Terez Paylor Senior NFL writer
When Teddy Bridgewater took over for Drew Brees early last season, no one knew what to expect.
Bridgewater was talented, of course. All former first-round draft picks are. But no one knew how much the devastating knee injury that essentially ended his time in Minnesota had taken out of him, even five years later.
Within weeks — snaps, maybe — we had our answer. Bridgewater completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 1,205 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions during a stretch when he led the Saints to a 5-0 record as New Orleans’ short-term starter. Bridgewater did not perform well enough to keep the job the rest of the season, as the Saints will always be Brees’ team. But the way he played — and perhaps the inspired way his teammates played alongside him — helped Bridgewater parlay that audition into a lucrative three-year, $63 million free-agent deal with the Carolina Panthers.
Bridgewater has looked good this year, too, for an upstart Panthers team that has performed better than its 3-7 record. He’s showing the poise, accuracy and command that got him taken in the first round in 2014. In retrospect, Bridgewater’s performance with the Saints was no fluke. It was an indication of what he can do with strong support around him, including a great head coach in Sean Payton with a creative offense, a solid line and a wealth of skill players.
All of which brings us to Jameis Winston, who suddenly finds himself positioned to pull a Teddy B. impression in New Orleans.
Winston’s roller-coaster 2019 season in Tampa Bay, in which his penchant for “wow” throws was overshadowed for back-breaking interceptions, included over 5,000 yards and 33 touchdowns despite those 30 INTs. So, he chose to be a backup with the Saints to rehab his career.
It was a solid bet.
Brees is expected to miss the next two to three weeks with broken ribs and a collapsed lung, which means the 26-year-old Winston — who went 6-of-10 for 63 yards in relief Sunday — should get an opportunity to pull a Bridgewater.
Will Sean Payton tap Jameis Winston over Taysom Hill as starting QB?
Emphasis on should, by the way. While Winston, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, is widely presumed to be the next man up for the Saints at quarterback, there has been no confirmation that will be the case.
Payton played coy Monday, unwilling to publicly declare Winston or Taysom Hill — a quarterback by trade but an all-around weapon at multiple positions — the starter.
There will be intrigue about this all week. Days before signing Winston to a league-minimum deal last April, the Saints handed the 30-year-old Hill a whopping two-year, $21 million extension. Hill has maintained — including to me — that he unequivocally sees himself as a starting NFL QB.
It’s hard to imagine Hill not taking umbrage if he is not the Saints’ starting quarterback on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. He has done everything for this team — blocked kicks, blocked linebackers and played receiver, tight end and running back — and it’s reasonable for him to expect the Saints to hand the reins to him now if they believe he can be the long-term replacement for Brees, who is widely speculated to retire after this season.
So if Payton chooses Winston, who is four years younger than Hill, I won’t believe that it’s simply because Payton wants to leave Hill in the “Swiss Army knife” role he has thrived in the past few years.
Yes, the Saints are all in this year, but choosing Winston over Hill would be an indication that Payton sees winning long-term talent in Winston, a man he became very familiar with after facing him twice a year in the NFC South since 2015.
Winston has deep ball, which Drew Brees lacks
It’s logical to think Payton wouldn’t have signed the big-armed Winston if he didn’t think he could be a really good player in this league. Winston won’t operate the Saints’ offense with the surgical efficiency of the brainy Brees, but I could see him overcoming this — and consequently, opening up the Saints’ offense — by repeatedly pushing the ball downfield. That is something Brees, who entered Week 10 with the shortest average pass distance in the NFL at 5.6 yards a pop, has basically stopped attempting.
Don’t underestimate the importance of this. In today’s pass-happy NFL, not being able to connect on the deep ball is like trying to make the World Series with a dearth of power in today’s homer-friendly MLB. It can be done in theory, but you need one hell of a team in other areas.
And for all of Winston’s many interceptions, we know he can push the ball downfield. Winston took the most deep shots in the NFL last year (99) and completed the most (40), according to Pro Football Focus. Of all the quarterbacks who have attempted at least 298 passes this season, Brees’ 13 deep shots is by far the fewest in the NFL, with Daniel Jones of the New York Giants coming in next with 24. And they still rank sixth in offensive DVOA!
No matter who gets tabbed as the Saints’ short-term quarterback in Brees’ absence, we’re about to learn a ton about what Payton aspires his offense to look like when Brees retires since Bridgewater is far more similar, stylistically, to Brees than Winston or Hill.
If Winston indeed gets the nod, there’s a scenario where he could prove to be the Saints’ long-term guy and a nuisance for the Buccaneers after the man who replaced him in Tampa — the great Tom Brady, who is dealing with his own issues right now — retires.
But again, Winston must first earn the job in the short term. He stands to gain a lot in 2021, either in New Orleans or elsewhere, if that comes to fruition. However, if Payton taps Hill to be his starter, that tells us heck of a lot about how Winston’s stint in quarterback rehab is going.
You won’t find a better situation for Winston than his current one. He’ll either be Teddy B. 2.0 or he won’t. If he doesn’t, we’ll also likely know that stardom isn’t in the cards for the former No. 1 overall pick.