage of Hill’s rushing ability, much like the Bills have done with Josh Allen or the Cardinals have done with Kyler Murray. But the Saints didn’t do that. Instead, they relied on play-action, and Hill was surprisingly good at living in the pocket on these plays. Take this throw to receiver Michael Thomas from early in the third quarter. Thomas finished with nine catches for 104 yards, his best game of the season.
In addition to showing that he can step up in the pocket, Hill also proved he can shuffle in the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield. Here’s a clip of him completing another pass to Thomas after a fake toss to Alvin Kamara early in the second quarter.
This is not how the Saints usually play. Brees ranks 43rd among 45 qualified quarterbacks this season in play-action rate (17 percent), according to Pro Football Focus. Hill used play-action on 40 percent of his dropbacks Sunday, which would rank first among those 45 quarterbacks. The Saints went from the bottom rung of play-action to the top, and it was easy to see why: Hill went 9-of-10 on play-action for 168 yards, averaging an otherworldly 17 yards per play-action pass attempt. If play-action passing were treated as its own performance, this would be one of the top 20 games by passing yards per attempt in the last 50 years (minimum 10 passes).
With that said, Hill got extraordinarily lucky on a few deep play-action throws. His first deep shot to Emmanuel Sanders was underthrown by about 15 yards, but the Falcons defender overran the play and Sanders was able to field the ball like a punt.
Completing a pass that was underthrown by 15 yards is like showing up two hours late to Thanksgiving only to find that the turkey is three hours behind schedule. This was the longest a pass hung in the air for a Saints quarterback over the last three years, according to Next Gen Stats—a sign of Brees’s declining arm strength, and also of how Hill’s deep shots are ripe to get picked.
If this were just one throw, it wouldn’t be especially concerning. But Hill did the same thing later in the game, somehow getting even luckier. (This was called back because of a penalty, but still.)
And those are just the interceptions that Hill almost threw on deep play-action attempts. He also had a near-pick in the red zone when he tried (and failed) to headfake a Falcons linebacker by the goal line.
There were other moments when Hill looked raw. He fumbled on a 20-yard gain in the fourth quarter, nullifying his longest run of the day. He took a drive-ending sack on the Saints’ first series of the afternoon and later took another bad sack that knocked New Orleans out of field goal range. The Saints had to use two timeouts because the play clock was running low, and Payton said after the game that Hill forgot to call for the motion on the offense’s first play from scrimmage. Commanding an offense is a skill, not just a figure of speech. It will be a serious adjustment for the Saints to go from Brees, the league’s all-time-leading passer, to Hill, who moved ahead of Bears running back Walter Payton on the all-time passing yardage list on Sunday.
But Hill brings something that Brees and Winston do not: rushing ability. Mobility increasingly seems like a prerequisite for modern quarterbacks, and those who can escape the pocket and extend plays are consistently rewarded. While the Saints did not make Hill’s running a focal point of their strategy against the Falcons, three of their six designed runs for Hill came on the final drive to kill the clock, per The Athletic. “I didn’t want to run him early,” Payton told NBC’s Peter King. “You know what people think of him—they think he’s a runner. I think he’s a quarterback. And I wanted him to play quarterback early.”
Hill isn’t quarterbacking just any team—he’s leading the 8-2 Saints, who are in first place in the NFC South and hold the no. 1 seed in the NFC. That seeding is particularly important this season because there is only one first-round bye in each conference. Given how the defense is playing, New Orleans could secure that spot if Hill simply limits his turnovers and keeps finding ways to get to Thomas and Alvin Kamara (and occasionally randos like Adam Trautman). The Saints sacked Matt Ryan eight times Sunday (giving them 17 sacks against Atlanta in the teams’ last two meetings) and have allowed one touchdown in their last three games. That is a testament to defensive ends Cam Jordan and Trey Hendrickson, who is tied for the league lead in sacks, and one of the deepest secondaries in the NFL. The Saints can afford to pare down their trickery, not turn it up. There’s a reason they’re 6-0 with backup quarterbacks over the last two years.
Payton and the Saints have a history of giving second chances to quarterbacks. They built around Drew Brees and his surgically repaired throwing arm after the Chargers cast him aside and the Dolphins doctors failed his physical. New Orleans rode Brees to a Super Bowl title and the best offensive stretch in NFL history. They gave Teddy Bridgewater a $7.3 million contract in 2019 despite the questions surrounding his health after he recovered from a gruesome knee injury. Bridgewater led the Saints to a 5-0 record after Brees got hurt. Now they’re considering planning their future around someone who suffered four season-ending injuries over five years of college football. Hill will need to play with a sense of self-preservation if he wants to make it to 2021 as a starter. He has been a valuable piece for New Orleans over the last four years precisely because he is a football player, but the same DNA that made him so fun could also be what limits him under center—or gets him injured again.
The Saints have been contenders since 2017, but they haven’t gotten over the hump. They’re on the verge of completing their fourth straight regular season with at least 11 wins, which only 11 teams have done in NFL history. Of those 11 franchises, nine won the Super Bowl in their respecitive four-year stretch, with the other two being the ’90s Bills and early aughts Eagles. If these Saints fall short again, they will be on track to go down as the best regular-season team to never make a Super Bowl appearance. Payton will not accept that regardless of Brees’s health.
Brees is eligible to return against the Eagles on December 13, meaning Hill is set to start in Denver next week and in Atlanta the week after that. His play will give us an idea of whether the Saints can remain in the Super Bowl picture until Brees comes back and beyond. Hill has gone from strange football fascination to the factor that could decide how long the Saints’ championship window stays open. What comes next could reshape this year’s title race, preview the next few years in New Orleans, and maybe change how we remember this era of Saints football.