We know a little bit about a lot of things about Taysom Hill, the Saints’ chimerical conundrum. We know he can play any number of positions, because he has: wildcat rusher, trick-play receiver, blocking tight end, punt blocker, kick returner, even gunner. His stat sheet looks like a sampler box. What we don’t really know about him is whether he can be an effective NFL quarterback.
In his fourth year in the league, Hill has attempted just 18 career passes, completing 10. That’s not a problem if Hill is destined to be a Swiss army knife, but it is a problem if you view and treat him like Sean Payton has: New Orleans’s next quarterback, or at least backup. They’re sure paying him like one, at $21 million for two years. So it becomes an issue when a guy is 30 years old, not particularly cheap, and is still being heralded as the QB of the future when there’s been scarce in-game evidence to show that he’s capable.
Hill is starting against Atlanta today for a very simple reason, and a pretty good one at that. It’s the same reason Hill’s starting debut is getting hype usually associated with the first game of a highly drafted rookie: pure, uncut curiosity. “Sean just wants to know,” one Saints source told NFL.com. Us too!
It sure didn’t seem like that when the Saints went out and signed Jameis Winston in the offseason, or when Winston replaced Drew Brees when Brees suffered rib fractures and a collapsed lung last week. (Follow-up tests showed that Brees fractured 11 different ribs. Eleven! That’s almost half of the ribs that he has!) Maybe Winston was a bargain they couldn’t turn down. And maybe Winston required fewer changes to the playbook, making him the better choice for a mid-game replacement. But coaches are entitled to change their minds—even if Payton reportedly “struggled” with the decision, and even if most of those around him supported starting Winston—and when the news dropped that Hill would get the start today, the Saints went unusually out of their way to make clear that he’ll be the guy, the only guy, and nothing but the guy:
With Brees placed on the IR, Hill has had a full week to prepare for the start, and, crucially, Payton has had a full week to prepare for Hill. The Saints have been so good for so long in large part because Payton is a master of tailoring his playbook to his roster, rather than the other way around. So many skill-position players have come and gone over the years, and looked like superstars on the way, because Payton knows how to call plays to their strengths, rather than try to plug square pegs into round holes. It’s not even just a matter of getting to play with Brees, either; when Brees missed time with a hand injury last year, Teddy Bridgewater went 5-0 as the starter. The names change, but the winning remains.
So what does a Saints offense tailored to Taysom Hill’s strengths look like? More work for Michael Thomas, likely, as the reigning offensive player of the year, if left in anything resembling single coverage, doesn’t particularly need Hill’s throws to be zippy or accurate to come down with them. More quick passes and dump-offs to Alvin Kamara or Jared Cook, and in general a more short-yardage and horizontal offense than the Saints are used to. Heavier packages with more blockers for Hill’s inevitable scrambles and designed rushes.
These changes might be subtle. Hill can throw a big-boy pass; he’s not just Mormon Tebow, though I reserve the right to call him that if today goes poorly. But being able to do it and actually doing it at NFL speed are two very different things. As Payton said, the only way to find out is to let him sink or swim. The Falcons defense, the third-worst in yards allowed and second-worst against the pass, could be a pretty forgiving first test. Yet no matter what happens, the questions about Hill won’t be answered in full today. If Payton’s commitment to Hill is as strong as he’s been implying for years, and if Brees can’t return until something like Week 15, we’re going to get a solid month of Taysom Hill, NFL quarterback. What that looks like is currently anyone’s guess, but at long last, we can stop guessing.