The New Orleans Saints were lumbering through the first half of Monday night’s game, looking old and tired and very much the yesterday to Justin Herbert’s tomorrow, when a single word started bubbling up on Twitter’s trending page, a word both thrilling and chilling:
Yes, Jameis Winston, Heisman winner, ex-Buc, one-man thrill ride, lurks on the New Orleans bench. You may have forgotten the Saints even signed him — he hasn’t taken a snap yet this year — but he’s out there. The fact that his name is surfacing at all in connection with Drew Brees is a tiny but unmistakable sign that all is not quite as it should be in the Crescent City.
Bright side: New Orleans picked up a nice comeback win Monday night, rallying from a 20-3 deficit to win in overtime. Reality: The Saints beat a 1-3 team with a rookie quarterback.
Bright side: New Orleans is tied for the lead in the NFC South. Reality: The Saints are 3-2 and looking vulnerable in a division that should have been theirs to own.
Brees isn’t the sole reason for the team’s slide. Sean Payton has evinced a curious fascination with jack-of-all-trades Taysom Hill, and the Saints’ play-calling in crucial situations has skewed far more conservative than in past years. Still, Brees’ first-half struggles didn’t help; he was 12-of-22 for 93 yards with an interception, and only a late touchdown cut the Chargers’ lead to two possessions.
The second half cleansed a whole lot of sins. Brees completed 84 percent of his passes in the second half and overtime, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt, according to Pro Football Focus. With Michael Thomas on the shelf for disciplinary reasons, Brees leaned on Emmanuel Sanders, targeting him 14 times and completing 12 of those for 122 yards.
You don’t want to rely on individual heroics as a rule, but the Saints got a couple big ones Monday. Brees owes Alvin Kamara a month of dinners at Galatoire’s for a game-sustaining fourth-quarter catch …
… and he should split the bill with Payton and the coaching staff for not keeping Kamara involved in the game from the jump. And Marshon Lattimore shouldn’t have to buy a drink in town the rest of the year for his game-clinching overtime tackle of Mike Williams inches short of a first down.
Through five games, a statistically valid sample size, Brees ranks 12th in total yardage. His completion percentage of 71 percent ranks fifth in the league, but his yards per completion (7.6) ranks only 17th, suggesting he’s settling more for short-yardage plays than Aaron Rodgers-style bombs. That’s been a trend for Brees over the last few years, but it’s growing more pronounced by the year.
Plus, there’s the eye test. Brees isn’t the Brees of old this year, and one Next Gen stat bears that out. Brees ranks 31st in NFL Next Gen Stats’ Aggressiveness metric, which tracks throws a quarterback makes into tight coverage. That’s not a holy-grail statistic — the two most aggressive passers this year are Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles, suggesting the statistic doesn’t adjust for good judgment — but it speaks to Brees’ more conservative style to date in 2020.
Which brings us back around to Jameis. With Winston, you never quite know what you’ll get, only that it’ll be memorable. Turning your franchise over to Winston is like handing him the keys to a Lamborghini for a coastal drive — he’ll pin the needle and hug the curves, but then he might just forget to put on the parking brake and let it roll backward into the ocean.
This isn’t a Miami situation, where the incumbent is keeping the seat warm for the franchise’s future. There’s no indication Winston is part of any long-term plan in New Orleans beyond catastrophic injury replacement; Payton has had little to say about Winston since praising his work ethic back in training camp.
Barring injury, New Orleans should roll on through the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs with Brees at the helm. Even an 80 percent Brees — which is where he is now — is better than plenty of the quarterbacks in the league.
But hey, you never know. And if things go far enough south that Winston comes in, the Saints will be must-watch — for very different reasons than they would have expected at the season’s beginning.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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