When the starting quarterback for most NFL teams gets hurt, the backup searches for his helmet and prepares to see his first significant playing time of the season. But the Saints are not like most teams: Their backup quarterback has been playing regularly all season, as a wide receiver, tight end, and special teamer. Since 2017, New Orleans coach Sean Payton has been trying to make Taysom Hill happen, with varying degrees of success. Payton talks about Hill like he’s Superman.
Payton has long said that Hill is talented enough to be an NFL starting quarterback, which is normal. It’d be weird if a head coach came out and said that his backup wasn’t good enough to start for another team. (“Oh, Greg? Shoot, I don’t even know how he played in college. He’d be lucky if the CFL called.”) But Payton’s praise goes above and beyond. According to Peter King of NBC Sports, Payton “believes Hill has a chance to be a Steve Young type”—just a casual comparison to one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history, apparently in reference to their playing styles and not just their mutual alma mater, BYU. Payton also maintains that Hill could start at virtually every other position. In February, Payton joined The Ringer’s Slow News Day and said that Hill could play linebacker and safety. He noted that if Hill were available, 31 teams would try to trade for him.
And Payton has put his team’s money where his mouth is: In April 2020, New Orleans handed Hill a two-year, $21 million contract extension. Hill is the 17th-highest-paid quarterback in the league, ahead of all other backups and many starters, as well. Every quarterback on a rookie contract makes less than Hill does, and so do some veterans. Among them: Teddy Bridgewater, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Sam Darnold.
But the difference between the Saints and other NFL teams is not only that their backup quarterback often plays in other roles—it’s that their backup quarterback does not actually seem to be their backup quarterback. When New Orleans starter Jameis Winston went down with a season-ending ACL injury against the Buccaneers on October 31, Hill didn’t come in to replace him. He was unavailable, having suffered a concussion three weeks earlier while taking a violent hit diving to catch one of Winston’s passes. Instead, the Saints turned to Trevor Siemian, who signed with the franchise in November 2020 to be a fourth-stringer.
Hill has since been cleared to return to action—but the Saints have stuck with Siemian as their starter for the past two games. They have bumped Siemian to the top on their unofficial depth chart, and appear likely to stick with him for the foreseeable future. Siemian has been fine in his two starts, going 44-of-75 passing for 547 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions; in those games, both Saints losses, Hill has four pass attempts, four rush attempts, and one catch. Heading into last week’s matchup against the Titans, Payton said that although Siemian was the starter, the offense would “have a number of packages we’ll use for Taysom.” Sure enough, the Saints increased Hill’s role in one way: He played his first snaps of the year on the punt return unit. Not as the punt returner—just as a blocker.
It has never been clear where Hill is on the quarterback depth chart. In 2018, he seemed secure as the Saints backup, but the franchise traded for Teddy Bridgewater days before Week 1, and Bridgewater took over when Drew Brees injured his thumb in 2019. In 2020, the Saints gave Hill his contract extension a few days before signing Winston in free agency. When Brees went out with an astounding number of fractured ribs, Winston initially took over—but then Hill started the next four games, with the team going 3-1. Winston significantly outperformed Hill in the 2021 preseason to win the starting job, so it seemed like Hill would be Winston’s backup. Instead, he is behind Siemian, the fourth-best quarterback at Northwestern during the four years I went to school there.
On one hand, Hill is the most productive backup quarterback in the NFL. He contributes week after week, while most backups simply sit on the bench and look at a tablet—presumably football stuff, but possibly Netflix. Hill is out there making catches while the majority of his backup peers are collecting paychecks behind a pane of glass that reads BREAK IN CASE OF QB EMERGENCY.
On the other hand, the Saints’ emergency glass has been broken. Their legendary franchise quarterback has retired. Their starter is out for the season. Their roster is good enough to make the playoffs for a fifth straight year, but they need someone to step up at QB. And Payton, the world’s foremost Taysom Hill supporter, apparently doesn’t trust Hill to do it.
Now is the time for Hill to save the Saints. Where is he?
