Did Saints’ Gamble on Brees Backup End Their Super Bowl Dreams?

Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

A total and complete disaster. The “worst-case scenario.” A horror movie that’s now come to real life. Those are only a few of the not-so-pleasant terms to describe what the New Orleans Saints NFL franchise and its passionate fan-base, The Who Dat Nation, have feared in the back of their minds for the better part of the past 13 years.

That fear is a serious injury to starting QB Drew Brees that could potentially end his NFL season or possibly even his professional career.

Yesterday in Southern California during the 1st quarter of a 27-9 loss against their hated long-time conference rivals the Los Angeles Rams, that fear became reality when the 40-year-old future Hall of Famer severely injured the thumb on his throwing hand following a hit by L.A. All-Pro defensive end and reigning 2018 League Defensive MVP Aaron Donald.

Donald’s hit left Brees unable to grip a football, leading to further (unconfirmed) speculation that he may have a torn ligament which could leave him sidelined anywhere from three to four months, and possibly even as long as the whole 2019 Season. As initially reported by ESPN NFL reporter Josina Anderson, Brees is expected to see famed Los Angeles-based hand specialist Dr. Steve Shin to determine the extent of the injury and get a better sense of what exactly might have happened.

Unconfirmed reports from several sources suggested that Brees might have torn the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in the thumb of his right hand, a condition which would typically require a surgery that could keep him sidelined anywhere from five to six weeks and possibly long as 10-12 weeks or more.

The Saints organization has always believed that they were more than well-prepared for this day, even if they were hoping that it wouldn’t ever come. They’ve spent the better part of the past two years putting together what they thought was the League’s best backup QB situation. So when Brees left yesterday’s highly-anticipated “rematch” against the Rams, Who Dats watching from across the country nervously awaited updates on their beloved hero’s status, while backup QB Teddy Bridgewater took over for what everyone assumed would be a series or two.

But it quickly dawned on everyone that there was something much more serious going on when Brees was shown on the sidelines being attended to by the team’s head trainer and medical staff, reportedly unable to grip the football according to the game announcers for the FOX network.

Unfortunately for Saints fans, that wasn’t even the worst part.

After the team was victimized once again by referees when they ruled a play as an incomplete pass when instant replays showed that Rams QB Jared Goff had been stripped of the ball by Saints’ defensive tackle David Onyemata (which had been returned for an apparent 88-yard touchdown by defensive end Cam Jordan but disregarded), the momentum and advantage in the contest clearly swung in favor towards Los Angeles.

Not long after that, it became glaringly obvious that Bridgewater wasn’t up to the task of leading the Saints to victory. The soon-to-be 27-year old back-up resorted to throwing mostly “check-down” passes, and for the most part, seemed to lack the energy and effort required to rally the team around him. At times, Bridgewater seemingly held on to the ball far too long in the pocket, was slow in his decision-making, and had the look of a deer in headlights.

And while no one is trying to suggest that he isn’t a talented NFL QB in his own right, it quickly became evident yesterday that Bridgewater IS NOT, nor will he ever be, a “franchise”-caliber player on par with Brees or any top signal-caller (such as a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers) across the League, for that matter.

Third-string QB Taysom Hill is a dynamic and gifted athlete who can do many things and fill several roles both on offense and special teams, and has shown great improvement as a passer over the course of the past year. But no one (at least not anyone who knows the sport of professional football) thinks that Hill can be a starting-caliber “franchise” QB , either. At least, not good enough to play long-term on a week-to-week-basis.

So — the question needs to be asked: did the Saints’ gamble on Bridgewater or Hill as the successor to Brees (instead of drafting and grooming a QB from the college ranks), essentially put an end to their Super Bowl dreams yesterday?

As of this moment, the NFL and Saints’ record books show that Brees has started 206 out of the Black and Gold’s last 209 regular season games. Coming into the 2019 NFL Season, the Saints were considered by many well-respected analysts to be one of the leading, if not THE #1 favorite, to make it all the way to Super Bowl LIV (54).

But given the uncertainty of Brees’ injury and how long it could impact the team long-term, just making the playoffs this year could be a task that’s now just too difficult for them to overcome.

After the Saints’ defensive secondary appeared to struggle once again with the Rams’ WR’s just as they did last week against the Texans’, if New Orleans does miss out on their goal of making it to the Super Bowl, it won’t come as that much of a surprise.

