NEW ORLEANS — As the Saints’ traveling party deplaned for the first preseason game in Baltimore 10 days ago, coach Sean Payton boarded Bus 1 and took his customary seat in the first row, next to the boarding stairs, the seat next to him, as always, unoccupied. Twenty, 25 Saints people got on after him, all walking past the empty two seats across the aisle from Payton. The door closed. The seats across the aisle, empty.
Payton took out his smart phone and took a photo of the empty seats. He texted the photo to the person who’d been sitting in those seats on every Saints road trip since 2006, the year they both arrived in Louisiana.
He wrote this message to Drew Brees, under the photo: “Every once in a while, I miss you.”
A few days later, before the Saints practiced in the Superdome on Friday night, Payton reflected on the body part that’s been missing this summer. “Every road trip I’ve been on since 2006, it’s been me and Drew, only me and Drew, in those seats,” he said. “On the trip to Baltimore, no one sat there on the way from the hotel to the airport, or on the way from the hotel to the game the next day, or on the way from the game back to the airport after the game. I’m all alone. Remember the movie ‘Papillon?’ I felt like the leper in the penal colony in Papillon.”
Jerry Glanville once famously said in an NFL Films piece, “You know what NFL stands for? Not For Long.” Brees, of course, defied that, lasting 15 seasons in New Orleans and registering 151 wins. His relationship with Payton was symphonic. I sat in on a 2018 Saints play-calling meeting the Saturday night before a game, and Brees went up and down the playsheet and ID’d 46 plays he hoped would be called the next day. I asked Payton how many of those he’d dial up. “Every one, I hope,” Payton said. “What he wants to run, I want to call.”
Payton is energized, truly, by the duel between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill to replace Brees. He likes the life-goes-on part of this camp. He’s smitten with Winston’s arm, knowing how motivated he is to make the most of his second chance in the NFC South. Payton is a true believer, maybe one of the few, in the ability of Hill to be a playoff quarterback, especially after seeing him win three of four starts in relief of Brees last year.
“But there are times, maybe not every day, when I’ll think about Drew. How can you not?” Payton said. “The decision does weigh on me.”
There is, though, no time for gauzy sentimentality for the Saints this year. They’ve got Super Bowl champ Tampa Bay, totally reloaded to try to repeat, in their division, and Payton has to make one of the biggest decisions of his coaching career this week. Who wins the job as heir to Brees—Winston, the classic pocket quarterback trying to overcome his turnover bug; or Hill, the spritely unicorn of a passer/football-weapon? Monday is a huge night for The Decision.
Rarely do games in August mean a damn thing in the grand scheme of the balance of power in the NFL. But when the Saints host Jacksonville today (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) in the Superdome, Winston will have a chance to make his closing argument to win the job. After Hill got the start in Baltimore last week, Winston gets this one. Payton told me he hopes to name his starter before the final preseason game Saturday against Arizona, so Winston’s performance with the first team for multiple series will be the most important game he’s played since he lost his job in 2019 in Tampa Bay.
It’s dangerous to make any predictions now, because I believe (based on a 45-minute conversation with Payton on Friday) that a lot rides on the game today. I do think he has not decided anything with finality. But a strong game by Winston tonight would be influential. Picking Winston would crush Hill, who went 3-1 at QB with Brees hurt last year, and is sure he’s ready to be Brees’ heir. But it would allow Payton to retain Hill as his Swiss Army Knife weapon on offense and special teams. With the loss of trusted tight end Jared Cook in free agency and with wideout Michael Thomas out till October after ankle surgery, Hill—who had 108 snaps at tight end/wide receiver/slot last year—is the kind of weapon Payton would miss if he was the starting quarterback. Hill also has been a prime special-teams weapon, and that would go away if he started at quarterback.
It would be a cruel irony for Hill if he wasn’t named quarterback—and the reason was because Payton didn’t want to lose his snaps as a gadget/special-teams player.
Hill’s athleticism was on display Friday night in the team’s Superdome practice. It wasn’t a great night for him passing the ball, but he scored twice on bootlegs (called or coverage-forced) that showed off his 4.45 speed and great running instinct. Hill’s faster than Steve Young, and he’s built with a Tebow chest that makes him hard to bring down.
There’s also this: “We knew we could win at a high clip going 5-0 two years ago with Teddy Bridgewater,” defensive Cam Jordan said. “Then last year, Drew’s down again and we go 3-1 with Taysom. The change in the guard is shocking and hurts for sure, but at the same time, we know what we can do as a defense now. We know the identity of our team isn’t just Drew Orleans.”
I’m always hesitant to make anything much about one practice—that’s what I see in most camps. But in this one slice of Saints 2021 camp life, Winston was the more impressive thrower, for sure. When I talked to Payton pre-practice, one of the things he said was, “Where you really miss Drew is the two-minute [offense]. His command of the offense, his decision-making, his accuracy. Just so good.”
It’s like Winston heard Payton’s words in the last few minutes of practice in the cavernous empty ‘Dome. From about his own 20-yard line, Winston sent free-agent wideout Chris Hogan—one of Tom Brady’s former favorites—on a double-move up the left seam. Winston let it fly, maybe 50 yards in the air, and it nestled perfectly in the arms of Hogan, who had a step on the secondary. Touchdown.
Winston, of course, lost his Tampa gig because he turned the ball over more than any quarterback in football from 2015-19. He’s been better under Payton, but the bright lights haven’t been on him. Yet. Winston told me he thought his two training camps in New Orleans and time spent learning from Brees last year have given him a new perspective on the position. “One thing Drew blessed me with,” Winston said, “is that even though he didn’t have the [tools] last year that maybe he had early in his career, he was still one of the top quarterbacks in the league because he knew what he could do. For me, it’s been about believing that game plan to game plan, there’s different ways to beat a team. I had to learn there are 10 other guys out there counting on Jameis. He doesn’t need to be Superman.”
Of course Winston heard that from the coaches in Tampa too. He just couldn’t be disciplined enough to check it down and be content with being great in the short and intermediate field for the Bucs. He needs those traits if he wants to play for Payton. Tonight, we’ll see if Winston can put everything he’s learned, from Payton and Brees, into one very important outing.
Read more in this week’s Football Morning in America column.