Before the Saints march into town, I sat down with Madeleine Hudak of Canal Street Chronicles to exchange some information on these two squads. Bears fans need no reminder what happened in last year’s contest between these two squads and I did my best to figure out if the Bears were in for another long day or if they’ve got a chance in this one.
Windy City Gridiron: Over the last few years, the story with Drew Brees is that his arm starts to “go dead” by the end of the year. In Week 1, it already looked cooked, but he’s looked better in recent weeks. What’s the story there and can the offense adapt to Brees if he does lose that arm strength again?
Canal Street Chronicles: MVP narrative conspiracies aside, the early season struggles can be chalked up to a poor o-line and lack of trust with Brees and his receivers. It’s not a secret that Brees’ arm has declined in recent years. As much as deep balls are fun to watch, Drew’s arm strength has never been the reason why he’s great. Yet, the loud criticism this year, and the last few years frankly, has been his inability or hesitation to throw downfield.
A lot of those early season drops weren’t on Brees; several of those misses were really receivers just flat out screwing up or stopping routes entirely. What makes Brees great is his ability to perfectly fit the ball between double (often triple) coverage into a receiver’s hands at exactly the right moment. He holds the top three best single-season completion records – all in his last three years, and is currently this year’s leader through Week 7 at 72.6%. He’s never thrown a bunch of ridiculous air balls that fall flat; he attempts what he knows he can accomplish, and if that takes 15 short passes up the middle, who cares?
Brees, to me, has always been as affected by the mental component as the physical aspect of the game. I never thought he was washed early season; it was quite simple to me – he was in his head, and didn’t trust his receiving corp to not be incompetent. Now he’s in a rhythm, and at that point, it doesn’t actually matter who you place in front of him – as seen in last week’s outing with nameless undrafted receivers. The narrative of Brees being washed is just that – a narrative. I’d say the last game proved just as much. It’s a question of whether our o-line stays healthy – that’s been the biggest factor in Brees’ late season declines. Worst case, we do have a particularly elusive running back on the roster.
WCG: Michael Thomas is arguably the best receiver in football but he’s been dealing with a high ankle sprain since Week 1. On top of that, there have been some rumblings that maybe the Saints organization isn’t happy with Thomas and that he might not be in their future plans. What’s the story with Thomas, will he play Sunday, and do you expect him to be in New Orleans next year?
CSC: Thomas won’t play Sunday, but none of that is for disciplinary reasons. They’re not going to chance losing him for the season putting him out there as a gimp. I outright laughed at the talking heads who alleged that Thomas is now faking an injury to sit out in hopes of being traded. Please. He injured his hamstring likely in an attempt to overcompensate for the ankle injury and speed up his return trajectory – Occam’s razor would point that way, at least.
Sean Payton in the regular season is markedly hasty with his Twitter fingers. The only times he’s briefly come out of hibernation this season is to dispel Thomas trade rumors, then subsequently make fun of Mike Florio for backtracking. The notion that Thomas’ agent shopped around for offers and they had no offers is absurd when you think about it. The Falcons gave up five draft picks for Julio Jones, Bill O’Brien traded away DeAndre Hopkins like he was last week’s leftovers, and the Cowboys took Amari Cooper in exchange for their first-round draft pick. If the rumor was that an offer was made, but the Saints weren’t willing to take the $20 million cap hit, it’d be one thing. The idea that not one offer was posed for the league’s No. 1 receiver is just ridiculous to me.
Payton does not like diva receivers, it’s a known fact – he unloaded Jimmy Graham after taking the Saints to court to be paid like a wide receiver, and shipped off Brandin Cooks for repeatedly complaining to the media about targets. Michael Thomas punching a teammate is decidedly less drastic than either of the preceding players – the difference, one that’s important, is that the Saints were the ones to take things public. In prior instances, Payton had his hand forced. Florio has been pushing this narrative since he mistakenly reported that they suspended Thomas, when in reality, he was simply fined one game check; the distinction of protecting $27.95 million in contract guarantees is a huge one. One that points to protecting their receiver in the long run. Who is Brees’ successor going to throw to, Connor Payton?
