The dink-and-dunk and the deep ball are colliding. Last year, Saints quarterback Drew Brees averaged a league-low 6.4 intended air yards per pass attempt. Meanwhile, across the Gulf of Mexico, Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston averaged a whopping 10.4 intended air yards—the second-highest mark in the league. Now, those two are set to become teammates. The Saints and Winston are expected to finalize a one-year deal, making the former Buccaneer whose job was taken by a future Hall of Fame quarterback the backup to another all-time great.
It’s an odd marriage, and not just because Brees and Winston are former NFC South rivals with wildly different playing styles. The Saints seemingly already had their backup in Taysom Hill, who the team put a first-round tender on this offseason. On Sunday, Hill signed a two-year deal worth $16 million guaranteed. That came one day after New Orleans traded into the seventh round of the draft to select Mississippi State quarterback Tommy Stevens. With Winston in the fold, the Saints’ QB room is suddenly packed. There might not be room for Stevens on the roster, which makes the team’s decision to trade back into the draft to get him all the more perplexing.
What the Winston signing would demonstrate is preparation. The Saints’ decision to send a third-round pick to the Jets in 2018 to acquire Teddy Bridgewater helped keep the team afloat last fall when Brees broke his thumb. Though Bridgewater wasn’t as efficient as Brees (believe it or not, he actually had an even lower intended yards per attempt average, 6.2, suggesting that dinking and dunking is essential to Sean Payton’s offense), the team went 5-0 with him under center. With Bridgewater now in Carolina, Winston is set to become the new QB insurance policy. If the 41-year-old Brees goes down again, the Saints will be able to give the reins to a veteran backup instead of a gimmick player with 15 career pass attempts to his name.
And sure, Winston can’t hold a candle to Brees. The jokes write themselves:
#Saints players have already caught 10 passes from Jameis Winston during his career, he also already threw TDs to some of them.pic.twitter.com/5L98jCKCMZ— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) April 26, 2020
But while Winston was always a roller coaster as a starter in Tampa Bay, he’s easily one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league. He’s better than many starters, too: Last season he ranked 18th in adjusted yards per attempt, 22nd in Pro Football Focus grade, and 16th in QBR. His problem has long been his tendency to turn the ball over—he famously threw 30 interceptions in 2019—but he makes enough big plays to be a roughly league-average passer in total. That’s a hell of a backup.
Winston gets something out of this arrangement, too. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the former Buccaneer had more lucrative offers elsewhere but is choosing to take less to join the cash-strapped Saints. For Winston to have a future in the league, he has to figure out how to stop throwing the ball to the other team. His career interception percentage sits at 3.5—the last time the NFL’s total interception percentage was that high was in 1992. He threw picks on a whopping 4.8 percent of pass attempts last season, which is in line with the average from 1978. Winston isn’t a 21st century passer. With the Saints, he could learn to become one.
Brees has gone three straight seasons without throwing double-digit interceptions. The Saints’ short-air-yards passing game relies on his preternatural accuracy in the short and intermediate areas of the field. New Orleans protects the football while also consistently fielding one of the most effective offenses in the league. Winston will never become Brees, but he could certainly learn a thing or two about how to move the football without giving it to the other team. Perhaps he’ll discover that a dink-and-dunk approach isn’t so bad after all.