GREEN BAY, Wis. – For the 15th season, Sean Payton is the New Orleans Saints’ coach. For the 13th season, Pete Carmichael is his offensive coordinator.
Despite that schematic stability, the Green Bay Packers will be walking into the great unknown when they face the Saints in Sunday’s regular-season opener in Jacksonville. That’s because, for the first time in his tenure with the Saints, Payton is entering a season without Drew Brees as his quarterback.
Brees retired after last season following a legendary career. He ranks No. 1 in NFL history in completions and passing yards and is No. 2 in touchdowns. Those are career achievements, though, a byproduct of 19 seasons as a starting quarterback. To the bitter end, even with one of the weakest arms in the NFL, all Brees did was complete passes. Last season marked the fifth consecutive year in which Brees completed at least 70 percent of his passes. Over the last four seasons, he threw 106 touchdown passes vs. 23 interceptions.
Enter Jameis Winston, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 draft. In five seasons as a starter for Tampa Bay, he completed 61.3 percent of his passes. In 2019, his final season with the Bucs, he threw 30 interceptions. Not only is that more than Brees’ final four seasons combined, but it was the most by any quarterback since Vinny Testaverde in 1988.
While Winston is less accurate and more prone to mistakes, he also has the supreme arm strength to expand the Saints’ scheme. Last season, Brees’ average throw was the second-shortest in the NFL. In 2019, when Winston threw for an NFL-high 5,109 yards, his average throw was the second-longest in the league.
“I actually have a lot of respect for Winston,” Packers safety Adrian Amos said on Thursday. “Anybody that can throw for 5,000 yards and 33 touchdowns, he has all the ability in the world. So, you have to respect that. You have to respect that he can throw that, and you have to expect that he’s going to play within their scheme, as well.”
To be sure, scheme and circumstance were at play in Winston’s style of play and the results they delivered. Presumably, Payton and Carmichael will adapt their scheme to fit Winston and Winston will adapt his style to fit the coaches’ desires. That means taking better care of the football and getting rid of it faster. He was sacked 47 times in 2019; Brees was sacked 42 times in his final three seasons.
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“I think that part of that is understanding what fits him,” Carmichael told reporters on Wednesday. “What strengths he has and really also getting feedback from him, too, as to particular concepts that he likes. But again, as training camp, you are going through it, the majority of what you are doing is your base offense, and then tweaks here for other players with different skill-sets. But I think as you are game planning, you take into consideration all the factors of everybody at every position, and make sure you’re putting your guys in the right spots to be successful.”
For Winston, this is a dream scenario. His career had fizzled out in Tampa Bay, just as it did for Marcus Mariota (the No. 2 pick in 2015) and Josh Rosen (the No. 10 pick in 2018). Mariota is a backup in Las Vegas and Rosen already is on his fifth team. Their careers appear to be hopelessly lost causes. Winston, however, is back in the saddle with one of the best teams and one of the best coaches in the NFL. He’s got a chance to rewrite his story.
“I think him coming from where he came from and being the man in Tampa and coming over here and having to take a back seat to everything that was going on, I think it showed another side of Jameis, because he’s used to being top dog everywhere he has been at,” Saints receiver Marquez Callaway told reporters this week. “But when he came here and had to take that back seat, he had to sit back and observe. He did a great job of that, and I think he's done a great job with everything that he's learned. Him sitting back and learning last year, it just kind of propelled him. He’s eager, hungry and ready.”
It won’t be easy for him, not against Green Bay’s new-look defense. For the second consecutive year, not only will the Packers avoid playing in front of the raucous Superdome crowd but they won’t have to face premier receiver Michael Thomas. Thomas, who set a single-season record with 149 receptions in 2019, is starting the season on the physically unable to perform list following ankle surgery.
Defensive backs coach Jerry Gray is taking nothing for granted. Winston can throw the long ball and his primary receivers – Callaway (eight catches, 165 yards, two touchdowns in preseason) and Deonte Harris (4.48 in the 40) – can stretch the field.
“Whenever you look at Jameis Winston, you know he can throw the deep ball very well,” Gray said. “He showed that in preseason. He can drop it in there wherever he needs to. He has an arm that’s going to get you about 55-60 yards in the air. He’s going to throw the ball deep.
“We know we’ve got to cover deep. I know sometimes people say, ‘Well, Drew couldn’t do this,’ but the good thing about Drew is he got the ball out of his hands and got it to the guys who were making plays. I think Jameis Winston is a different quarterback. Even Hill’s a different quarterback. He can throw deep also. So, you can’t just all of a sudden say, ‘Well, we don’t have Drew Brees,’ and you take a deep breath. You’ve probably got to cover for a longer stretch.”