NEW ORLEANS — Who knew we’d be seeing a playoff game in August on Monday Night Football?
The New Orleans Saints’ quarterback competition is still, unofficially, too close to call heading into their second preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Before you craft your social media response about how that proves Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill aren’t good enough and the Saints are doomed without Drew Brees, it simply means the team wants to give both guys a fair and full evaluation.
Winston will get the start Monday after Hill started last week’s preseason opener.
“We’re evaluating it all, and we have another opportunity to play Monday night,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who said there is “a lot” the team can still learn. “Moving the team, decisions, protecting the football — all the things that go into winning at that position.”
If we were scoring this thing like a boxing fight, Winston would probably be ahead on most scorecards. He has reached higher highs throughout camp, including the two touchdown drives he led last week at Baltimore and a handful of deep balls he has hit in practice. His 80-yard TD to Chris Hogan during Friday night’s practice in the Superdome might have been his prettiest yet — hitting the receiver in stride more than 50 yards down the field.
But neither QB has delivered a knockout blow — which raises the stakes for the second and third preseason games.
Hill, who turned 31 on Monday, also had one of his better practices Friday by showing some good decisions on his second or third reads — including two TD runs in a red zone drill. Hill’s running ability is the great equalizer in this battle, and it’s admittedly something he hasn’t displayed much in practice since he said he would rather use those sessions to work through his progressions.
“I feel really comfortable,” Hill said. “I feel capable of doing all those things that you need to do in this league to play quarterback. And then there’s this whole element that I’m capable of doing on Sundays that you don’t really get to showcase in a practice setting, as well.”
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When asked if he has to resist the urge to try and deliver that proverbial knockout punch in preseason action, Hill said, “I don’t think it works that way.”
“Internally, we know what our concepts are, we know what the playcall was. And I know if that was the right decision and the ball went where it needed to go,” Hill said. “So there’s so many things that go into playing this position that outside of this building you’re just not aware of.”
Both quarterbacks have had their share of lackluster practices, as well. And both threw an interception in the preseason opener — though in each case, the receiver deserved some share of the blame.
In general, however, both Hill and Winston have shown growth in the areas that most needed improvement. Hill has shown more stability when the pocket breaks down. Winston has avoided turnovers and shown a willingness to check the ball down to a safer throw.
Both quarterbacks say the heavy volume of reps they’re receiving compared to last year is invaluable.
“I really am (feeling a rhythm in this offense). And I think anytime that you can catch rhythm, that’s the biggest thing,” Winston, 27, said. “Rhythm is the most important thing with offensive execution.”
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. said “this week is still an important week” for both QBs, who have done “both good things and things we’ve gotta clean up.”
But Carmichael noted one of those underrated areas of growth. He said they’ve done a “great job” with things like communicating in the huddle, getting the playcall out and getting guys lined up.
No matter who wins the job, the Saints are confident the offense will be able to hit the ground running.
“Both came in and took extreme control of the huddle,” Saints center Erik McCoy said. “No matter who I’m with, they take command, make sure the receivers are on point, make sure the huddle’s on point.
“Both are extremely skilled, both can make things happen with their legs. And I know the four guys beside me are gonna protect them.”
That’s not just rah-rah rhetoric coming from McCoy either. Whoever wins the job will have a huge advantage with one of the NFL’s most loaded offensive lines protecting him — though the Saints’ lack of experienced pass-catchers is another story.
When running back Alvin Kamara asked if it is evident in practice Winston has five years of experience as a starter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kamara responded with an enthusiastic, “I’ve been saying that.”
“You don’t do what he did in this league by accident,” Kamara said of Winston, who led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards in 2019 while becoming the first player in the NFL to throw at least 30 TD passes and 30 interceptions in the same season. “It’s too high-level competition to come in and be like, ‘Oh, I just threw for 5,000 yards.’ So I have the ultimate respect for Jameis.
“Coming in and not really having the reps last year, sitting behind Drew and not really having that experience, it’s hard to get better when you don’t have those reps. So what he’s been able to do this camp … really kind of show what he’s got, show his talent. I don’t think his talent ever left, it’s just opportunity.”
Kamara also said “You gotta look at Taysom’s track record” after he filled in for an injured Brees last year and went 3-1 as a starter.
“He’s come in and started for us and won games. He showed he can function and execute in this offense,” Kamara said of Hill, who completed 72.7% of his passes last year while throwing for 928 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions — in addition to his 457 rushing yards, eight rushing TDs and five lost fumbles.
“He gets in there, he executes his assignment, and he’s got a certain level of poise about him to where he’s done it before,” Kamara said. “And he’s got confidence in that.”