Nine weeks into the season, the Saints are right back where they were at the start of training camp. Jameis Winston’s season-ending ACL injury has left Sean Payton without a clear starter at quarterback. And his current options—Trevor Siemian and Taysom Hill—couldn’t be more different, making this decision more philosophical than based on talent alone.
Siemian and Hill aren’t Payton’s only options, of course. They’re just the quarterbacks currently with the team. Outside the roster, Cam Newton’s and Philip Rivers’s names have also been thrown around as possible replacements, leaving the Saints with three real options: Siemian, Hill, or a veteran free agent. Even with Hill returning to practice this week after being out with a concussion, Payton has yet to offer up any clues as to who will start under center Sunday against the Falcons. Nor has he said whether that starter will have the job for the rest of 2021.
But sitting at 5-2 and just a half game back of the Buccaneers in the divisional standings (with the tiebreaker currently in hand), New Orleans has a great shot at the postseason. So saying this decision could dramatically alter the NFC playoff race isn’t an exaggeration.
Luke McCown knows a thing or two about filling in for an injured Saints quarterback. McCown spent four years in this system under Payton, and his only start came in 2015 against a Panthers team that would finish the season 15-1 and make the Super Bowl. He lit up Carolina’s top-six defense, averaging 8.2 yards per attempt and finishing with a QBR of 92.4 in a losing effort. McCown says the game plan for that week didn’t differ too much from what the Saints were doing when Brees was healthy, but Payton did consult him before putting together the final plan.
“He very much allowed me to say ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like that,’” McCown said over the phone this week. “That was year 12 for me, so he wanted me to have some ownership of the game plan. He wanted me to not only feel comfortable, but also do what I saw in my mind’s eye through my week of preparation.”
That effort in Carolina was the first in a train of backups performing well in spot duty for the Saints. Guys like Hill and Teddy Bridgewater have done so recently, and since the start of 2019, the Saints are 13-3 in games not started by Drew Brees. Adjusting to a new quarterback on the fly has never been an issue for Payton.
McCown says that Payton’s own experience as an NFL backup might be a factor in his ability to set unheralded passers up for success. “He just feels where a quarterback’s sweet spot is,” he said. “I think playing the position [and] not being this stellar guy when he played … it helps him understand those guys better. It gives him a real feel for guys, like myself or [Siemian], who have never really been the guy.”
Whoever gets the starting nod on Sunday will probably play well in the role. That’s how things tend to go with Payton calling the shots. But this choice will ultimately come down to who gives the team the highest ceiling and the best shot at making a run in the playoffs. Let’s break down the three main options.
Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, or Another Veteran Free Agent
We’ll start with the most unrealistic. Rivers hasn’t hidden the fact that he’s willing to at least talk to the Saints about the job, and Cam Newton has said he’s looking to play in 2021 if the right opportunity presents itself. One would think playing for an elite offensive coach would be just that kind of opportunity.
In a vacuum, Rivers and Newton are clearly better options than what the Saints have on the roster. But we’re now nearly halfway through the season, so onboarding a new quarterback could be tricky—and given the ground any free agent would have to make up, the Saints might not be getting the best version of either Rivers or Newton.
McCown says Rivers’s experience in Indianapolis last season would make his transition a little easier. “[Frank Reich’s] ideas and philosophies around playing that position are very much the same as Sean’s,” McCown said. “Cam I don’t think would fit as well. Last year he was with Josh McDaniels. I’ve been with guys who have been in that system, and it’s very different. The New England system is very different from a West Coast, with the lingo and the verbiage. I don’t think Cam would have trouble with it; it just wouldn’t be as easy of a transition.”
Newton has said the disjointed nature of his season in New England made it difficult for him to fully grasp the Patriots playbook. Joining a new team halfway through the season would presumably give him similar issues. McCown says Payton’s system isn’t any more complicated than your standard NFL offense. But when quarterbacks try to run the offense in the same way that Brees did, things could become a little overwhelming.
“Most guys understand, ‘That’s not me,’” McCown said. “They come in and say, ‘I’m not Drew.’ I’m just going to operate this play the way I know how, and let Sean formulate it and call it in the right situations.’ … That limits the complexity of it. The moment you come in and say, ‘I’m gonna put on my no. 9 jersey for this play,’ you’re in trouble.”
If there’s anyone capable of replicating what Brees did in Payton’s offense, it’s Rivers. He did a lot of the same things—tinkering with protections, calling audibles, and adjusting routes—during his 14 seasons as a starter with the Chargers, and he wasted little time taking full control of the Colts offense last season. Physical ability is, of course, the question for Rivers, who’ll turn 40 in December and is currently working as a high school football coach in Alabama. His arm strength was declining well before his retirement in January, but it hadn’t stopped him from being a productive quarterback. Last season, he finished eighth in EPA per play and 10th in adjusted net yards per attempt and outperformed Brees in just about every major statistic.
