For twelve seasons, the New Orleans Saints saw little need to prioritize the backup quarterback position. From 2006 through 2018, quarterback Drew Brees played at an elite level and displayed rare durability. Brees started 219 of 222 games, including playoffs. Two of those three missed starts were meaningless season finale games when Brees and several veterans were given the day off to rest for the postseason.
At the beginning of the 2018 season, the Saints traded for QB Teddy Bridgewater to back up Brees. The move paid off in 2019 when Brees had thumb surgery and missed his first game with injury since 2015. Bridgewater went 5-0 as a starter in his absence, turning that success into a lucrative contract to become the Carolina Panthers' starter this offseason. New Orleans responded by signing Jameis Winston, who had periods of success as a starter in five years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Winston, the 1st overall selection in the 2015 draft, now has a chance to show what he can do in the New Orleans offense. Brees suffered multiple fractures of his ribs on both the right and left sides in Sunday's win over the San Francisco 49ers, causing him to miss the second half. There is no timetable for Brees’ return, but he will definitely miss this Sunday's showdown against the Atlanta Falcons and likely at least the next three weeks.
WHAT'S AT STAKE FOR THE SAINTS
New Orleans has a 7-2 record, good enough for the NFC South's lead and tied for the best record in the conference. Early speculation is that Brees could miss up to four weeks. The Saints will play the Falcons at home, followed by three straight road games against the Denver Broncos, an Atlanta rematch, and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Buccaneers are right behind the Saints in the division with a 7-3 record, and five other teams in the NFC have either two or three losses.
New Orleans welcomed wideouts Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders back to the lineup last week. Their presence in the huddle gives giving Winston a full arsenal of weapons - along with TE Jared Cook, RB Latavius Murray, and RB Alvin Kamara, who leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage.
Defensively, the Saints have the league's 4th ranked unit and play their best football of the year. New Orleans cannot afford a slump down the stretch in such a hotly contested conference as they position themselves for a postseason run.
WHAT'S AT STAKE FOR WINSTON
Nobody has ever doubted Winston's ability. He has a powerful arm, good mobility, and is a proven productive passer. His criticisms are about the ability to diagnose defenses and the massive amount of turnovers. Winston led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards in 2019 and threw 33 touchdowns, but also led the league with 30 interceptions. He’s averaged 268 yards per game through his career with 121 touchdown passes but also 88 interceptions.
The 26-Yr old Winston now has an opportunity to resurrect his career. He signed a one-year contract this offseason, with an eye on a starting job in 2021. Some have predicted that it could even be with New Orleans if Brees retires after the season. No matter where it may be, this is a job audition for Jameis Winston. And one with one of the most talented and diverse offenses in the NFL.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Winston completed his first six passes for 63 yards after entering the game against the 49ers but missed his last four attempts. He was sacked twice and had an easy interception dropped. He showed all the traits he’s exhibited throughout his career in one half, displaying a powerful arm but inconsistent accuracy and not handling pressure well.
Remember Winston came into the contest with a game plan designed around what Drew Brees does best. Head Coach Sean Payton is one of the league's best offensive minds and will tailor his game plans around the skills of Winston and Taysom Hill.
New Orleans will need their 12th ranked running game that averages 121 yards per outing to be effective to give Winston a balanced attack. We should expect more plays to be designed for Hill from the quarterback position, but he is most dangerous as a runner. Don't expect the Saints to be a run-heavy offense without Brees in the lineup. New Orleans has averaged 35 pass attempts per game in 2020. Last season, Brees averaged 37 attempts, but Bridgewater averaged 35 passes per game during his five starts.
It’s hard to believe that the New Orleans passing game will be just as efficient with Winston behind center. He has completed 61.4% of his career throws, while Brees has a career completion percentage of 67.8% and hasn't completed less than 70% of his throws since 2015. We should see from Winston more big plays down the field, which should open up space underneath. Payton will also call some short quick passes early to boost Winston's confidence, just as he did with Bridgewater last year.
Winston will benefit from a much better offense than he ever had in his five years with the Buccaneers. The New Orleans offensive line is arguably the best in the league and will give him the pass protection he never enjoyed in Tampa Bay. Running back Alvin Kamara is having a season worthy of MVP consideration, and Latavius Murray is a useful complement in the running game. Winston has a deep corps of pass-catchers in Kamara, record-setting WR Michael Thomas, and Pro Bowl veterans with Sanders and Cook.
Jameis Winston is out to prove that he can be a quality NFL starting quarterback. For the New Orleans Saints, their 2020 season's fate might now depend on whether he can do precisely be that quarterback.