After the Saints’ 27–9 loss to the Rams, Drew Brees stayed back in Los Angeles to see a specialist for the hand injury he suffered late in the game’s first half. Sometime on Monday, we figure to have a prognosis—not just on Brees’s hand, but also on his team’s 2019 fate. Make no mistake: the Saints can’t reach the playoffs without their future Hall of Fame QB.
Teddy Bridgewater is one of football’s most popular backup quarterbacks—and for good reason. He was a successful, high-profile star at Louisville. He was drafted late in the first round of the 2014 draft by the Vikings and quickly captured the starting job, and he helped Minnesota to a 11-5 record in 2015. Bridgewater’s understated and likeable personality made the Minneapolis community and Vikings organization quickly fell in love with him, which made his career-altering knee injury before the 2016 season all the more devastating.
But the hard truth is that none of this has any direct relation to quarterbacking; lovability and regular old ability are two different things. No doubt, some of Bridgewater’s troubles in Week 2 against what is shaping up to be a stalwart Rams defense can be attributed to rust. He had not thrown a pass in a meaningful game since 2015. His pocket navigation, his sense of timing and presumably, his field vision were poor. Even some of his better completions were late balls, including on designer route combinations where the target can be deciphered almost immediately after the snap. We’re accustomed to the Saints’ offense functioning perfectly; seeing it operate fragmentarily was jolting, like when you’re a kid and you spot your most respected teacher out in public wearing gym clothes.
Brees is one of the greatest anticipation throwers who ever lived, and it’s vital that Bridgewater mimic at least a portion of this. Bridgewater possesses—by NFL standards—a meager arm. Brees has shown that arm strength can be overrated, but only if you’re an efficient full-field progression reader. We don’t technically know if Bridgewater is, as he didn’t become one in Minnesota and hasn’t been tested since. Even if his field-reading acumen has sharpened, a so-so-armed quarterback in an offense built heavily on multi-read route combinations must have a trigger-pull mentality. Bridgewater struggled, mightily at times, to muster that in Minnesota.
In some respects, these next games presumably without Brees will provide a referendum on Sean Payton, who just signed a five-year contract extension with the Saints. He is one of the great offensive schemers of his era, and with his historically hot-and-cold defense looking yet again like it won’t get hot until later in the season (if at all), New Orleans can’t count on winning slugfests week in and week out. We know Payton’s system works when executed by a QB who makes reads with the proficiency of a computer; but how about when it’s executed by a man who makes reads with the proficiency of, well, a man? And for the parts of the system that can’t continue to work, how will Payton compensate?
There are elements to fall back on. The Saints have two bona fide superstars in wideout Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara, whose flexibility can be leveraged in different formations that compel the defense to reveal its coverage before the snap. New Orleans’s offensive line—its ups and downs against the Rams notwithstanding—is one of the league’s best. The ground game gets overlooked because of Brees, but it is more than sound, especially considering that New Orleans is so schematically diverse out of base personnel. And going with base can make a defense predictable. That will be a necessary tool for helping Bridgewater locate some aggression.
Plus, there’s Taysom Hill. Though still a consummate jack-of-all-trades but master of none, Payton insists the 29-year-old can be the next Steve Young. For now, unique athleticism has carved out for Hill the ultimate X-factor role. He can play wildcat QB, H-back, tight end, “Z” receiver and, where he showed a surprisingly respectable feel for route running on Sunday, slot receiver. If Payton was excited enough about Hill to give him touches at the expense of Brees (you rarely see a legendary quarterback split out wide as often as Brees does), one figures he’ll now concoct entire new pages in the playbook for Hill. There might be some concern about overusing Hill since, with Brees out, he’s now also the No. 2 quarterback. But if the offense under Bridgewater is even half as limited as it was Sunday (and it will be), New Orleans’s only hope is to throw caution to the wind.
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