Taysom Hill's first start had his head coach dunking on Twitter. Here's how he can lock up the Saints' QB job long-term

Taysom Hill had an unforgettable look in his eye after I tracked him down in the New Orleans Saints’ locker room last December and asked if he considered the quarterback position his long-term NFL future.

Never mind the fact Hill had thrown 13 career NFL passes to that point. Or that he was thriving in an expanded Kordell Stewart-y “Slash” role for one of the league’s best teams. Or that he was 29 years old at the time.

So resolute was Hill in his ability to play the NFL’s premium position that he didn’t even let me finish the question.

“Absolutely,” Hill said, firmly but politely, looking me dead in my eye. “Absolutely. Yep. Yep … I think as a dual-threat quarterback, that’s always a challenge — it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s a great runner, so the assumption is something’s lacking, right?’ Like, whatever. It’s the same thing Lamar Jackson gets, that we all get. And it is what it is. I’m comfortable with my abilities.”

So if you’re wondering why New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton tabbed Hill to be his starting quarterback against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday in Drew Brees’ absence, this determination is as good a place to start as any.

Taysom Hill led the Saints to a win over the Falcons on Sunday. But he still has something to prove as the starting quarterback. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Taysom Hill led the Saints to a win over the Falcons on Sunday. But he still has something to prove as the starting quarterback. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Taysom Hill had his head coach in a Twitter trolling mood

It’s also why Hill’s first career start was so sweet, a 24-9 win in which he completed 18 of 23 passes for 233 yards while rushing 10 times for 51 yards and a pair of scores.

So sweet it had Payton, who can be all sorts of petty even when his team isn’t an NFC South-leading 8-2, trolling one of the many people who second-guessed his decision to start Hill over the more experienced Jameis Winston. After the game, Payton retweeted former Falcons receiver Roddy White, who said the Saints would get whipped by his old team if they started Hill.

(Screenshot via Twitter/@SeanPayton)
(Screenshot via Twitter/@SeanPayton)

“I missed a couple throws where the ball just kind of slid out of my hand. I think that those things are easy to fix,” said Hill, who was skipped over as the Saints’ primary backup for Teddy Bridgewater a year ago. “Overall, without looking at the film and breaking everything down, I was happy with the way that I played.”

He wasn’t the only one.

“[Hill] got very comfortable with the flow of the game and did a good job,” Payton said afterward.

Yet, there’s little doubt that Payton’s decision to start Hill over Winston, who has much to gain by winning the job himself, was not easy.

There’s also little doubt that despite the win, Winston could still factor into the Saints’ short- and long-term plans.

Payton even hinted at such before the game to ESPN’s Dianna Russini.

“They’re two entirely different quarterbacks,” Payton said. “I’m glad we’ve got both of them. We’re gonna need both of them this year.”

And that may indeed prove to be the case, especially if Hill falters throwing the football, either with the Saints behind big or in critical moments.

What Taysom Hill must do to be the Saints’ QB of the future

These are the last big questions left for him to answer because on Sunday, we saw Hill run the Saints’ normal offense — not the Taysom Hill package — efficiently, and we saw him protect the football aside from the fourth-quarter fumble he lost.

We also saw him take some shots to establish the threat of the deep ball, which was missing from the Saints’ offense, and make some impressive second-reaction plays, running with the type of power and speed off-schedule that make Payton’s Steve Young comparisons look fairly apt.

But Brees is a field general with battle chops, and as a former Super Bowl champion, he’ll always get the benefit of the doubt regarding his ability to bring his team back from a hole. That matters in the NFL, too.

And while Hill’s start against the Falcons was a success, it was also a fairly comfortable win, which meant they never had to start chucking it under considerable pressure, when the defense knows the pass is coming. Every good team has to do that, and that’s something Payton will be looking for in his successor for Brees.

The good news for Hill is that after Sunday’s performance, he should get some time to continue proving his wares. Brees was placed on injured reserve last week, which means he will miss at least two more games.

It also doesn’t hurt that Payton likes Hill. It speaks volumes that Payton started a man with 18 career regular-season passes entering Sunday over Winston, a former No. 1 overall pick who threw for over 5,000 yards and 30 touchdowns last season (and yes, 30 interceptions).

So does the two-year, $21 million extension Hill signed with the Saints in April. No matter what, Hill should be on the roster next season as a major contributor.

If Hill wants to graduate fully from his “Slash” role and lock up the starting quarterback job for 2021 (assuming Brees retires), he can do it by consistently throwing in obvious passing situations, even with defenders’ ears pinned back. The Broncos next weekend in Denver and the Falcons in a rematch in two weeks will have the benefit of more tape on him.

Do that, and Hill won’t have to answer many questions about whether his long-term NFL future is at quarterback. Even if they were asked all week about Payton’s decision to start him.

“Not to be rude or disrespectful in any way, but I don’t pay attention to any of that stuff,” Hill said. “You get to this level, and you have to have tunnel vision and do your thing.”

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