It’s a shame that we’ll probably never get a true look at what the New Orleans Saints would’ve looked like with Jameis Winston running the offense at full strength.
The cupboard was far from bare when Drew Brees called it a career after the 2020 season. If it wasn’t for the contents of that cupboard, there is no way the Saints would have been able to win their division, a wild-card game, and host the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Divisional Round.
In 2021, the roster was roughly the same, and New Orleans got off to a blazing 5-2 start with Winston as its quarterback. Then, after averaging 10 yards per carry at the start of a home game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he went down for the rest of the season with an ACL injury. The Saints finished the year 9-8, which wasn’t good enough to snag a wild-card spot in the expanded playoffs.
With the drafting of Chris Olave, and the return of Winston as the starting quarterback, there were expectations for the Saints this season — even without Sean Payton as head coach. Winston was solid in New Orleans’ Week 1 victory (23-of-34, 269 yards, two touchdowns, no picks) but he suffered four back fractures in that game. He tried to tough it out, but even though he threw for a lot of yards, he was clearly laboring and the Saints didn’t crack 20 points in two consecutive games. Winston has been on the sidelines since Week 4.
For those of you young whippersnappers who have never dealt with real back pain before, it’s stifling. A sore knee or ankle results in a limp. A sore back can get so bad that breathing deeply becomes painful. Per a report from NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, complications from a 2020 ACL surgery resulted in Odell Beckham Jr. tearing it again in Feb. 2022 during the Super Bowl. It’s early Nov. 2022 and OBJ is reportedly ready to play professional football. Complications from Steve Kerr’s 2015 back surgery left him unable to stand and coach a basketball team for nearly three months.
Andy Dalton has been the man behind center for the Saints since Week 4, and they have only won two more games. New Orleans had a chance to make themselves serious players in an NFC South with every team under .500 if it had won last night against the Baltimore Ravens. However, the offense was ineffective in a 27-13 home loss. If not for a fourth-quarter 41-yard touchdown pass in which Marcus Peters and Chuck Clark forgot that only a referee can stop a play, it’s highly unlikely that the ‘Aints would have reached double digits.
Still, New Orleans hung around in the game for much of the night even without a productive offense which begs the question: What could this offense have been with Winston?
Sure he threw 30 interceptions in his last full season as a starter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019, but he also tallied 33 touchdowns, over 5,000 passing yards, and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt. There was a lot of coaching turnover when he was with the Buccaneers. The Saints provide much more stability. The head coach for most of Winston’s time in Tampa, Dirk Koetter, was supposed to be a quarterback whisperer. The Bucs never made the playoffs, and Koetter would end up the second of three head coaches Winston would have. Koetter is currently Boise State’s interim offensive coordinator.
New Orleans’ current head coach, Dennis Allen, has been with the franchise since 2015. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. has held that role since 2009. For the first time in Winston’s career, he got to experience organizational stability. No systems or philosophies were going to change. Winston was not only going to inherit a strong roster with the Saints, but get to work with people who weren’t in jeopardy of losing their jobs.
At 3-6, the Saints need to start thinking about drafting a young quarterback who they can more easily mold into the player they want him to be.
If Winston doesn’t get hurt last year, maybe he picks up where Brees left off and the team wins the NFC South. He could’ve possibly powered that offense through the playoffs and maybe even won a Super Bowl by knocking off a Los Angeles Rams team that, while talented, was far from perfect.
Winston’s whole NFL career could’ve taken a different trajectory if it didn’t get halted by these injuries. Instead, he and the Saints will likely end this season with no clear answer on what either of their futures holds.