From the Saints’ curious quarterback pairing to the Titans’ superstar wide-receiver combo, The Ringer is highlighting the most important, interesting, and, in some cases, baffling NFL duos for the 2021 season. Today: Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, and a QB battle that could make history.
The main story line of Saints training camp reads like the plot of an ’80s B movie. Sean Payton is the lead in this flick, an unconventional yet brilliant Super Bowl–winning coach whose audacious plan to replace his recently retired Hall of Fame quarterback is to hold a competition between two off-the-scrap-heap misfits. On one side, there’s Taysom Hill, a 30-year-old former undrafted free agent utility man who has functioned mostly as a tight end, running back, and occasional trick-play quarterback for New Orleans during the past four seasons―a do-it-all role that’s endeared him to Payton, but created few outside believers.
And on the other side, there’s Jameis Winston, a former top pick who washed out with his first team after becoming the first quarterback in league history to throw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season. Attempting to pick up the pieces of a once-promising career, Winston’s last hope is that his February 2020 LASIK surgery is the key to helping him curb wild swings in accuracy and decision-making. (That’s a blatant rip-off of Charlie Sheen’s Wild Thing Vaughn character from Major League, but that’s fine.)
It’s a zany scenario and the character tropes are a bit heavy-handed, but I have to admit it’s entertaining. I can’t wait to find out how things will play out between two polar-opposite quarterbacks―and like any good story, Payton’s done well to keep the audience in suspense. If the Saints head coach is leaning one way, he hasn’t let on. And with a few months of offseason practices and one preseason game in the books, neither signal-caller has convincingly pulled ahead. So, while we wait for the stalemate to break, let’s dive into both the numbers and the tape behind Payton’s big decision, along with what it means for the team’s offense when one of Hill or Winston (or neither?) wins the job.
The toughest part about picking a winner in an apples-vs.-oranges comparison has to be figuring out which variables matter. Hill is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback who’s dangerous with his feet but very green as a traditional passer, while Winston is a prototypical pocket quarterback who offers next to nothing as a runner. Hill is very inexperienced, with just four starts (at quarterback) under his belt, but he offers the intrigue of unknown upside; Winston, meanwhile, has started 70 games and offers more veteran savvy, but brings a well-documented downside. Hill is a conservative passer who is willing to take what the defense gives him, check the ball down, and live to see another play; Winston has an aggressive style and a YOLO mindset. Payton must decide which quarterback—and which QB style—will help him win the most games.
So, where does he start? “The most important [things are] leading this team, leading the offense to scores, [and] protecting the football,” Payton told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer in April. That third point is an obvious potential fatal flaw for Winston, whose history with ball security can only be described as appalling. I have assumed for most of the offseason that Winston’s propensity to give the ball away would ultimately hand Hill the job. Surprisingly, though, Winston seems to have made some strides in that area during training camp, and based on reports from the past few months, he’s minimized turnovers in practices and scrimmages.
The team’s first preseason game, a 17-14 loss to the Ravens, didn’t settle the competition, with Hill and Winston battling to an apparent draw.
Hill got the start, completing eight of 12 passes for 81 yards and a pick. He wasn’t particularly impressive, notching a 78.1 passing grade from Pro Football Focus while posting a paltry 6.4-yard average depth of target. The most impressive thing he did was convert a trio of third-down throws.
But Hill’s accuracy and timing with his receivers were frequently off. He threw behind Lil’Jordan Humphrey on his first dropback of the game, and Humphrey couldn’t come down with the ball. On another snap, he tried to step up into the pocket and toss it to Latavius Murray but short-armed the throw.
Hill later threw an interception on a miscommunication with receiver Ty Montgomery, who stopped his route when Hill thought he’d keep coming across the field. Hill nearly threw a second pick on a later drive when he threw behind Marquez Callaway, who seemed to think the ball should be coming out toward the sideline.
Those types of miscues could doom Hill, whose main advantage over Winston should be his ability to take care of the football. But Winston failed to take advantage of Hill’s so-so showing, finishing the game with a handful of solid throws and a handful of head-scratchers. He completed seven of 12 passes for 96 yards, one touchdown, and one interception on five drives, tallying a 72.2 passing grade from PFF on a robust 13.4-yard average depth of target. The veteran was characteristically aggressive throwing deep, and he did well at times to move the football in the middle of the field. Winston found Montgomery, Juwan Johnson, and Humphrey on three separate big gains.