The idea of Taysom Hill remains tantalizing. Some of the NFL’s most exciting players are those who can toggle between multiple positions, always keeping defenses on edge because they can’t be stopped in one specific way. There are tight ends who can play wide receiver, like Travis Kelce; there are running backs who can dominate as pass catchers, like Christian McCaffrey. Some teams are experimenting with putting receivers in the backfield, like the 49ers with Deebo Samuel. The Saints love these types of players: They also have Alvin Kamara, who’s equally capable of racking up 100 yards rushing and receiving.
The unexplored frontier of apositionality involves quarterbacks. If a team can break defenses by lining up a tight end in the slot, imagine the havoc it could wreak by revamping how opponents have to defend the pass. We’ve already seen how terrifying it is for defenses when they have to worry about a quarterback who can run, like Lamar Jackson. How the hell would they react if an offense had two quarterbacks on the field, each of whom was capable of passing or running on any given play?
This approach is extremely rare. A few teams have experimented with it in college, including Louisiana-Monroe, which in 2012 used a formation with lefty and righty QBs that I still bring up in conversation. In 2013, Princeton won the Ivy League with a formation featuring three quarterbacks. In 2018, Alabama had a formation that put both Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts on the field at once. But this type of strategy has hardly been a blip on the NFL radar. The Ravens tried two-quarterback sets with Joe Flacco and Troy Smith (which worked!) and with Flacco and Lamar Jackson (which didn’t!); the Jets’ combination of Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow resulted in two separate and very funny lowlights; the Bears once ran a weird play with Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel that resulted in a touchdown.
Hill seems good at enough things to make a true two-quarterback system work. He’s completed 71.7 percent of his career throws, and has exactly one downfield passing highlight.
He’s also astonishingly tough to tackle. Pro Football Reference credits Hill with having seven broken tackles on just 20 rushing attempts this season. Just look at him bully the Giants on a touchdown run in October:
And he’s been an effective receiving threat at times. In 2019, he had six touchdowns on just 22 targets. He can beat defenders on routes. He blocks punts. He hurdles defenders. All things considered, Hill might have the coolest highlight reel in the league.
But the Saints don’t take full advantage of his versatility. They don’t run double passes with Hill, or have another quarterback hand the ball to Hill so that Hill can throw it, or anything like that. When he’s in at receiver, there is little chance of him throwing the ball; all eight of Hill’s passing attempts this season came on plays in which he lined up as the QB. And when Hill is in at quarterback, he’s just a quarterback. New Orleans has played only seven snaps this season with Winston or Siemian lined up at a position besides QB, so defenses can make substitutions and prepare accordingly. In those rare instances, neither Winston nor Siemian has been a threat to do anything.
Hill’s versatility gives him the potential to be a game-breaking player used in innovative ways. But the Saints haven’t innovated—they’ve just used the same guy in distinct, predictable roles. That’s an issue, because while Hill’s skills allow him to bounce between positions, he’s not elite at any one skill. The selling point of versatility and apositionality is that players who can do multiple things prevent defenses from knowing how to defend them. But defenses know what to expect from Hill as a QB, and they know what to expect from him as a receiver.
Hill was sacked more times in four starts at quarterback last season than Brees was in 12, and he ranked second in the NFL in fumbles. He struggles while throwing the ball deep:
Hill has four catches for 52 yards at receiver in 2021. He’s tied for ninth on the team in yards per route run, behind all of the full-time wide receivers.
In theory, Hill is a QB who can play other positions and cause massive confusion for opposing defenses. But the reality is less enticing. The Saints are getting subpar receiver production from a player who can’t beat out Siemian for the quarterback job. The good news is that Hill seems to be doing a great job as the personal protector on the punt team—no one has blocked a Saints kick all season.
Payton talks about Hill as the future of football, but Hill is now 31 years old and hasn’t established himself as a starting QB. He also hasn’t proved that his role is valuable enough to merit his hype and his contract. If ever there were a time for the Saints to fully deploy their do-everything super backup, it would be now, with Brees gone, Winston injured, and a playoff berth at stake. Instead, Payton is starting an off-the-street journeyman, and Hill’s role is just as unclear as ever.