PAYTON KNOWS BEST: Was Saints Head Coach’s View About Taysom Right All Along?

Sean Payton
Photo Credit: Derek E. Hingle

Kerry Collins. Tony Romo. Drew Brees. Teddy Bridgewater. And now Taysom Hill? If you’re an NFL fan, then chances are you’ve heard of each one of those former or current NFL starting QB’s, of whom one (Brees) is a guaranteed first-ballot NFL Hall of Famer,

But as many knowledgeable Who Dat fans might recall rather vividly: it was the comparison of Taysom to another NFL Hall of Fame QB — namely retired 3-time Super Bowl champion and former San Francisco 49ers living legend Steve Young — that initially received heavy criticism and eventually was scoffed and laughed at by a handful of NFL analysts and observers, after it was mentioned in a conversation earlier this past year by Saints head coach Sean Payton.

But after Hill’s impressive performance in place of the injured Brees last Sunday in New Orleans’ 24-9 victory over their arch-rivals the Atlanta Falcons, it appears now that Payton might be getting the “last laugh”; as well as the fact that his personal views about Taysom actually might have been exactly right all along.

Before the 2020 Season began, Hill signed a two-year, $21 million contract during this past offseason as a restricted free agent. But the Saints organization and Payton in particular were accused of overpaying a player that many observers and fans alike consider nothing more than a “gadget player” on offense as a runner and receiver.

That mainly was because Hill is already 30 years old and had only ever thrown a grand total of 20 career passes in the NFL as an actual QB from the pocket. Payton remained defiant however and never changed his opinion publicly regarding his confidence in Hill; and that confidence was rewarded last Sunday as Hill won his first-ever start as an NFL QB.

Many of Taysom’s biggest detractors have always felt that he needed to show that he can become a more accurate passer throwing the football and also had to improve on his timing, both important traits of QB play that he still seems to learning in real time.

But the progression that Taysom has made since he first joined the team in September of 2017, is indisputable; and now it’s a simply a matter of seeing whether or not Hill can remain consistently good over the course of time; or if he was just simply the beneficiary of “beginner’s luck” or a “once-in-a-lifetime” performance.

Hill completed 18 of 23 passes and ran for two touchdowns while leading the Black and Gold to their 7th consecutive win, And while his winning performance might have not been worthy of exactly comparing him to Steve Young, it proved to be another notch on the list of accomplishments for the Saints head coach, at developing young or inexperienced players at the QB position.

Payton has refused since last weekend to take a “victory lap” or to tell any of his biggest critics that “I told you so”, but deep down inside he has to be ecstatic that Hill’s performance served as vindication of his view about the former starting QB in college at BYU (Brigham Young University).

Hill started a total of 33 games at BYU, throwing for 6,929 yards, 43 touchdowns, and 31 interceptions. Additionally, he rushed for 2,815 yards, a BYU record for quarterbacks, and 32 touchdowns. So clearly, his talent as both a passer and certainly as a runner, aren’t in question.

But what was at that time (and the primary reason he went undrafted) were his age and previous injury history.

Hill came to the Saints when he was almost 28 years old — and obviously a lot older as most NFL rookies usually are — after completing a two-year mission trip before his playing career at BYU as a devoted follower of the Mormon religious faith (whose founders helped build the school originally back in 1875).

Additionally, Hill also had injury issues in previous years and never once played a full college season. He suffered four season-ending injuries during his time in Provo, Utah, which included a knee injury, broken leg, a Lisfranc fracture and a hyperextended elbow.

Even so, the Pocatello, Idaho native finished his career with 75 total touchdowns and ran for more scores than any other BYU quarterback in school history. So clearly, Hill’s breath-taking athletic talent is undeniable and it was why he was still one of college football’s most dynamic quarterbacks.

Hill’s body just simply let him down at that time, and the injury concerns — and not his capability as a pocket passer — was the main reason why many NFL scouts at the time felt was why he went undrafted.

But since that time, Hill has managed to overcome that period of injury issues; and it was another reason why Payton and the Black and Gold eventually were so quick to jump on him and claim him off of waivers following his release by the Packers after the 2017 NFL Preseason.

Now 3 and a half years later, the only question that had remained at least up until last Sunday at the Superdome, was whether or not Taysom was ever going to be an honest-to-goodness LEGITIMATE starting-caliber quarterback in the National Football League.

One thing Saints fans need to keep in mind (and what’s likely to actually work in Hill’s favor) is that he has been mentored for the past 3 seasons by a future Hall of Fame QB in Brees; and being schooled on how to play the position by Payton, who once upon a time was a NFL quarterback (albeit a very brief period of time for a few games as a “replacement” player during the 1987 NFL Season, while the “regular” NFL players were on strike) himself back then, as a member of the Chicago Bears.

Photo Credit: Barry Hirstius, Big Easy Magazine

Throughout his time as an assistant coach and now a head coach in the NFL, Payton has helped to develop or provide guidance to several QB’s before they eventually became NFL stars.

That list includes former New York Giants QB Kerry Collins (who Payton helped get to a Super Bowl following the 2000 NFL season); recently-retired Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo; Brees (whom he took a gamble on in 2006 NFL Free Agency after the San Diego Chargers had released him with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder that he had suffered in the 2005 season finale) — and then of course most recently Teddy Bridgewaterwho went undefeated last season (5-0) when Brees was hurt then also.

Bridgewater “cashed in” on that performance by signing this past off-season with the Carolina Panthers, where he has been impressive in his 1st season as their starting QB,

Bottom line: Payton has now won six consecutive games in a row without Brees at quarterback, and it goes without saying that his ability to successfully evaluate and develop starting-caliber NFL QB’s capable of winning games in the League on a consistent week-to-week basis, is absolutely irrefutable.

Suffice it to say, it’s expected that Hill will be given every opportunity to compete for (and win) the starting job once Brees retires for good, presumably in just a few more months from now after the season ends. Brees already has a deal in place to become the game analyst for NBC Sunday Night Football once his career is officially over.

Hill is expected to get his 2nd NFL start this Sunday in the cold confines of the Colorado Rocky Mountains when the (8-2) NFC South Division-leading Saints visit the (4-7) Denver Broncos in search of an 8th straight victory.

Whether or not Taysom can raise his record as a starting QB to (2-0) is something that each one of us will have to wait and watch to see if it takes place.

But this much is evident: when it comes to quarterbacks and their capability to start at the NFL level, nobody knows them any better than Sean Payton has — and very obviously still does….

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked previously as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending their games as a young boy during the early 1970’s, uptown at the old Tulane Stadium. He is also the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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