His touchdown throw to Humphrey was also impressive; he dropped back, executed a play-action fake, and after seeing that his first read to the flats was covered, came back to the middle of the field and fired a strike for the score.
Winston was far from perfect, though. On one play, he double-clutched and got lucky that he didn’t get picked when he threw the ball behind tight end Nick Vannett.
He was picked off just before the half when he threw behind Humphrey on a deep ball, too. Humphrey got a hand on it, bobbling it into the air, and it was intercepted by the Ravens.
Winston also took one avoidable sack and nearly had another when he tried to throw the ball with a defender wrapped around his legs. Sacks aren’t ideal, but Winston needs to remember to just tuck the ball and live and see another down.
Overall, I thought Winston’s negative plays outweighed the good ones, because his arm strength and his overall talent as a passer have never been in doubt; it’s always been a question of whether he can consistently make sound decisions, whether he’s under pressure or operating from a clean pocket. In other words, it seemed like a par-for-the-course performance from Winston. And nothing that Hill showed against the Ravens was wildly different from what we saw in his four starts last year.
Assuming neither player has taken the proverbial leap this offseason—and that’s probably the case, considering they’re still neck-and-neck—it’s possible to picture what the Saints offense would look like in each scenario.
With Hill under center, we’d likely see an offense built around the run game, where the athletic dual-threat quarterback could factor in with his legs, particularly in the red zone. The passing game would focus on short- and intermediate-area passes, most likely, with a handful of deep shots off play-action sprinkled in. Hill’s 7.4-yard average depth of target last season paints the picture of a dink-and-dunk offense, yes, but he was at least modestly efficient at all levels of the field when throwing off play-action or playing from a clean pocket.
Hill was at his best throwing on play-action, garnering a 122.3 passer rating on those plays, with two touchdowns and zero picks, and a 10.1-yards-per-attempt average. He executed well enough when he wasn’t pressured, too, completing 77.6 percent of his passes for 634 yards with four touchdowns and one pick, good for a 108.5 passer rating and an 81.5 passing grade from PFF on those plays. Crucially, he collected just three turnover-worthy plays in those situations (a 3.3 percent turnover-worthy play rate). Hill’s numbers dropped significantly when he was pressured, as you’d expect (his PFF passing grade was 43.6 in those situations, with zero touchdowns and one interception), but his two main problems in four starts last year were his propensity to take too many sacks (13 in four games) and his issues with fumbling (he fumbled six times, losing three).
Winston, on the other hand, could erase some of the schematic constraints that starting Hill would create―i.e., the total lack of a dropback vertical passing game and the need to limit the number of plays that require full-field reads―but he’ll have to prove the turnover problem is truly behind him. The last time we saw Winston as a full-time starter was his 2019 season with the Buccaneers. He finished that season with a ridiculous 5,109 passing yards (becoming one of just eight quarterbacks who’ve accomplished that feat), but he also tossed 30 interceptions to go with his 33 touchdown passes. Winston was the quintessential hero-ball specialist that season (and he has been his entire career), when he collected 31 big-time throws (a PFF stat that quantifies the most difficult and high-quality throws), tied for fourth most in the league, but also tallied a league-worst 40 turnover-worthy plays.
The most troubling thing about Winston’s performance wasn’t necessarily that he struggled under pressure (when he threw 14 of his 30 interceptions), it was that he also made way too many unforced errors in a clean pocket. Winston threw 16 interceptions from a clean pocket in 2019, per PFF, most in the NFL. Can the LASIK surgery Winston underwent last offseason be the cure for his issues with seeing the field and parsing coverages even when untouched? That’s the big question, and I don’t think the team’s preseason loss gave us an answer.
So where does that leave Payton and the Saints? Drew Brees’s retirement created a vacuum at New Orleans’s quarterback spot, and to this point, neither Hill nor Winston has done enough to step in and fill it.
If this were a normal situation, with a normal coach and a normal team, I’d lean toward Winston winning the job. He’s more experienced, brings a more traditional dropback style, and in theory, would give that passing game a much higher ceiling. But this isn’t a normal situation, and if it plays out like most of the campy ’80s B movies I’ve seen, we’re going to see something wacky. In the end, I wouldn’t be surprised if Payton just chooses “neither” and goes with a quarterback-by-committee approach, utilizing both players situationally―Winston as the team’s de facto starter and Hill as the changeup gadget player, short-yardage specialist, and goal-line hammer.