Hill’s performance in Sunday’s 24-21 loss at Philadelphia wasn’t really all that different from his total body of work in his previous three victories. He actually threw for a career-high 291 yards and made two excellent touchdown throws to Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook while trying to rally from a 17-0 halftime deficit.
However Hill missed some opportunities, held the ball too long while being sacked five times and committed two costly turnovers -- nagging issues that caught up to him and the Saints on a day when coach Sean Payton said the entire team “didn’t look ready to play” in any phase.
As a result, Hill’s future as the potential long-term successor to Drew Brees remains about as unsettled as it was four weeks ago.
“I thought he played all right,” said Payton, who was less forgiving of Hill’s miscues than he had been in previous weeks. “I'm watching the tape, he's still slow on a few decisions. He's to the wrong side of the field a few times relative to making decisions. And I don't like the fact that the ball was out again [Hill’s 10th fumble and fifth lost fumble of the season]."
Hill’s fumble wasn’t his most egregious, since it came during a sack on a fourth-and-2 play from the Eagles' 42-yard line in the fourth quarter -- and it wouldn’t have done him any good to tuck the ball away. However, the play itself was a missed opportunity in a critical moment. Hill’s first read didn’t come open, and he was unable to find another option or use his legs to keep the drive alive.
“In hindsight it's one of those where you can just throw the ball up to a man when it's fourth down,” said Hill, who said he was looking to see if receiver Tre’Quan Smith had gotten free as a second option on the sideline when he “got hit in the back.”
Hill also threw his second interception of the season in the first half when he rushed a screen pass to Alvin Kamara to avoid pressure. Hill didn’t put enough touch on the pass, which was tipped and snagged out of the air.
“The screen pass needs to be out quicker with a little bit less velocity, a little bit easier,” Payton said. “If they're rushing, there's a blitz he's faced with, back up and just dump it off to the running back. So there's some things that he’s gotta clean up.”
It’s unclear how many more starts Hill will get -- if any -- as Brees recovers from 11 broken ribs and a punctured lung.
League sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Sunday the Saints wouldn’t rush to bring back Brees in time for their Week 15 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. But Brees said he is "close" in his weekly Sunday night interview with Cox Sports Television.
“Each week I feel better,” Brees told CST. “I obviously have a plan in place as to the benchmarks that I need to hit in order to get to where I know that I can play and play effectively for this team. And all I can say is I’m close.
“There’s a recovery element, there's a strength element. And I’ll know when that time comes.”
Hill is running low on opportunities to cement his place as a leading contender for the 2021 starting job if Brees retires this offseason.
Hill should be in the running, at the very least. Payton again reiterated in media interviews last week he thinks the Saints’ next quarterback is “in the building” -- meaning either Hill or Jameis Winston, who is scheduled to be a free agent after this season. Of course the Saints could choose to draft a quarterback even if they keep Hill, Winston or both.
Hill, who is getting a late start at age 30, has exceeded some expectations as a thrower, proving he is not just a “gimmick” as some critics had suggested. He has completed 82 of 114 passes in his four starts (an impressive 71.9%) for 834 yards, four TDs and two interceptions.
However, he hasn’t performed as well when plays get off schedule. He has been sacked 13 times in four starts.
And the biggest surprise is Hill’s legs haven’t been more of a weapon after he emerged as such a special runner in a read-option role over the past three years.
Hill has run the ball a total of 39 times for 209 yards and four TDs in his four starts. He ran the ball five times for 33 yards in Sunday’s loss -- in contrast to Eagles rookie Jalen Hurts, who ran the ball 18 times for 106 yards in his NFL starting debut.
“A lot of it is the look you're getting [from the defense],” Payton explained when asked why the Saints haven’t featured Hill’s running ability more.
And when asked what the balance should be for Hill between looking to find an open receiver downfield or taking off and running when the pressure is coming, Payton said, “That’s a good question.”
“I mean, there's a clock in your head relative to the down and distance,” Payton said. “And typically on your normal early downs, you get a feel pretty soon of when your time's up and you're going or when you're staying with the read.”
When asked the same question after Sunday’s game, Hill said, “It's a work in progress.”
“Sometimes they get you and sometimes you get them,” Hill said. “I would say that when I feel pressure, my eyes are down the field and I'm trying to find a guy to get the ball to. And then it's just finding that balance of, ‘Man, you could go get seven, eight, nine, 10 yards before contact [if you run].’ And I think it's one of those things that we’ll in the future continue to be more and more comfortable with that, and what our rules are and our receivers expecting to get the ball when they see me outside the pocket.”
One area where Hill has universally drawn praise throughout the past month is his poise and confidence. Hill handled the pressure of his first start extremely well and has continued to display those traits, even while playing from behind at Philly.
“I would say that he's had that, but it's even grown [over the four starts],” center Erik McCoy said. “His confidence is unshakable. No matter how many times he gets hit, no matter what happens, he gets back up, he's on to the next play. And I feel like we really saw that [Sunday], getting down early, to give him a chance to really show who he was.”