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Remembering the Luke McCown Saints-Panthers game

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In 2015, Luke McCown did his very best Drew Brees impersonation. While it ultimately fell short, it was still fun to see.

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When Josh McCown retired from the NFL on June 17th, it marked the end of the an era. Both McCown brothers are now officially out of the league. Collectively, they were on the active roster on 13 NFL teams. Classic journeymen.

Elder McCown’s retirement gives us the chance to look back at one of the most underrated backup performances of all time: Younger McCown filling in for an injured Drew Brees in Carolina in 2015.

It’s probably worth revealing that when Josh retired, I had to look up which McCown actually played for the Saints in 2015 because I thought it was Josh. Still, it gave me an excuse and fire up the All-22 on Luke’s very excellent appearance as the Saints starting quarterback.

McCown joined the Saints in the offseason before the 2013 season and threw 1 regular season pass in 2013 and 2014 combined. Brees up to that point had never missed a start for the Saints through injury and the team was not in a position in either year to sit starters at the end of the year.

In 2015, with the Saints already 0-1, Brees would be injured at home against Tampa as the Saints fell to 0-2. The injury would keep Brees out of the Saints next game paving the way for Luke McCown’s first NFL start since 2011 for Jacksonville.

Ultimately, the Saints would lose to Carolina on a last minute interception by Josh Norman. Still, McCown was great going 31-of-38 with 310 yards and the interception. 81.58 completion percentage that gets a little higher when you discount two drops (Willie Snead and Marque Colston) and one batted ball (thrown to an open receiver). He threw the ball with timing and accuracy. He went through his progressions when necessary and was able to find his checkdown receivers for completions instead of forcing balls into coverage. He also threw down the field when receivers were open not just settling for underneath routes.

You can make an argument that he didn’t make any egregious errors — like not throwing to an open receiver as part of his progression or not throwing the ball accurately. He misses Brandon Coleman on a slant because, I believe, he thinks Coleman is going to settle into the window and the interception is barely underthrown and Norman makes a great play on the ball. Sometimes the DB wins. Other than those 2 plays, there’s not much else.

Going Through Progressions

Early in the game, the Saints run a mirrored curl flat concept. McCown’s can work either side of the field depending on the zone drop of linebacker Shaq Thompson (#54). When Thompson opens weak, the QB will work the frontside of the play. First he’s checking is anyone runs with Ben Watson. Thomas Davis carries that route. Next, he’s working the combination between Josh Hill and Brandon Coleman. When Hill’s defender chases his flat route, the window to Coleman is open and McCown delivers a completion.

On this one, McCown starts by checking his isolated receiver, Watson, run a corner route. With the Panthers in 2-high, the corner is an option but Shaq Thompson, carries the route all the way to the half field safety eliminating it. The underneath Carolina defenders match the receivers in man coverage so this creates a void in the middle of the field for Willie Snead to run into against the zone corner and zone safety. McCown finds him.

This time, he moves through his reads to find Cooks on the in breaking route. Carolina is again in 2-high but this time they play Tampa 2 coverage. First, McCown looks to his left at the first in breaking route from Watson. The linebacker stays in a zone drop underneath that route so it’s eliminated. Next, the quarterback moves his eyes to find Snead streaking across the middle of the field. In the Tampa 2 defense, the middle linebacker has to respect that route which pulls Luke Kuechly out enough to open the window for the next route outside by Cooks. Another nice completion.

Kamara Routes

I couldn’t think of another name for this category but these are the concepts that are run by Alvin Kamara these days.

These first two are weak side option routes run by Cooks thrown accurately and on time. The next is a wheel route by C.J. Spiller. It’s thrown a little differently than the way Brees throws it now but it’s a great throw for a big completion.

Timing

Just a simple speed out cut by Watson at the bottom of the screen. You can see McCown release the ball right when he finishes his 3-step drop. There’s no wasted time. He makes the decision to throw to Watson because, first, the underneath zone defender is too far inside and, second, the cornerback is turned inside and over the receiver meaning he can’t make a play on a ball that is to the sideline. Not the best throw but good enough.

Tight Window Throws in the Seams

Carolina tries to fool ‘Cool Hand Luke’ by showing double A gap pressure with Cover 2 behind it but then actually sending a Nickel blitz and rotating into a different form of Cover 2. McCown is working off the safeties, so once he sees No. 20 roll hard to the middle of the field, he knows he is going to work the two-receiver combination at the bottom of the screen. The cornerback on the bottom who is trying to replace the safety can’t get inside of Watson running the seam and McCown feels like Thomas Davis is too low and throws a wicked ball for a big completion.

Again, we have a similar situation where the Panthers disguise their coverage and then rotate into Cover 2. No matter, Luke finds Colston in the seam. On the snap, McCown checks the high safety who widens almost to the numbers. With the Nickel not getting a lot of depth, McCown just needs to fire the ball in before Kuechly can get underneath Colston.

The Interception

At the end of the day, this is a slight underthrow + a great defensive play and sometimes those things happen. You can see Colston come open early on the seam pattern but, I believe, when McCown sees the Panthers safety rotate hard to the top of the screen, he knows he has a 1v1 with Cooks and Norman. Sometimes you wanna take a 1v1 fade shot. Didn’t work this time.

Watching the tape it is clear that if a journeyman backup can come in and play this well that Drew Brees is a “system quarterback”. Those are just the facts.

Goodbye Luke and Josh, we’ll always remember you.