Maybe I should wait for the Saints to extend their winning streak to 10 games before writing this, but consider it the beginning of the build-up for possibly the biggest game this regular season when the Chiefs (11-1) face the Saints (10-2) in Week 15.
Both No. 1 seeds could swing on the outcome of that game, and it could end up being the return of quarterback Drew Brees, who has been out with fractured ribs and a collapsed lung.
The Saints have won their last three games without Brees, starting Taysom Hill in his place. You may also recall that the Saints were 5-0 last year with Teddy Bridgewater starting for an injured Brees.
That adds up to an 8-0 record without Brees the last two years, and that’s not something you can sneak past the mainstream media.
It doesn’t take much scrolling in the replies to such tweets to see labels of “system QB” being thrown at Brees. Including 2020 in his record, Brees is now one of four notable QBs I have tracked that saw the backup win over 60% of starts when the starter was out.
The fact is the Saints have gone 8-0 without Brees the last two seasons by playing great team football against mostly bad teams instead of just relying on great quarterback efficiency.
If a team is well coached with a good roster, then there is a chance for success without the intended quarterback. These teams understand that the defense has to play even better to compensate for the loss of offensive efficiency, provided there is a decline with the backup (there usually is). The running game has to step up too. The special teams need to be solid.
Let’s look at how the Saints have actually done the last two years with and without Brees.
The Passing Stats
Teddy Bridgewater was a starting QB in Minnesota before his horrific knee injury. He’s a starting QB again in 2020 with Carolina. He’s not a top 10 guy and has limitations, but he is a starter in this league. Hill was still recently available as a tight end in fantasy football leagues. He’s a much bigger project than usual for the position — more than backup Jameis Winston would have been — but so far Sean Payton is making it work, and we know he has more confidence and faith in Hill than anyone on Earth.
On the surface, the passing stats for Bridgewater/Hill look respectable compared to Brees the last two years. Brees has completed 74% of his passes at 7.66 YPA (45 TD, 7 INT) while the others are at 68.6% and 7.31 YPA (11 TD, 3 INT). Certainly better numbers than the average backup in this league. Remember, Payton gets paid well to coach too. Those backups also provide more rushing value than Brees as Hill already has five rushing touchdowns this season.
However, once you start factoring in the down-and-distance on these plays, the notable difference in sack rates (3.8% for Brees, 6.5% for Hill/Teddy), and adjust the numbers for opponents, you get a different picture.
By ESPN’s QBR, you get a top 3 season with Brees the last two years that turns into a below-average one with Hill and Bridgewater if they had enough attempts to qualify for the season rankings.
- Drew Brees – 81.0 (ranked 3rd)
- Taysom Hill – 54.3 (would rank 26th)
- Drew Brees – 73.3 (ranked 3rd)
- Teddy Bridgewater – 50.9 (would rank 22nd)
Since joining the Saints in 2006, Brees has never ranked lower than 9th (2017) in a season in QBR.
We don’t have QBR for the days of Johnny Unitas and Roger Staubach, but when Tom Brady missed the 2008 season with a torn ACL, the Patriots led the league in first downs and Matt Cassel, a QB who hadn’t started since high school, finished 9th in QBR (63.4). When Jimmy Garoppolo had to start two games in 2016 for a suspended Brady, his QBR was a scintillating 87.5.
That’s a lot different than when Peyton Manning missed the 2011 season for Indianapolis. Curtis Painter’s 30.9 QBR would have ranked next to last. Dan Orlovsky’s 47.3 QBR would have ranked 22nd. Manning was at his professional worst in his final season with Denver in 2015 (44.2 QBR ranked 28th), but it’s not like Brock Osweiler (54.9, ranked 20th) was a significant upgrade. Manning reclaimed his starting job in Week 17 and the rest is history.
Likewise, Ben Roethlisberger missed the last 14.5 games last season and Mason Rudolph finished dead last in QBR (36.2). Devlin Hodges (31.8) would have ranked even lower if he had a few more plays to qualify. And for those keeping score at home, Brett Hundley (44.8) ranked 24th in QBR for the 2017 Packers when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone for the second time. QBR actually despised Green Bay’s Matt Flynn in 2013. His 18.3 QBR would be the second-worst season since 2006, only beating out 2010 Jimmy Clausen (13.8).
If you need that in a chart, then here you go.
So if you’re questioning why there’s still a stigma with Brady being more of a system QB than the other elites of his era, this is why in a nutshell. You see less of an offensive drop-off when you take him out of things. It’s also because the coach there was Bill Belichick, and love him or hate him, the guy knows how to coach.
The Other Offensive Stats
So we shouldn’t expect the Saints to have the same passing dominance without Brees, but what about the impact on scoring and the other offensive stats to get to 8-0?
