Forget Taysom Hill, Jameis Winston's Second Act Could Be Sean Payton's Greatest Work Yet
By Liam McKeone
Sean Payton is a great coach. Nobody denies this. He also had an advantage over nearly every other coach in the league for the past 15 years with an all-time quarterback and consistent greatness regularly at his disposal. The 2021 season will be Payton's first as head coach without Drew Brees. It's time for Payton to prove he can do it without his trusty Hall of Fame quarterback.
To replace Brees, Payton has two choices. Taysom Hill, former BYU extraordinaire, has miraculously developed from a great athlete into an impactful player but isn't very good at throwing the football, a key aspect of quarterbacking. Jameis Winston has all the talent in the world throwing the football but has perhaps the worst interception problem the league has seen this century and there is no one who believes right now that he can successfully lead a team to contention.
Last night, the Saints played their second preseason game against the Jaguars. Since there are only three, this was effectively the final preseason game for the starters. Winston shined, completing nine of 10 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Hill wasn't bad, going 11-of-20 with 138 yards and a touchdown with no rushing attempts as New Orleans kept those packages in the bottom drawer for the regular season.
Payton will have to name the starter soon. He will be tempted to go with Hill, his pet project that he values more than anyone else in the league by a large margin. It is remarkable Payton got Hill to this point; the BYU product was an atrocious quarterback in college and the fact that he even has NFL starts under center, much less wins, is a testament to Payton's ability to get the most out of his offensive players. Regardless of how Hill's career plays out from this point, everyone will agree he owes it all to Payton and his coaching.
I am here to argue, however, that Hill is not Payton's most impressive accomplishment. If the Saints coach can turn Winston around, turn him into the quarterback everyone thought he would be coming out of Florida State, it would be his most impressive act as head coach.
Winston has all the arm talent in the world, to be sure, and Payton has a lot to work with in comparison to Hill. But Winston is still the same guy who threw thirty interceptions in 2019. That's insane! He threw 30 touchdowns too but the Buccaneers still missed the playoffs and he'll forever be remembered as the player who averaged nearly two picks a game. If Winston had thrown even five fewer interceptions, the Bucs probably would have made the postseason.
There's never really been a player like Winston, just as there hasn't been one like Hill. There have been plenty of quarterbacks with the arm talent to throw the kind of passes Winston can who never got a shot because they couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. But Winston showed *just enough* accuracy to start for five years. He is a conundrum. How can someone show flashes of greatness alongside flashes of infuriating incompetency so close to one another for so long?
Payton very well could solve this conundrum. We obviously need a much larger body of work to show that he did, but the early returns are encouraging. Payton should be motivated to start Winston, not because he gives his team a better chance to win every week than Hill (which he does) but because he can prove to everyone he fixed Winston. The heights that could come along with that would cement Payton's legacy. It needs to happen. Start Winston.