METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton was sort of joking -- but not really -- when he said he told quarterbacks Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston, “Every time you guys check a ball down to the running back, you’ll get an article written.”
Payton has obviously been paying attention to either Saints Twitter or fantasy football Twitter. Because both fan bases have genuine concerns about whether New Orleans’ next starting QB can keep maximizing Alvin Kamara's talents as a pass-catcher the way Drew Brees did.
And Payton’s prediction was right. Winston has generated a ton of buzz through the first five practices of training camp -- not because of his prowess with the deep ball, but because he is consistently connecting with Kamara and others on timing throws and efficient checkdowns.
“Look, I understand it,” Payton said. “That’s all part of the offense, and you’re wanting to see some of the traits that maybe has made this offense go. And yet it’ll evolve and take on a little bit of a new life of its own based on who’s playing quarterback.
“But both of those guys are focused on being patient, obviously, and really understanding what the defense is trying to take away, and playing a little bit more efficiently.”
In Kamara’s first four seasons, he caught 81, 81, 81 and 83 passes for an average of 706 yards per year -- leading all NFL running backs in both categories over that span.
Alvin Kamara said Saints QBs Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill have both been eager to build their chemistry with Kamara in the passing game. Pretty smart idea, since Kamara should be the go-to guy for whichever QB wins the starting job. pic.twitter.com/gcLLZP6qlz— Mike Triplett (@MikeTriplett) July 29, 2021
However, Hill struggled to find a rhythm with Kamara during his four-game stint as the Saints' starter last year while Brees was hurt. In Hill’s first three starts, Kamara caught a total of three passes for seven yards on six targets. In the fourth game, they connected seven times for 44 yards, but Hill also threw an interception off Kamara’s hands when Hill was hit as he tried to get rid of a screen pass.
And Winston’s history of throwing more high-risk, high-reward passes down the field (88 career INTs) is well-chronicled.
Winston never completed more than 89 passes to all of his running backs combined during any of his five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- and that was during his rookie campaign in 2015. The only running back with more than 53 career receptions from Winston is Charles Sims, who has 98.
Rest assured, however, Winston has made it a top priority to take advantage of Kamara’s skill set.
“When you have a running back as talented as him, you make it a focal point to get guys like him the ball,” Winston said. “In my career, I’ve had dominant pass-catchers at the receiver position and at the tight end position. I’ve had great running backs, but not as dynamic as Alvin Kamara out of the backfield and in the slot position.”
Kamara laughed when asked if Winston has talked to him about building their chemistry in the passing game.
“Me and Jameis have talked a lot,” Kamara said. “He comes to me, and he’s like, he wants to know now. Like, ‘How do you see this? How do you like this?’ I’m like, ‘Jameis, we’re gonna get it. It’s all right. We’ve got a long time to go before we have to be perfect.’ He’s just eager to learn, and I love that about him.
“And Taysom, we’ve had time on task with a lot of these things, and he’s still the same way. He’s trying to learn the little intricacies and just new tricks. And just trying to be better -- that’s what everyone’s doing.”
It seems like a simple idea for both Saints quarterbacks to feed Kamara as much as possible. But Hill’s struggles to connect with Kamara last year (whether he didn’t get to him quickly enough in progressions or have ideal timing on screens or checkdowns) served as a reminder of something Adrian Peterson once said during his brief stint with the Saints in 2017.
Peterson has never been much of a pass-catcher in his career, but he thought that would change when he joined Brees because he had his best pass-catching seasons with Brett Favre in Minnesota.
"You've got different quarterbacks that see the field differently,” Peterson explained. “A lot of quarterbacks, when they go through their progression, they're stuck on one side. They're not seeing the backside checkdown or me leaking out in the flat ... You've got guys like Favre and Drew Brees, who are Hall of Famers for a reason.”
So it is fair to expect a drop-off without Brees, who completed more passes to running backs over the past five years than any quarterback in the NFL (547).
But the Saints will obviously make it a priority to use Kamara to the fullest. They must, especially with receiver Michael Thomas expected to miss time at the beginning of the season with an ankle injury.
The Saints will be counting on Kamara as much as they did last season, when he set career highs with 932 rushing yards, 83 receptions and 21 touchdowns in 15 games.
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. and quarterbacks coach Ronald Curry both said they won’t try to inhibit either quarterback from looking for big plays that suit their games -- like deep passes or Hill’s ability to run.
But the focus is making quicker and smarter decisions.
“Obviously you’re trying to get the ball to your playmakers, and Alvin’s one of the best at his position,” said Hill, who said Payton’s joke about the media celebrating check-down passes was “the first time I’ve heard that from a coach.”
“Sometimes we manufacture it, so he’s the No. 1 read. But I think as a quarterback, you can’t cripple yourself if you have something downfield,” Hill continued. “I think the emphasis is making the right decision.”