With the notably less-than-stellar play of CB’s Eli Apple and P.J. Williams along with at-times under-performing free safety Marcus Williams (especially the overwhelming number of broken tackles they surrendered in the 4th quarter), the 2019 season for New Orleans suddenly doesn’t sound like it will finish with a happy ending.

Struggles in the defensive backfield aside, if the Saints hope to have a shot at getting to the post-season, Bridgewater has to show that he can step up and be the leader of the team, a role that he didn’t seem anywhere near capable of handling yesterday evening. At best, he’s nothing more than an above-average-to-good game manager.

Which means that Saints head coach Sean Payton — after signing a brand new five year contract extension yesterday — will have to give what would be the best head coaching performance of his entire career just to keep the Saints in the running for the playoffs. Undoubtedly, he will call plays on offense that are geared towards Bridgewater’s strengths, but the likelihood that “Teddy B” will be the starting QB after Brees retires, now has to be considered nothing more than a long-shot at best.

Bridgewater completed 17 of 30 passes for just 165 yards, and was unable to get the Saints’ offense into the end zone yesterday, settling instead for three Wil Lutz field goals. To be fair, the Saints were playing with a reshuffled O-Line due to injuries that probably lent itself towards making Bridgewater look a lot worse than he actually is, but clearly he lacks the capability of make plays downfield.

While he’s surrounded by an immense wealth of offensive talent that includes star players such as RB Alvin Kamara, All-Pro WR Michael Thomas, and tight end Jared Cook, Bridgewater doesn’t seem to have the same command or respect in the huddle that Brees has (and demands) from equally-talented offensive teammates.

Some Saints fans made the suggestion yesterday that the organization should give merit to promoting Taysom Hill to the #2 spot above Bridgewater, but that move would be ill-advised as well.

Certainly there is no argument that Hill showed notable improvement this summer as a pocket passer, and has obviously spent time a lot of time working on his accuracy. But like Bridgewater, Taysom isn’t the answer either — regardless of the segment of Who Dat fans that stubbornly believe otherwise. They are simply confusing Hill’s all-around athleticism with good passing ability.

If the Saints are to have any hope whatsoever of salvaging the season and resuscitating their Super Bowl dreams, they’ll need Brees to return much sooner than is anticipated.

The Black and Gold now face the undefeated (2-0) Seattle Seahawks on the road next Sunday, before returning home the following week to face the (2-0) Dallas Cowboys (who beat the Saints last season) in back-to-back weeks, which means they could be looking at a (1-3) start to what was supposed to be a Super Bowl season.

And while the NFC South Division appears to be wide open this year, you can believe that the Falcons, Buccaneers, and Panthers are all “licking their chops,” with excitement about the new opportunity they’ll have to unseat the current defending two-time division champion Saints.

The Black and Gold won’t have their Bye Week until Week #9, immediately followed by a four-game run against Atlanta (at home in the Superdome), Tampa Bay (away), Carolina (home) and then Atlanta again (away). That’s when supremacy within the division could be settled. If Bridgewater is still quarterbacking the team at that point, it might not go well — especially if he doesn’t show any gradual improvement before then.

Bottom line: losing Drew Brees is the worst-case scenario that the franchise and the fanbase have always feared, and this morning as Who Dats wake up to the reminders of what happened yesterday, the only “silver lining” is that the overall strength of their 53-man roster and the current weak state of the NFC South still gives them a chance to bounce back if Brees somehow manages to return ahead of schedule.

But that’s a mighty big “if.”

The Saints gambled that Bridgewater or Hill would eventually show enough promise that either could take over the reins of the team once Brees retired. However, yesterday proved that strategy wasn’t the best idea.

Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

With star players such as LSU QB Joe Burrow, Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa, Georgia QB Jake Fromm, Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts. and Oregon QB Justin Herbert all set to be draft-eligible next April, there’s a good chance that Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis might decide to rethink their backup QB strategy going forward.

One thing that’s indisputable at this point: neither Teddy B or Taysom Hill is the long-term answer at QB for the Black and Gold.

If Brees isn’t able to get back under center within the next few weeks, it likely puts an end to the Saints’ Super Bowl dreams in 2019, and possibly even much longer than that if they continue to gamble on players that aren’t anywhere near up to the task of filling in for the franchise’s greatest player of all-time.

UPDATE: 10:00 A.M. Central time, Monday September 16th….As reported by ESPN’s NFL “insider” Adam Schefter: Brees is expected to undergo surgery later today, and is expected to miss a total of 6-to-8 weeks; with a projected return to action in Week #10 against the division rival Falcons at home inside the Superdome……..

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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