Jameis Winston’s injury is a blow to the Saints offense. Here’s why it doesn’t kill their playoff chances

The New Orleans Saints’ playoff hopes were dealt a blow on Sunday when starting quarterback Jameis Winston went down with what has since been confirmed as a torn ACL. Winston will be out for the rest of the season. New Orleans will likely finish this year with either Trevor Siemian, or Taysom Hill.

Winston’s career shortcomings have been discussed ad nauseam, but through seven games he was having what was shaping up to be a career year. Winston’s steadyness is a major reason why the Saints are now 5-2 and only a half-game behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

How does a quarterback change affect New Orleans in the future? It will likely limit an already conservative offense’s ability to score through the air, which is the easy answer.

Winston is known for his strong arm and willingness to take chances on long field shots. His turnaround this season was partially due to him doing less of those things. His 7.3 yards per attempt this year are the second-lowest of any season he’s been a starter, and his 167.1 yards per game are by far the lowest of his career. But he was more successful than ever when he took shots. An impressive 8.7% of his throws led to touchdowns, and only 1.9% were intercepted. This was also a career high.

Saints Coach Sean Payton was unable to identify his starter Monday, but it is likely that the game plan will change, regardless of whether it’s Siemian, Hill, or both.

Trevor Siemian

It is easier for a player with all of the arm talent in this world, such as Winston, to dial it back than to ask someone with less talent to do more. Siemian, Winston’s replacement in Sunday’s game was not a problem, but it was obvious that the Saints’ passing game was limited with Siemian under center. He completed just 55% of his 29 attempts while averaging just 5.5 yards.

While it’s possible there was rust for someone who hasn’t played in a game since 2019, it’s more likely what Siemian showed Sunday is exactly who he is. For his career, Siemian is a sub-60% passer who averages 6.7 yards per attempt. His 3.6 career touchdown rate is lower than any season in Winston’s entire career.

Can the Saints win without him? Sure, the Broncos rode a strong defense to a 13-11 record in Siemian starts from 2016-17, but they weren’t a playoff team either season. Even after Sunday’s 36-point explosion, the Saints are still just 13th with an average of 25.1 points per game and 26th with an average of 5.0 yards per play. Siemian has proven to be a better game manager than Winton this season. This could mean that the Saints’ numbers will drop further. Alvin Kamara, the rushing attack, and Saints would be required to rely more heavily on them in order to win games on both the defensive and offensive sides of the ball.

Taysom Hill

New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill (7) warms up before an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Hill was in a preseason fight with Winston for the starting position. He has been out since suffering from a concussion in Week 5. Payton stated that Hill was making progress but did not declare him back. Hill could return to the starting position and adds an element of dynamic to the offense by being a runner, something Winston didn’t do.

Hill has 14 career rushing touchdowns and another seven as a receiver. He led the Saints to an impressive 3-1 record in his four starts last season, replacing Drew Brees who was injured. His career averaged 7.7 yards per pass attempt. Hill, like Siemian has some limitations when it comes to throwing the ball. The four touchdowns he tossed during that four-game span in 2020 are the only he’s thrown in his career.

In the preseason, Hill’s inability of consistently completing passes down the field like Winston stood out. Although New Orleans’ ability extend the field will not be negated if Hill takes over as starter, it won’t be the same. The Saints will need to have a strong run team, which would include Hill, and a defense that allowed only the fourth-fewest points per games this season.

Verdict

The Saints’ best route to the playoffs was, even before Winston’s injury. A wild card spot was always going to be their best option, and it still looks like a possibility. New Orleans has five wins already and the remaining schedule includes games against the Falcons, Eagles, Jets Jets Dolphins and Panthers. The team should be able to win most of these games, regardless of its offensive limitations.

Beyond is where things get tricky for this team. The Bucs (-429) still hold shorter odds than New Orleans (+280) to win the NFC South on Tipico Sportsbook. The Saints have the sixth shortest odds to win the NFC at +1500.

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