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Why Jameis Winston is starting to build a lead in the quarterback competition

It’s not about the numbers, it’s about growth.

New Orleans Saints v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

When you look at some of the numbers of the two quarterbacks competing for the starting job with the New Orleans Saints, they might not seem too different.

Taysom Hill started the game and completed 8 of 12 passes for 81 yards.

Jameis Winston came in behind Hill and completed 7 of 12 passes for 96 yards.

Both quarterbacks have one interception on their ledger, while Winston also threw a touchdown pass. But after watching the game, it seems to me like Jameis Winston should be considered the current front-runner in the otherwise too-close-to-call quarterback competition. Here’s why:

First, let’s look at their interceptions. The pass thrown by Jameis Winston to Lil’Jordan Humphrey was definitely catchable. It hit Humphrey squarely in the hands, who then flipped the ball up and backwards into the awaiting arms of the defender. While Jameis obviously could have thrown the ball higher or with a bit more zip and the interception likely doesn’t occur, it’s hard to blame the quarterback too much for an interception when he throws a pass that hits his receiver in the hands.

A review of Taysom’s interception might similarly lead you to believe it wasn’t his fault either, and that the intended receiver, Ty Montgomery, just stopped his route.

As alluded to by Sean Payton in his post-game press conference, there was just a miscommunication between the receiver and the quarterback. But if you go back and watch the play itself, the issue of miscommunication seems to be the fault of Taysom. Yes, Montgomery appears to stop his route, but that’s exactly what Ty was supposed to do on the play.

But the interception thrown by Taysom wasn’t his only mistake on the day. While both quarterbacks had a few off-target throws during their time on the field, Taysom had a near-interception on an underthrow that was dropped by the Baltimore Ravens defender.

So if we step back from the actual results and analyze the performance of the quarterbacks themselves, then you could say that Taysom Hill was responsible for two interception-worthy passes while Jameis Winston wasn’t really responsible for any.

Jameis Winston’s performance, while generally similar to Taysom Hill’s, should be given even more credit, though, considering the players he had on the field around him. While Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Tre’Quan Smith were all absent for both quarterbacks’ time on the field, Taysom Hill had the benefit of playing with more of the Saints’ starting players. During Taysom’s 20 snaps on offense, he played with two-fifths of the Saints starting offensive line in Cesar Ruiz and Andrus Peat. Taysom played with starting center Erik McCoy for over half of his snaps. Jameis Winston did not take a single snap on offense with any starter on the offensive line.

Fumble aside, Jameis Winston also didn’t play with Latavius Murray during Winston’s time at quarterback. Marquez Callaway, the team’s de facto number one wide receiver at the moment who made a great play on a pass from Taysom Hill, had also left the field by the time Jameis Winston took over at quarterback. If Winston’s pass intended for Lil’Jordan Humphrey that was intercepted had instead been thrown to Marquez Callaway, would it still have been picked off? We’ll never know.

But even beyond the numbers - beyond the interceptions, the interception-worthy plays, and even the number of snaps with offensive starters - there’s more evidence for why Jameis Winston should be considered as currently out-playing Taysom Hill in the quarterback battle. The single most important thing we saw out of Taysom and Jameis during the team’s first preseason game was both players’ opportunity to show growth in areas in need of improvement.

Taysom Hill was asked specifically what he’s tried to improve on this offseason, and he identified only two things - one was “coverage-based decision making” and the other was his throwing mechanics, specifically his footwork. As Jeff Nowak points out above on the pass intended for Ty Montgomery, the reason for Taysom’s interception was his failure to properly identify the coverage and make the correct decision (that is, the decision to anticipate the receiver stopping instead of continuing the route). But go back and watch the two passes highlighted above, the interception and the near-interception, and look at Taysom’s feet. His front foot stays planted and he’s throwing off of his back foot, with his weight forcing his torso backwards, almost like he’s trying a fadeaway jumper without the jump.

Compare that to Jameis Winston’s mechanics and footwork, where Jameis firmly plants down on his front foot, leaning forward into the throw instead of leaving his weight on his back foot and falling away from the pass.

Taysom said he wanted to work on two things: being able to properly identify coverage and make the correct read and adjust his footwork. On both of the plays shown above, when given the opportunity to show improvement on both fronts, Taysom failed to impress.

But footwork was not what Jameis Winston was working on. When we asked Jameis what he’s tried to improve on after having a year to sit behind Drew Brees, the answer was about decision-making to limit turnovers.

Like Taysom, Jameis also had the opportunity to show improvement. Jameis’s just came in the form of taking a sack. When Jameis had nowhere to throw the ball because coverage was tight across all of his receivers out running routes, instead of trying to force the play on third down, Jameis took the sack and let his team punt the ball back to the Ravens.

Instead of forcing a pass that could have resulted in an interception and the Ravens having a short field, Winston lived to fight another day. The Saints punted the ball to Baltimore, who immediately went three-and-out and punted the ball back to the Saints. When the Saints got the ball back after the Baltimore punt, Winston drove the Saints down the field for a touchdown to extend the Saints lead.

Yes, Winston technically outplayed Taysom in Week 1, finishing the game with a higher passer rating and responsible for fewer turnover-worthy plays while doing so without the starters on offense that Taysom had. But it is the little things that don’t show up on the box score that are tipping the scales in Jameis’s favor. Taysom might make a few splashy and exciting players here and there. Jameis might also, like Taysom, have a few passes that are slightly off-target. But Jameis is showing improvement in keys areas like decision-making and going through his progressions, while Taysom is still struggling to pick up defensive coverage schemes and maintain consistent throwing mechanics.

Drew Brees told Jameis Winston at the end of last season that this would be Jameis’s team now. It’s still early, and Jameis could unwind all of this progress by a poor showing this week with the starters against the Jacksonville Jaguars this week, but for now, it’s looking more and more like Drew Brees might have known what he was talking about. The competition is overall still too close to call, but another performance from both players like we saw last week, and it might be time to go ahead and call it.

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