WCG: The defense came on in 2018 and looked good throughout 2019 but appears to be off to a slow start in 2020. Much ado about nothing or legitimate concern?
CSC: In New Orleans, it’s death, taxes, and a 7-9 defense*. Very much a legitimate concern, and a bewildering one at that. For reference, the Carolina Panthers have been terrible on third down and red zone offense all year; last week, they went 6-of-9 on third downs, and 2-of-2 on red zone trips. Our safety unit, in particular, has been embarrassingly exploited all season.
It’s been a bit jarring since the offseason narrative touting this stacked defensive roster, one perfectly mixed with newer stars and veteran leaders. If anyone could get a call through to those supposed leaders, that’d be great. Every week there’s an inexplicable meltdown in coverage, and every week our secondary gets exploited. I don’t know what to diagnose at this point, but this is not a competitive unit.
*Interviewers note: death, taxes, a 7-9 defense, and parking tickets. Seriously, just try to avoid getting one down there.
WCG: Please explain the Taysom Hill contract/concept. Is this just a Sean Payton vanity project or is there something real going on here?
CSC: Here’s the thing – I have my opinion, and I have my research. I recently studied franchise quarterback replacement trends, and all signs, historically speaking, point to Taysom Hill as the heir apparent. Especially after the emotional homecoming of Teddy Bridgewater to the Dome last week – if Teddy wasn’t it, who is? I think Payton is bored of running the same system, knows that any replica attempts will just be the mediocre version of Brees, and wants to try something new for his next era.
Payton has repeatedly declared Hill as the next Steve Young, signed Hill to a 2-year contract, and promptly named him the backup in March. Brees later told Chris Simms of NBC sports that he’d be fine splitting reps with Hill this season. Then, maddeningly as it may be, Payton has done nothing but continuously increase Hill’s usage – exclusively as a quarterback. He’s literally running a watered-down Bill Walsh 1988 two QB system. In fairness, everyone in the trade room thought Walsh was insane in ‘87. But Payton has told us in spades that this is exactly what he planned to do. And last year, I was all for it.
Now, do I think that Payton is overly enjoying his science fair experiment? Absolutely. But to me, there’s a much more methodical usage of Hill this season – it’s not necessarily working, but it looks like they’re just trying to get him in positions to get comfortable actually throwing the football – a feat he finally accomplished last week. The issue is that it’s hard to discern whether Hill’s plays are designed runs and scrambles or run-pass options. More are the former than it appears in real-time, so it skews this “too quick to tuck and run” narrative when in reality, that’s exactly what he was supposed to do.
I only take issue when Payton takes Brees out on third down in the red zone after executing a surgical drive. Otherwise, are fans really enticed by LASIK eye surgery option in Winston? Either way, we’re in for some rocky years. Might as well let this experiment play out in full with Hill so we’ll never have the “what ifs.” Worst case, we tank with Hill, and Trevor Lawrence decides he’d rather spend another year in quarantine-college than ever play at MetLife stadium.
WCG: This team entered 2020 with Super Bowl or Bust expectations. What needs to happen to finally break through this year and is this the last rodeo for Drew Brees and this team build of the Saints?
CSC: Well, the defense playing like a professional football unit would help for starters. For any hopes of a deep playoff run, we need a hiring, a firing, a personnel change, or maybe, frankly, another punch to the face by Michael Thomas. What is Drew Brees supposed to do, time travel to 6 years ago? We cannot be a competitive team with such a liability on secondary coverage.
I think the Saints have been pushing for fans so hard behind-the-scenes specifically to give a proper Farewell tour to Drew. All things considered, this is Drew Brees’ final year with the Saints. It would be nice to cap it off with a Super Bowl ride off into the sunset. If the Saints don’t get to the Super Bowl this year, it’ll have nothing to do with the offense, and fans will be lined up at the facility to make sure every deserving secondary player receives their duly punch.
Thank you to Madeleine and Canal Street Chronicles for the info!