It has been Sean Payton’s great experiment.
Could Taysom Hill, the utility man and occasional quarterback whose tendency for taking snaps away from Drew Brees in high-leverage situations was a source of both intrigue and frustration for observers, be turned into a legitimate starting NFL signal-caller?
Injuries to Drew Brees – namely a collapsed lung and a multitude of broken ribs – provided Payton with the opportunity to answer that question.
Hill was surprisingly named the starter ahead of Jameis Winston after Brees was ruled out of the Week 11 meeting with the Atlanta Falcons, sending eyebrows in a bemused upward direction.
On the surface, the Saints have not missed a beat with Hill under center, winning all three of the games in which he has started with a point differential of plus 48.
But the idea of wins as a statistic attributed to quarterbacks is enough to send the NFL cognoscenti into hysterics.
So, with Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles seemingly set to be Hill’s last as the starter before Brees returns, we must look at other measures to determine whether the experiment has been a success.
With the 41-year-old Brees no guarantee to come back next season, could Hill – who is due to $10.7million in base salary next season – be considered a long-term replacement for the future Hall of Famer.
Here we examine the numbers to attempt to offer an answer.
POOR PASSING GAME PRODUCTION
The Saints weren’t exactly lighting it up on offense with Brees under center this season.
Between Weeks 1 and 10, the Saints had averaged 230.1 net passing yards per game, ranking 21st in the league in that regard.
But the drop-off since Hill took over has been stark, New Orleans averaging just 163.3 net passing yards in his three starts. Only the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos – who played their Week 12 game against the Saints with a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback – and the Baltimore Ravens have performed worse in that span.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) December 9, 2020
Similarly, Hill has not been much of a scoring threat with his arm, throwing for only two touchdowns – both of which came against the Falcons in Week 13 – whereas the Saints had 20 in their nine games between Weeks 1 and 10.
There has also been no improvement in the downfield threat offered by the offense.
Brees has been much maligned for his decline as a deep passer and the Saints had just 13 passing plays of 25 yards or more during their first nine games, yet Hill has produced only two so far as a starter.
EXPLOSIVE ON THE GROUND
Hill’s appeal, however, is in his versatility.
During his pro career he has lined up at every position on the offense save for offensive line and his talents as a runner make him a true dual threat at quarterback.
He had 83 yards on 14 carries in the Saints’ second game with the Falcons last week and his upside on the ground is reflected in their uptick in rushing production.
The Saints excelled running the ball in the first nine games, averaging 120.8 yards on the ground.
With Hill running the offense that figure has ballooned to 200.7, New Orleans leading the league in rushing yards per game during that three-week span.
Taysom Hill reached a top speed of 20.43 MPH on this 43-yard run, his fastest speed as a ball-carrier this season and the 6th-fastest speed reached by a QB in 2020.#NOvsATL | #Saints pic.twitter.com/Jo4BLcYiDB
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 6, 2020
And there is some evidence Hill is improving as a passer, as he posted positive numbers in NFL NextGen Stats’ completion percentage above expectation metric in each of his games against the Falcons in Weeks 11 (plus 6.4) and 13 (plus 2).
Having struggled in the Week 12 win over the Broncos, he has one final chance against the Eagles to prove he can perform well against a defense other than Atlanta’s.
FORMULA REMAINS THE SAME
The Saints’ place in the postseason is already confirmed and they are firmly in the mix for the number one seed in the NFC.
And regardless of whether it is Brees or Hill under center, the formula for success in New Orleans remains the same.
Payton’s team is one that relies on a defense allowing 4.9 yards per play – only the Los Angeles Rams have given up fewer – to carry the load, with the offense doing just enough to consistently prevail.
The Saints haven’t allowed an opponent to score more than 20 points in five straight games, after allowing 20+ points in their first seven games this season.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 11, 2020
Whether that is a formula that can take the Saints all the way to Super Bowl glory is open for debate given the juggernaut offenses that are present in the AFC.
Yet the fact the Saints have continued to win games in that manner with Hill at quarterback may convince Payton and the franchise hierarchy that they can afford to let Brees say his farewells and go with the inexperienced, but cheaper option in 2021.
The decision to potentially do so would be based on flawed logic. However, that is unlikely to concern Payton, whose penchant for taking such gambles could prove useful in a 2021 offseason where the Saints will have to do a lot of work to get under a shrinking salary cap.
Three games in, the results on the Hill experiment are at best inconclusive but, should the Saints win again on Sunday, Payton might have seen all he needs to.