Note: This won’t be a perfect comparison since Brees left the 2019 Rams loss early with injury and did not play the second half of the 2020 49ers win due to injury. Also, Taysom Hill is sprinkled into every game, because Sean Payton.
With Brees (15-5 record): 30.2 points per game, 380.1 yards per game, 22.9 first downs per game, 44.9% on third down.
Without Brees (8-0 record): 25.1 points per game, 353.8 yards per game, 20.8 first downs per game, 43.2% on third down.
As expected, the Saints with Brees score over 5 more points per game while averaging more yards, first downs and a higher conversion rate on third down. Not astronomically higher numbers, but still significant.
The scoring also doesn’t factor out return touchdowns. The Saints have five of those since 2019, but two of them came in the 33-27 win in Seattle that Bridgewater started. That helped a lot that day.
The offense has been more than serviceable without Brees, but it’s not the same level of greatness without him. It’s had an interesting effect on the main skill players in this offense too. Michael Thomas has gone over 100 yards in both Atlanta games with Hill as his passer, but Brees has rarely been able to play with Thomas this year because of injury.
The more interesting case is Alvin Kamara, who was having the best receiving season of his career in order to make up for the absence of Thomas (and Emmanuel Sanders some weeks). In three games with Hill as the starter, Kamara has 3 catches for 7 yards. In Week 11 against Atlanta, Kamara had the first game of his career without a reception. He followed that up with -2 receiving yards on one catch against Denver. He had 2 catches for 9 yards in the Atlanta rematch on Sunday.
As for the running game, the Saints averaged 113 yards and 4.26 YPC for Brees compared to 147 yards and 4.55 YPC for the backups. So they are running it more and a little better without Brees, but that can be misleading when Hill is a big part of the running game. He already was before taking over as the starter, but since Brees’ latest injury, Hill is getting over 10 runs a game now. He had 14 carries for 83 yards on Sunday in Atlanta, his most prolific rushing game yet. Again, these numbers can be difficult to present since Payton loves Hill so much and was playing him while Brees was the quarterback. For instance, Hill had 54 rushing yards, his second-highest game, in the 38-3 rout of the Buccaneers this year.
Ultimately, everything with this offense without Brees points to still being solid, but not as great. So what’s the real reason for 8-0?
The Defense and the Schedule
While the Saints lose over 5 points per game in scoring without Brees, they more than make up for it on defense.
- Points allowed per game with Brees: 23.1
- Points allowed per game without Brees: 15.0
Can a big-time offensive mind get his team to go 8-0 when they’re only allowing 15 points a week? Absolutely. The Saints won two games last year when they didn’t score 14 points (12-10 vs. Dallas, 13-6 at Jaguars). They have one such win with Brees since 2006.
Seth Galina had a breakdown of the EPA for the defense in these games:
- With Brees: Saints’ average spread is -6 since 2019 (10-10 ATS)
- Without Brees: Saints’ average spread is -1.5 since 2019 (8-0 ATS)
Vegas doesn’t like the Saints as much without Brees, but they are an impressive 8-0 ATS without him. However, this is where the schedule and improved play on defense intersect. The Saints are not beating good teams without Brees. In fact, out of the eight opponents, only the 2019 Seahawks made the playoffs as a wild card team. We know the 2020 Falcons (4-8) and Broncos (4-8) are not going to finish with a winning record. Brees played at least seven likely playoff teams (maybe eight if Las Vegas makes it) in his 20-game sample.
That Seattle win was the first game without Brees and it was the one with the worst point spread for the Saints (+5). It was also the game where the Saints scored two return touchdowns and built a 33-14 lead before Russell Wilson led a couple late touchdown drives to make it look closer at 33-27. The last touchdown came on the final snap, an untimed down at that. Bridgewater passed for 177 yards with 146 of them going to Kamara (92) and Thomas (54). He was solid, but not spectacular. The Saints also had a 28-yard touchdown drive set up by the Seahawks turning the ball over on downs.
It was a great team win for New Orleans, but it’s also the only game where you wonder if the Saints would have won if Brees was the quarterback. Would they have still scored two return touchdowns if they thought they could just rely on the offense to do its normal thing? We’ll never know.
Beat the Chiefs with Hill and Then We’ll Talk
What’s next for the Saints? Why, of course, they get the 3-8-1 Eagles with rookie Jalen Hurts making his first start. Now this could be a trap game as Doug Pederson will want to look good on his decision to bench Carson Wentz. The Eagles have been within one score in the fourth quarter of every game this season, and there was a spark provided by Hurts in Green Bay on Sunday. So it’s an interesting game for multiple reasons, but it’s also one where you think the Saints would win comfortably if Brees was the quarterback.
For the Saints to continue the winning streak and keep Green Bay out of the No. 1 seed, they will have to get Brees back in the lineup. It is hard to see Hill outscoring Patrick Mahomes in Week 15, but then again, 2020 has been anything but predictable.