After a brief courtship of controversial Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson this offseason, the New Orleans Saints re-signed Jameis Winston as their starting quarterback for 2022. Winston will get his second chance to show if he is the long-term successor to Drew Brees, who retired after the 2020 season.
The Saints are coming off a 9-8 finish in 2021, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2016. In the process, a normally proficient offense plummeted to 28th in total yardage, with a putrid passing attack finishing dead last in production.
On paper, the finger pointing would usually start at the quarterback position for such a poor finish. However, there were plenty of extenuating circumstances working against Winston and the Saints last season. Here are four reasons why a disappointing New Orleans finish was not the fault of the 28-year-old Winston.
Winston went down in Week 8 with a season-ending knee injury against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ironically his former team. New Orleans was 5-2 with him behind center and in possession of first place in the NFC South division. The Saints went 4-6 for the rest of the year, including five straight losses immediately following his injury.
New Orleans was forced to start four quarterbacks in 2021, the most in a single season since 1998. Taysom Hill had the most success, going 4-1 as a starter and averaging 63 yards per game rushing. However, Hill, Trevor Siemian, and rookie Ian Book were not able to consistently move the team through the air.
The ineptitude of the passing game caused opposing defenses to stack the line of scrimmage against the run. New Orleans averaged 117 yards/game on the ground, ranking 15th in the NFL, but their 3.9 yards per rush ranked just 28th in the league.
This was the only significant injury of Winston's seven-year career. Less than eight months after reconstructive surgery, he was practicing with his team during OTA and mini-camp sessions. He should be cleared for full duties by the start of training camp later this month. The Saints signed veteran QB Andy Dalton to back up Winston this year, a significant upgrade over Siemian or Hill.
Winston wasn't the only key contributor lost to New Orleans in 2021. All-Pro WR Michael Thomas and Pro Bowl K Wil Lutz were lost for the year before the season even started. A mountain of injuries forced the Saints to use an eye-popping 58 different starters. Aside from quarterback, the injuries hit hardest at perhaps the most important position in football.
2. OFFENSIVE LINE
New Orleans came into 2021 with arguably the NFL's most dominant offensive line. The unit regressed, but were also hit with an unending string of injuries. The starting five were on the field together for a mere 22 snaps all season, causing a constant shuffling of assignments up front.
Elite offensive tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead missed a combined 17 contests, including six games where neither were in the lineup. Without them, the offense was completely stagnant. Pro Bowl LG Andrus Peat missed the last 11 games with injury, and top-tier C Erik McCoy was out for six games of the year.
Predictably, the Saints struggled to maintain control of the line of scrimmage and had issues in pass protection. New Orleans quarterbacks were sacked 37 times, tied for their most since 2005, despite having the third fewest passing attempts in the league. Part of that was because the quarterbacks held on to the ball too long at times, but the pass pocket was under constant duress all season.
Armstead departed in free agency, but the Saints used the 19th overall draft choice on Northern Iowa OT Trevor Penning. The team also hopes for drastic improvement from RG Cesar Ruiz, a 2020 first-round pick who has disappointed so far.
Ramczyk and McCoy are among the league's best at their positions. Peat is a three-time Pro Bowler. James Hurst and Calvin Throckmorton could start for many teams and will provide excellent depth.
We should expect the Saints to be dominant up front again in 2022. Their offensive line annually allowed among the fewest sacks and was the catalyst for one of the NFL's most balanced offenses from 2006 to 2020.
3. PASS CATCHERS
One reason that the quarterbacks held on to the ball too long at times was because of a lack of separation by their receivers. The absence of Thomas exposed a lack of weapons at wideout that handcuffed the offense all season.
New Orleans had just one 100-yard outing from a wideout in 2021. They were one of only three teams to not have at least two 100-yard receiving games from a wide receiver or tight end.
Marquez Callaway led the Saints with 698 receiving yards. It was the fewest for a team leader in that category since 1986. Running back Alvin Kamara led the team with 47 receptions. It's not unusual for the versatile Kamara to be among the team leaders in receptions, but it was 34 fewer catches than Kamara has had in his five-year career.
Callaway and the explosive Deonte Harty became the top wideouts by default without Thomas, while Tre'Quan Smith continued to be a disappointment in his fourth season. Harty and Callaway bring value to the offense, but are best used as complementary weapons.
The New Orleans tight ends were even worse. They were among the worst position groups in the entire league last season. Nineteen NFL tight ends had better individual production than the Saints combined trio of Adam Trautman, Juwan Johnson, and Nick Vannett in 2021.
Thomas is expected to return from a severe ankle injury that's caused him to miss 26 of the last 33 regular season games. New Orleans also provided Winston a major upgrade at wideout by using the 11th choice in the first round on Ohio State WR Chris Olave and signing five-time Pro Bowl WR Jarvis Landry.
With Harty and Callaway providing depth, the Saints wide receiver group could now be one of the deepest in the NFL. Expect Kamara to be used more often around the formation on 2022, a role which makes him one of the league's most dangerous offensive weapons.
4. CONSERVATIVE COACHING
Jameis Winston came to New Orleans after five years with Tampa Bay labeled as a quarterback who could put up big numbers, but was also prone to crippling mistakes. Winston threw 33 touchdowns and led the league with 5,109 passing yards in 2019, one of only nine players to ever break the 5,000-yard barrier. He also threw a league-high 30 interceptions, fourth most in a single season in NFL history.
In five years with the Buccaneers, Winston averaged 274 yards passing per game and tossed 121 touchdowns, but also threw 88 interceptions. Part of that was a lack of talent in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers had a 28-42 record during those five seasons. However, Winston arrived to the Saints trying to shed the label of a turnover-prone quarterback who couldn't lead a playoff contender.
Winston accounted for 15 touchdowns and only three interceptions before being knocked out for the year after just seven games. A partial season isn't enough to dump the mistake-prone label, but is certainly a big step in the right direction.
Critics of Winston will point out that he still took unnecessary sacks and the small body of work in 2021 doesn't prove that he’s turned the corner. Those criticisms are short-sighted and misinformed. The struggles of the receivers and offensive line created issues for the entire unit. It’s a credit to Winston that he rarely forced the ball into coverage, as he sometimes did earlier in his career.
Saints coach Sean Payton was also a factor with conservative play-calling. New Orleans averaged less than 30 pass attempts per game last season, just 26 with Hill or Book behind center. The strategy made sense, especially with the offensive issues and one of the league's best defenses to carry them.
Even with Winston, the Saints were surprisingly close to the vest with their play-calling to start the season. In his six full games, Winston averaged 25 attempts and just 186 passing yards per game. Again, the strategy paid off, with the Saints racing to a 5-2 start. It also instilled a sense of confidence for Winston as he got more comfortable with the offense and the coaches confidence in him grew.
I believe that Jameis Winston was just reaching a comfort level in the offense and was on his way to a big second half when he was injured. Payton is gone, stepping down at the end of the year, and was replaced by former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. However, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael returns, and much of the offensive structure is expected to remain intact.
Expect the Saints to unleash Winston's passing abilities more this season. He’s a strong-armed quarterback with prototype size and the ability to beat defenses with any throw. New Orleans supplied him with additional weapons this offseason to join the returning Kamara and Thomas, a strong offensive line, and an elite defense for support.
Very little of what went wrong with the 2021 New Orleans Saints was the fault of Jameis Winston. However, much of the fate of the 2022 squad will be on his right arm and the ability to produce while avoiding turnovers.