NEW ORLEANS -- Sean Payton probably didn’t need a Week 11 win against the 3-7 Atlanta Falcons to cement his legacy as one of the NFL’s all-time great offensive coaches.
It wasn’t just about this one game -- which the Saints wound up winning fairly easily, 24-9, thanks as much to their defense as their dual-threat quarterback. It was more about Payton’s unwavering faith in Hill over the course of four years now.
When he first told Fox’s Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in a 2017 production meeting that he believed the undrafted rookie could be Drew Brees’ heir.
When he compared Hill to Steve Young two years later.
When the Saints signed Hill to a two-year, $21 million contract this past offseason as a restricted free agent.
At every turn, Payton was heavily scrutinized for showing so much confidence in a quarterback who is now 30 years old and had only attempted 20 career passes, including the playoffs, before Sunday. But Payton has repeatedly made it clear -- both publicly and privately – that he was dead serious.
And even if you remain in the camp that believes Hill is not a safe bet for long-term success, you can no longer argue with the concept that Payton is capable of winning with the unique athlete behind center.
No, Hill’s 233 passing yards and 51 rushing yards didn’t prove he is about to follow Young from BYU to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It doesn't mean he's a lock to replace Brees as the Saints' future full-time starter. It doesn’t even guarantee that he’ll keep winning while Brees is sidelined for at least two more games.
But the fact that Hill completed 18 of 23 passes and ran for two touchdowns while leading the Saints to their seventh consecutive win should remind everyone that Payton is pretty good at his job. As a game planner. As a playcaller. And as someone who can evaluate the talent he would like to work with.
Payton has now won six straight games without Brees at quarterback, dating back to Teddy Bridgewater’s 5-0 stint as a replacement starter last year -- not to mention Payton’s 141 wins with Brees at QB, including the playoffs and Super Bowl XLIV.
If he sees traits in a quarterback that he believes he can design an offense around, we should probably give him some benefit of the doubt.
“We’ve had a chance to see him play that position a lot more than anyone else. When the fans have seen him, he’s been in a different role,” Payton told ESPN’s Dianna Russini before Sunday’s game -- a reference to how Hill has been used as a read-option QB/RB/WR/TE/FB/special-teamer over the years.
Payton also made an important point to Russini that Hill “deserves this opportunity” after how willing he has been to play so many different roles for the Saints on offense and special teams over the years.
Payton didn’t take many victory laps after Sunday’s game. In fact, he actually instructed the media to stop asking questions about Hill at one point and ask about the defense instead, since that unit was so instrumental in the win with eight sacks and an interception.
But Payton couldn’t resist at least one clap back on social media, when he retweeted a pregame taunt by former Falcons receiver Roddy White that suggested the Saints were “about to get whip” for going with Hill at quarterback.
Sure, Payton’s hubris probably played some role in his decision to start Hill on Sunday and maybe shut a few people up in the process (which was one of the most popular criticisms heading into Sunday’s game).
But you don’t become one of the NFL’s all-time greats if you don’t have a healthy dose of self-confidence.