2021 NFL season: Why the Saints should start Jameis Winston at QB

A good play-caller can see the situation developing before it happens, which is why Saints coach Sean Payton was not caught off-guard this week during a mandatory minicamp.

With Bayou legend and future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees now retired, Payton knew the media focus would be on the competition to replace the league’s career leader in passing yards. He pondered each question as if considering it for the first time, but he likely had gone over each answer countless times in his head.

“We pay attention to everything,” he said of monitoring Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. “You pay attention to just what you see without any predisposed thoughts. We’ll have tried to do our best relative to the reps that we have during the training camp and during the preseason games and then kind of go from there.”

If it is possible to predict the ending before the competition earnestly begins, my expectation is that Winston will jog out with the starters on Sept. 12, when the Saints open the season against the Packers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The belief is not based on anything negative about Hill. It’s more about the offense being more dynamic with Winston behind center. The former Florida State star is a better pure passer, and his presence will allow Payton to continue to use Hill in multiple roles that stress defenses during the week and on Sundays.

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Hill can be used as a passer, but his peak effectiveness is as a fast, punishing runner. He is built like a linebacker and plays with that mentality, at times, averaging 5.4 yards per carry over his career, with 11 touchdowns, including eight last season. He also has skill as a receiver, posting six touchdown catches two years ago. The ability to utilize him in various roles helps to keep defenses honest and create mismatches, which is why Payton should not fix what isn’t broken.

Of course, this presumes that Winston will make good on the promise that led to him being drafted No. 1 overall by the Buccaneers in 2015. He exasperated fans and coaches alike during five seasons with Tampa Bay, throwing for 121 touchdowns while committing 111 turnovers, including 88 on interceptions, 30 of which came in 2019 in his final season in Tampa. It was the league’s first 30-pick season in 31 years, and it contributed to the Bucs moving on and Winston winding up as New Orleans’ third-string signal-caller last year.

So far, he has said all the right things — that last year was humbling yet beneficial; that he absorbed invaluable lessons from watching and communicating with Brees; that he is OK with shedding the gunslinger label for a game-manager moniker. Call me gullible, but I believe him.

Winston was an All-American in high school, an All-American and AP College Player of the Year as a freshman at Florida State, where he won a national championship and a Heisman Trophy. He was voted to the All-Rookie team in his first year with the Bucs and even appeared in the Pro Bowl, after setting multiple franchise rookie records. He was the guy with the big arm and bigger personality, and he tried to live up to the image.

But he says his time behind Brees caused him to rethink his approach. Instead of constantly searching for the big play, he now is focused on seeking the right play. He pointed to last season’s game against the Chargers. The Saints trailed by seven points with 3:40 to play in regulation. They were 73 yards from the end zone. Winston was thinking to himself that they needed to take shots down the field, that the clock was their enemy.

Brees found Emmanuel Sanders for 2 yards on first down, then Alvin Kamara for 9 on second. Another 9-yard completion to Sanders was followed by a 10-yard run by Kamara. With less than two minutes on the clock, Winston privately questioned the deliberateness with which Brees was working. Then came a 28-yard completion to Kamara and a 6-yarder to Marquez Callaway, followed by a 9-yard touchdown run by Hill. The extra point tied the score with 58 seconds to go.

The Saints would win in overtime. Later, when Winston spoke to Brees about his approach on the game-tying drive, the message was sobering. Focus on the process and not the result, Brees told him. Be decision-oriented, not results-oriented. Gradually, if not suddenly, Winston accepted a change in mindset. Being a gunslinger might win him a place on SportsCenter, but being a game manager could win his team more games.

“I never wanted to be deemed a game manager,” Winston told me and co-host Steve Wyche on an episode of the¬†Huddle & Flow¬†podcast earlier this offseason. “… But really, that game manager is not a bad piece. That’s something that I think just comes with being a professional quarterback. Being able to not just only do the things that you can do, but being able to do the things that you should not do — like what not to do versus what can I do.”

If his actions can match his words, Winston could be in for a big season. It’s easy to overlook that in his final season with the Bucs he threw for 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns. It was the eighth-most passing yards in a single season in league history. It’s also easy to overlook that statistically his first five seasons compared favorably with previous greats, including Peyton Manning.

No one has ever questioned his ability to throw the football; it was his decision-making that consistently raised eyebrows. Payton knows this, and I believe he is the perfect coach to help in that area. Think back to two years ago, when Brees was out with a thumb injury and Payton turned to Teddy Bridgewater, who hadn’t started a game in nearly four years. New Orleans won in Seattle, 33-27, in Bridgewater’s first start, but Payton was visibly disturbed in the postgame press conference. He felt he had not adjusted his play-calling early on to best suit Bridgewater, who threw for just 177 yards.

He made a point of not making the same mistake going forward, which allowed Bridgewater to help the Saints go 5-0 in Brees’ absence. He did the same thing last season when Brees was out and Hill stepped in to start. Understanding that Hill’s strength was his mobility, he eased him into the offense by having him attempt a total of just 39 passes the first two games. He opened up the playbook the next two weeks, and Hill, sufficiently comfortable, responded with strong outings.

Expect Payton to do the same with Winston. He won’t give him more than he feels Winston (or Hill, if it winds up that way) is ready to handle.

“You start out that there’s a core to this offense and there are things that we’re going to do that we’ve done from the beginning since we’ve been here that we feel very comfortable with any of those guys running,” said offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. during a media conference call on Wednesday. “I know Sean talks about it often, with the group of guys that you have on the field, tailoring the designed scheme to what they do best.”

Only New England has had more top-five finishes in offensive scoring the past 10 seasons, with eight to New Orleans’ seven. Much of that is due to the talent on the field, but just as important is a coach knowing how to utilize that talent. For me, Winston makes the Saints a more dynamic offense than Hill does, if only because of the wild card element that comes with having Hill available in multiple roles.

“We’ve always tried to look closely at the strengths of our players, what they do well, and we’ll build a little bit around that player accordingly,” Payton told reporters earlier this week. “That’s something that we did when Drew first arrived here, and we would do with either these two players.”

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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