Drew Bress’ injury is big opportunity for Jameis Winston, small problem for Saints
Drew Brees will miss game action for the second time in his many years with the painful injury to his ribs he suffered against the 49ers on Sunday. Last season, the Saints went 5-0 when Brees was out with a thumb injury with Teddy Bridgewater starting at quarterback.
Can they expect similar results with Jameis Winston as the top passing backup in 2020? As much as not having Brees this late might feel like it hurts, the Saints also have been given a chance to find out whether Winston — and not Taysom HIll — is a potential longer-term replacement for Brees, as early as 2021.
Brees had been playing well before going being knocked out of the game vs. San Francisco. But he had been getting the job done with a lot of short-to-intermediate passing, playing well off the team’s strengths in the backfield and run defense. When examining the Saints’ 7-2 season, there’s no question that feature back Alvin Kamara is their offensive MVP, leading the league with his 1,134 yards from scrimmage and up to 11 TDs with three more scores in Week 10.
The Saints’ primary formula for winning games won’t change from Brees to Winston. Kamara’s running and receiving will be the centerpiece of everything they do to move the ball. Wide receiver Michael Thomas has returned to play through his ankle and hamstring issues, but Kamara remains the go-to guy.
Hill was already being used as a hybrid wrinkle for key touches every week, and that also won’t change with Winston. As much as offensive-minded coach Sean Payton likes to use Hill in special packages, the Saints have no business turning over the most important position to a versatile athlete who has attempted only five passes this season.
When Brees was ruled out of a return against the 49ers, Winston and Hill would combine to play caretaker, knowing that the 49ers and Nick Mullens wouldn’t be mounting a comeback with limited passing pop.
The Falcons won’t afford the Saints that luxury. The 3-6 NFC South archrivals are the next opponent and have been playing much better overall of late. Their offense is balanced and explosive with Matt Ryan, and it will be at full strength and fully rested coming off a bye for next Sunday’s Week 11 matchup at New Orleans.
So here’s Winston’s chance, like Bridgewater before him, to prove he deserves a starting gig in the NFL again, whether it’s with the Saints as Brees’ true successor over Hill or on another QB-needy team. From his five seasons with the Buccaneers, Winston has had pretty good statistical success in going 4-5 against the Falcons.
New Orleans, of course, will try to lean more on the backfield combination of Kamara and Latavius Murray, like it did to facilitate Bridgewater’s fill-in production in 2019. But it also needs to trust Winston to throw downfield enough against a Falcons defense that is much worse against the pass (No. 31) than against the run (No. 6). Atlanta also will host a rematch in Week 13. In between in Week 12, the Saints have a minor trap of a road game in Denver, but the Broncos’ reeling defense also can be picked apart, by ground and by air.
The Saints should look at that upcoming schedule, feel like their offense can be in good hands with Winston and some of Hill, and not try to rush Brees back in the short term, focusing on being in the best possible playoff position with a healthy Brees in a few weeks. The Eagles in Philadelphia in Week 14 and the Chiefs at home in Week 15 are bound to be critical games, either in securing the top NFC seed and home-field advantage over the Packers or holding off the Buccaneers in the South, or both. That’s when they will need Brees most again.
Like last season, New Orleans is a complete enough team to bridge to that Eagles affair with three more wins and a 10-3 record. Brees’ bad break comes when there are good breaks in the schedule and a silver lining in getting to truly know how Winston can operate Payton’s offense and see how Hill can continued to be used as an occasional complement.
Winston was caught in a high-risk, high-reward passing game with the Buccaneers that got him into bad gunslinging habits. The goal for the Saints will be pushing toward keeping Brees’ efficient sensibilities while also tapping into greater upside with his arm to make the deep ball more of a factor — which in turn can make Kamara and Thomas more effective on shorter routes.
We will never know, but had Brees decided not to return after the 2019 season, there’s a fair chance Bridgewater would be starting for New Orleans instead of Carolina now. With the uncertainty about Brees returning for 2021, the Saints could use some definitive answers on Winston. He’s playing on a super-cheap $1.1 million deal, so you can bet they will get a motivated and focused “next man up” knowing the earning power of his career is on the line. At 26, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft has time on his side to prove that he can still have many productive years in the NFL.
So let’s hope the Saints see the forest through the trees and not turn Brees’ absence into The Taysom Hill Experience and make it The Jameis Winston Evaluation instead.
Playing without Brees for another stretch isn’t the concern or problem it would have been a few years ago for the Saints, pre-Kamara and before a solid defense. They need to embrace it as an opportunity to see how strong they would or wouldn’t be without Brees at QB next season.
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