If Payton is hoping to turn back the clock and run the offense we have seen in New Orleans in the past few seasons, Rivers is his best shot at doing so.
If Payton were making this decision based on salary, Hill, who has the fourth-highest cap hit on the team, would be the obvious pick. The fact that Hill hasn’t already been named the starter—and couldn’t beat out Winston for the job in training camp—suggests that Payton may have already given up on his goal of turning the 31-year-old into the second coming of Steve Young.
Even so, Hill proved last year that the Saints can win with him under center. New Orleans went 3-1 during his stint as the starter, and he put up decent numbers, completing 71.9 percent of his passes and averaging 7.3 yards per attempt across four games. The production wasn’t the issue, though. It was the adjustments Payton was forced to make to adapt to Hill’s game.
To get the most out of Hill as a runner, the Saints have to put him in more shotgun formations. That allows them to call option concepts and other designed quarterback runs. But Payton’s offense, and his run game in particular, is mostly based out of under-center formations. Per Sports Info Solutions, New Orleans ranks 31st in shotgun formation usage this season. So in order to fully utilize Hill as a runner, Payton would have to overhaul his entire rushing attack, which might not be worth the trade-off.
The shotgun run game “just doesn’t mesh as well with what they want to do as an offense,” McCown says. “They want to be under center for the run game and be under center to set up play-action.”
It probably doesn’t help that the shotgun runs the Saints deployed last season weren’t very effective. Hill was one of seven quarterbacks who attempted at least 20 designed runs in 2020, per Sports Info Solutions. He finished last in total EPA (-5.99). Making matters worse, the play-action passing game out of the gun wasn’t very effective either. Hill finished with a success rate of just 18 percent on those plays.
This might explain Payton’s hesitancy to build the entire offense around Hill’s skill set, and why New Orleans has opted to keep him in the do-it-all role this season. McCown says that’s where he’s at his best.
“I think that Taysom’s a phenomenal football player; I think he’s just an OK quarterback,” McCown said. “But what you saw during the preseason and training camp, there’s just a comfort level with him doing everything else. And he’s just better at it. … He’s better at those positions for the team than he’s going to be as a dropback passer.”
Siemian might be the least interesting option of the three, but he’s also the most realistic one for the simple fact that the offense wouldn’t have to change with him under center. The perception of Siemian as a quarterback—that he’s a safe bet who will just manage the game—is probably warped by the fact that he hasn’t played all that much in the past few seasons. But he plays the position in a way that’s not all that different from Winston. Both are pure pocket passers who won’t shy away from a downfield throw into a tight window. Now, Jameis has the arm to make those throws more consistently, but don’t mistake Siemian for some caretaker quarterback. When he took over during the Bucs game last week, the 29-year-old came out firing.
Based on Payton’s play-calling on Sunday, he didn’t seem too concerned with easing his backup into the action. There weren’t a lot of “safe” play calls, such as screens or play-action passes, to help protect Siemian. “I don’t think there’s any panic at all in what he can handle game plan–wise or what he can execute,” said McCown. “On a moment’s notice, he served very well last week, so I think that gives Sean a lot of comfort going into this week.”
The concern with Siemian is the same that you’d have for the quarterback he’d be replacing: turnovers. Siemian’s career turnover-worthy play rate (4.1 percent) isn’t much lower than Winston’s (4.7 percent), per Pro Football Focus. And whether Payton is willing to accept those mistakes in exchange for some offensive continuity will likely determine how this all plays out.
McCown predicts that Siemian will be the choice in the end, based on what he saw Sunday. “I don’t see them bringing anybody in,” he said. “I think Trevor operated at a high enough level [last Sunday] that they feel pretty good about him. … I think they like [rookie] Ian Book enough where if the worst happens, they can get through a game with him and then they’ll evaluate their options. The trade deadline’s passed, so there’s really no other option besides what’s out there on the street.”
Based on New Orleans’s options currently on the roster, I’d agree with McCown. Starting Siemian and keeping Hill in his positionless role makes the most sense for how the offense is constructed.
But continuity is not the end game. Winning a Super Bowl is, and trotting out a lesser version of what the team already had at quarterback won’t help them do that. Payton is a fantastic coach who can get the most out of any passer. Even with an underwhelming passer like Siemian at the helm, this is still a playoff-caliber team. But just imagine what it could be with a legitimate talent under center. If Payton is serious about making a run at a second ring, those thoughts should already be bouncing around in his head.