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Sean Payton May Be the Best Quarterback Whisperer of His Era

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The news that Taysom Hill was starting at quarterback this week was met by the conspiracy theorist in all of us. With Jameis Winston on the sideline this had to be a rouse; perhaps as a way to keep the former No. 1 pick from receiving the kind of salary bump that Teddy Bridgewater received in a similar supporting role a year ago, thus making him unaffordable once Drew Brees decides to retire (a hat tip to capologist Jason Fitzgerald, who got me baited and hooked on this one).

Hill seemed so comfortably entrenched–and limited to–the role of a multi-tooled gimmick player who needn’t drop back more than a handful of times in a game. Payton’s insistence this offseason that Hill would garner attention as a starter felt like another rouse in itself, perhaps to drum up a trade market (again, in an effort to relieve some long-simmering financial issues).

Sean Payton talks to Taysom Hill

Sunday’s win over the Falcons forced us to then confront our inner realist. Payton was the first to take a victory lap, retweeting former Falcons wide receiver Roddy White, who predicted the Falcons would “whip” New Orleans if they dared try and make Hill into an every-down starter. But White could have been any of us before we watched a completely adequate, full-time starting performance from Hill amid a 24-9 victory. Hill went 18-of-23 for 233 yards with an additional 51 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He had a quarterback rating of 108.9. According to the NFL’s NextGenStats, only three quarterbacks had a better completion percentage above expectation on Sunday.

It says enough about the player we have routinely dismissed as NFL Tebow Plus. The lot of us will have to digest some crow. But it also raises a question that began percolating during the Saints’ stellar run with Bridgewater a year ago; one that gets to the heart of Payton’s confidence in running out someone like Hill in the first place.

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Is it possible that Payton is the great quarterback whisperer of this era, and if he is not the great whisperer, is it possible we have underrated his role in the Payton-Brees partnership through all of these years? It’s something we might not discuss enough given his long pairing with a first-ballot Hall of Famer, though something that may demand more attention if New Orleans keeps succeeding without him. There was an assumed mutual benefit there, and obviously Brees can make any coaching staff better simply by his presence in the huddle. But does a string of victories with Bridgewater and the way the offense molded to his strengths, along with the way they molded again around Hill, change the way we think about Payton’s singular role in all of this?

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To even possess a whiff of the Quarterback Whisperer Aura is a fast track to an NFL job. But how many times over the last 20 years has that label largely been a falsehood; a coach who moves away from a smartly designed offense or an exceptionally cerebral player only to flounder on his own?

Andy Reid in Kansas City may be pacing the field in terms of someone who could conjure a quarterback-friendly offense out of dust beneath his feet most consistently, and maybe the longer he spends with Patrick Mahomes the less we will remember some of the heavier lifts he’s done throughout this career with far less talent. Josh McDaniels in New England deserves credit for a string of similar successes with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett.

But on Sunday, Payton took a middling collegiate quarterback who had a career completion percentage below 60 and who had reformulated his body to handle the rigors of blocking and special teams and stitched together a game plan that beat an NFL defense. Who else can say that? Who else would have had the inherent confidence to try?