In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos, the New Orleans Saints’ Taysom Hill dropped back to pass.
In an otherwise forgettable contest — due to a COVID-19 outbreak, the Broncos started a practice squad receiver at quarterback, and the Saints would win 31-3 — the play marked an important moment. In his second game filling in for future Hall of Famer Drew Brees as starting quarterback, Hill had mostly held to the actions that have made him a favorite of head coach Sean Payton over his four seasons in New Orleans, churning through the defensive line for short-yardage gains, using his speed to beat linebackers to the edge of the field, juking or plowing over cornerbacks and safeties outmatched by his 6-foot-2, 221-pound frame.
But this time, the player often termed a “running quarterback” took aim at Michael Thomas on a deep comeback route. The window was tight, with a corner blanketing the receiver, but no matter: Hill fit a 20-yard pass right between Thomas’ numbers. The first down meant next to nothing in the closing minutes of a blowout, but to those eager to see whether the former BYU passer can turn fill-in duty into a career as a starting NFL quarterback, it meant a lot more.
When Brees suffered multiple rib injuries and a collapsed lung in a game against the San Francisco 49ers in mid-November, it was for the Saints a painful and unexpected obstacle in what they hope is a Super Bowl run. But for much of the football world there was a silver lining when Payton tabbed Hill as the replacement starter: an opportunity to see what he could do as a quarterback.
“When I was coming in before for Drew there were a few things they could probably key on. ... I’m sure we were more run heavy than pass heavy when I was coming in for Drew. Now, the defense has to play it honest and play so many different things every snap. So I think that is more advantageous for us offensively,” Hill said Wednesday in a press conference following a day of practice.
Hill’s versatility has always been a calling card. He works as a tight end and receiver, as a change-of-pace quarterback, as a gunner and blocker on special teams, and as a general bruiser in any scenario when a shoulder might need to be lowered. But Payton has maintained he could also work as a pure passer, if he had the opportunity. The Saints’ coach has gone as far as comparing Hill to another BYU alum, Hall of Famer Steve Young.
New Orleans’ early success with Hill under center full-time has not settled the question of his future; doubters point to risk-averse throws, bouts of inaccuracy or claim he has a tendency to bail out of the pocket and run as qualities that might hold him back. But the Saints have won their first two games, handily, with Hill taking over.
So the questions remain: What more can he do to prove himself? And, given the win-now demands of holding on to a top playoff seed, will he continue to get the chance?
What the skeptics say
When, going into a Nov. 22 game against the Atlanta Falcons, Payton chose Hill as the starter over Jameis Winston, another Saints backup who had once been the league’s top overall pick, pundits wondered whether Hill had the track record to vindicate the decision.
“Taysom Hill is 30 years old,” ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith said on “First Take.” “How many passes has this man thrown in his career? Can somebody help me out, because I count four passes this year. ... I don’t know if he’s thrown 100 passes, I don’t know if he’s thrown 50 passes in his career.” (He had thrown only 18 prior to that game.)
Smith’s perspective echoed one common among NFL analysts, that Hill might be useful as a changeup threat but would suffer when asked to lead an offense on every down. Despite occasional flashes of brilliance, Hill had completed only six passes in his first two NFL seasons, and he still has yet to complete a touchdown pass. Earlier this year, SB Nation’s James Brady gave Hill a harsh tape review, concluding, “He’s a Swiss Army knife, and that’s fine! But that’s not what a starting quarterback does.”
The skepticism has endured through Hill’s 2-0 opening as a staring quarterback, with critics calling it a short-term solution, not evidence of long-term viability.
“Running quarterbacks work,” Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd said after Hill ran for 49 yards and passed for 233 more (on a crisp 18-of-23 completion rate) against Atlanta. “They just don’t last. But the element of surprise works. … Taysom Hill worked for a game, because Sean Payton isn’t making a decision for the future of the Saints. He’s making a decision for three weeks.”
‘The job is to win’
When Hill completed 9 of just 16 passing attempts, for 78 yards, in Sunday’s win over Denver, there were murmurs that the pared-down playbook signaled a lack of confidence from Payton. Quite the opposite, the coach said.
“Taysom played this thing just how I wanted him to play it,” Payton told ESPN. “And it doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing to be effective. The job is to win, and he did a good job of that.”
Payton’s comments joined a growing chorus, with many analysts, even some who were formerly hesitant, now pointing to his versatility as a strength, not as evidence of limitation. If the Saints mostly held to one formula with Brees at the helm, subsisting on a short, accurate passing game and the arrayed skills of their running backs and receivers, they now have more options.
The threat of the quarterback run is the obvious bonus Hill provides, but, as The Ringer’s Kaelen Jones wrote after the win over Atlanta, “New Orleans’s pass game was also noticeably more aggressive, with Hill pushing the ball downfield to both intermediate and deep targets.” One second-down throw to Thomas, lasered into a small window, evinced exactly the sort of arm talent the 41-year-old Brees, whose strength has been the subject of some concern this season, may no longer possess.
Even onetime detractors have started coming around.
“If you can run with the football, it’s something that needs to be utilized, and sure enough, that’s what Taysom Hill did,” Smith said after Hill’s debut in the lead role, adding, “Oh, by the way, when he threw the football ... he was pretty much throwing the football effectively throughout the day.”
One of the characteristics that makes Hill so valuable, his willingness to do what is necessary to win, may keep him from setting the world on fire in coming weeks. The Saints are slated for a rematch with Atlanta and a game against the 3-7-1 Eagles in the next two Sundays, matchups that will favor New Orleans and set up nicely for more of the same: Hill hammering opposing defensive fronts, completing passes when he needs to, and piling up workmanlike wins.
But if Brees remains out for a Dec. 20 showdown with the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs “doing what it takes” may mean dropping back and letting it fly.
In the meantime, Payton sympathizes with his quarterback’s plight. He can do everything right, and it still won’t be enough for some critics.
“There’s a Catch-22 in there somewhere, right?” Payton said this week. “And that catch is, ‘I’m trying to make an impression. I’m trying to prove I’m a starter. ... And you know what? Today’s not the day.’”