Sean Payton had no intention of being expansive about Taysom Hill’s first start Sunday, brushing off post-game questions about his years-long pet project with a comment that injuries and backups becoming starters happen all the time at other positions. The Saints defense was fantastic, he said, the offensive line blocked, the game plan changed a little to include heavy play-action passes, Hill threw the ball downfield well, and that was it before Payton announced he would take no more questions about Hill.
Except for Payton’s Twitter game, which made clear what Payton thought of everyone questioning how he could give the 30-year-old heretofore running back/wide receiver/tight end/personal punt protector his first career start at quarterback against the Atlanta Falcons while in the middle of a playoff race instead of the more conventional quarterback, Jameis Winston.
Immediately after the game, Payton went to former Falcons wide receiver Roddy White’s Twitter page and retweeted the following: “Saints about to get whip trying us with taysom hill at qb we about to snack them.”
White was wrong. Practically everyone was wrong. Payton’s decision to start Hill with Drew Brees out for several weeks with cracked ribs and a collapsed lung makes perfect sense with the benefit of hindsight and a good look at the Saints’ dominance of the Falcons in their 24-9 win Sunday. This was no gamble. It was as an informed risk to alter the offense in the middle of a playoff push and allow a player who had more career NFL tackles (12) than completions (10) to finally prove he was worth Payton’s interest and investment. Payton knew the Saints’ defense has historically manhandled Matt Ryan to such a degree over the last two years that whatever foibles Hill revealed in his debut — not many, by the way — would likely be wildly overshadowed by Ryan’s struggles.
Ryan was sacked eight times, making it 17 total in the last two games between the NFC South rivals. That the Saints play the Falcons again in two weeks suggests that Payton took a peek at the schedule and knew his defense could hold off the Falcons while Hill got comfortable.
It turns out it took just about one half for that to happen.
“Your first start ever in the NFL, I think he called one formation flipped around the wrong way,” Payton said. “All of that calmed down and he got very comfortable with flow of the game.”
One of Hill’s nicknames is the Swiss Army knife, but that can have an unflattering connotation — would Hill be a jack of all trades, but a master of none? Really, Hill’s remarkable bouncing between the glamour of the quarterback room and the grunt work of special teams was a testament to his diverse physical abilities and to the Saints’ outside-the-box thinking about how to deploy personnel. Payton came in for some mocking for his fixation on Hill, which sometimes found him confoundingly taking the ball out of Brees’ hands to put it in Hill’s to little apparent benefit. Payton’s true feelings about how Hill fit, though, surfaced when Hill got $16 million guaranteed this offseason. That’s not utility man money. And it was, notably, not Winston money either.
The only surprise about Payton’s decision was the shock that accompanied it.
“Not to be rude or disrespectful, I don’t pay attention to any of that stuff,” Hill said. “I care about the opinions of those closest to me, my friends, my family, my team. You get to his level, you have to have tunnel vision.”
Early in the game, the Saints seemed to stay away from the designed runs that are a natural part of Hill’s game. Instead he threw, leaning on Michael Thomas, who was targeted 12 times and caught nine passes for 104 yards. But early in the third quarter, on fourth down, Hill scored on a quarterback power run. His second rushing touchdown was a race to the pylon. Hill said later the game plan had significantly scaled back the number of designed runs, although he had had conversations with his receivers to remind them that if plays broke down and he escaped the pocket, to stay alert because there are big plays in the offing. One of the most impressive parts of Hill’s performance Sunday is that he resisted the urge to take off and run when he was under pressure. That is a useful skill to have in an emergency, but the Saints can’t have Hill exposed to excessive hits when Brees is unavailable. So Hill played carefully and under control, which is what any team would want from a starter. He finished 18-of-23 passing for 233 yards and he rushed for 51 yards and two touchdowns.
“My mindset was, keep your eyes down the field and let’s find opportunities for those guys,” Hill said.
Hill was reflective after the game about the emotional week he had had. He and his wife had spent a lot of time thinking about Hill’s long, circuitous journey to this point. He had four season-ending injuries in five college years at BYU, thought about being a venture capitalist, went undrafted, played in a few preseason games as a free-agent signee in Green Bay, and was scooped up by Payton just a day after the Packers released him in 2017. For three-plus seasons, he has had playbooks as a quarterback and as a member of the special teams unit, an extremely unusual combination in the NFL, where quarterbacks are treated like porcelain and special-teamers are instructed to smash into anything they meet.
If Hill was tapped to start over Winston simply because, as NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported, Payton wanted to find out what he had in Hill, Payton must now know with a bit more certainty that he has at least the seeds of Brees’ heir apparent. Hill himself said there were things to clean up — on a couple of throws he said it felt like the ball slid out of his hands — but at the very least, Payton’s decision to give Hill the start now can no longer be questioned. Payton can go back into his lab, to tinker further with his offense as Hill grows more comfortable. Brees is on injured reserve, so he will be out at least two more games and perhaps several more. The upcoming schedule should ease Hill’s growing pains. The Saints play the Broncos, Falcons and Eagles before a Dec. 20 game against the Chiefs. The most significant competition the Saints (8-2) will face will likely come from the Packers in the conference standings, where the Packers (7-3) are currently the No. 2 seed.
For all of the good feelings Sunday, Hill’s emergence is unlikely to be completely free of setbacks. Opponents will prepare for him and adjust to his skills. New Orleans’ defense is unlikely to obliterate every opposing quarterback the way it did Ryan.
Preparing for the departure of a franchise quarterback is a critical responsibility of any organization, and Payton need only look to New England to see what happens when the heir apparent is not apparent. That is the fate Payton hopes to avoid with Brees expected to retire after this season. There is still a long way to go in this season, though, and a long way to go before Hill’s potential is fully revealed. With each start, however, the Saints’ race against Brees’ clock becomes a little less urgent.
“I could tell all throughout the week, he was ready for the moment,” Saints receiver Michael Thomas said. “Every day he found a way to win the day. I’m very proud of him. I know he’s been waiting for that moment. Still has a lot of room for improvement, that’s the exciting thing.”
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