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What Sean Payton’s hiring means for Russell Wilson - can we learn from Drew Brees?

Can we learn from what Sean Payton’s influence meant for Drew Brees career and project what it might mean for Russell Wilson’s?

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

In 2005, the season before Sean Payton took over as head coach in New Orleans, the Saints were 3-13 and had the second-worst scoring offense in the league and fourth-worst scoring defense. They also had Aaron Brooks as their starting QB.

Payton came in and took a chance on Drew Brees. Brees had just finished leading the Chargers to a 9-7 record and the Chargers decided to ride with Philip Rivers, who the team had traded for after Eli Manning refused to play for them. With so much invested in Rivers, they had no choice but to let Brees walk.

Payton and Brees were a great combination. Their first season together in 2006 would be the ONLY year that Brees would be first-team All-Pro (he was named a second-team All-Pro in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2018). It would be Brees first season (of many) with more than 4,000 passing yards. It would also mark the beginning of the Drew Brees that will soon be in the NFL Hall of Fame.

Let’s look at Brees career stats while a Charger versus a Saint.

Year Tm G GS QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% AY/A Y/C Y/G Rate Sk Yds Sk% ANY/A
2001-2005 SDG 59 58 30-28-0 1125 1809 62.2 12348 80 4.4 53 2.9 6.4 11 209.3 84.9 92 724 4.80 5.70
2006-2020 NOR 228 228 142-86-0 6017 8742 68.8 68010 491 5.6 190 2.2 7.9 11.3 298.3 101.5 328 2267 3.60 7.39

The two most critical things for me are completion percentage, TD/INT and passer rating.

All improved dramatically for Brees once he got to New Orleans and got to work with Sean Payton.

TD/INT ratio is not shown on the table but it went from 1.5:1.0 up to 2.6:1.0. That’s a huge improvement and it’s much greater than the improvement of the league in general over the same time frame (see below).

I know the haters are going to say that this had more to do with Brees’ innate talents than Payton’s play design (and play calling), but you have to admit that Sean Payton “unlocked” that potential that had been in Brees that his coaches in San Diego were unable to.

The haters are also going to say that Brees was much younger when he started working with Payton (27) and that Brees is a much different QB than Russell Wilson (who will be 35 next season). Both facts are undeniable, but I’m not sure they are material.

Brees made a career of quick throws to the right receiver. So far, Russell Wilson’s putative HoF career has been predicated on buying time in the pocket with his legs and then making amazingly accurate downfield throws to open receivers - receivers that were open solely because of his ability to evade pressure in the pocket and his ability to run with the ball.

Brees is credited with 220 kneel downs during his career (for -220 yards). The NFL kneel down data only goes back to 2001, but Brees first season as a starter was 2002. Brees finished his career with 498 carries, 752 yards, but since the NFL still counts a kneel down as a carry, he actually only had only 278 carries for 972 yards (3.5 YPC).

Wilson is a QB who has used his ability to run as a very effective weapon throughout his career. Brees did not.

Wilson owns two of the seven seasons where a QB ran for 8.0 or more actual yards per carry (factoring out kneel downs). Michael Vick had three during his career (see above).

And yes, running QBs tend to run less as they get older and lose some of their speed and quickness, but old QBs can still run. The man who Brees replaced in San Diego, Doug Flutie, had 476 yards rushing at the age of 37 in 1999. Hall of Famer Steve Young had 454 yards rushing at the same age in 1998.

Of course I’m not advocating for Payton to force Wilson to run more at the age of 35 next season, but I know it can still be an effective offensive weapon for him if used sparingly and at the right time - similar to how Steve Young and Doug Flutie used it late in their careers.

I don’t know if Sean Payton can turn Russell Wilson into Drew Brees, but here’s the rub — he doesn’t have to. All Sean Payton needs to do is to craft an offense that will maximize what Russ can still do well, which is to throw accurately and deep. Despite having a down year in 2022, Russ is still 18th all-time in career completion percentage. Brees is No. 2 all-time behind Joe Burrow.

Brees before Payton completed only 62.2 percent of his throws. Brees with Payton completed 68.8 percent. Russell has completed 64.6 percent for his career, but 2022 was a career low for him at 60.5 percent. Completion percentage was one of a number of stats in which Wilson had career worsts in 2022. Some of the others were passer rating (84.4), TD% (3.3), sacks (55), first downs (142), total TDs (19) and passing TDs (16).

All Payton needs to do is find a way to make Russ in 2023 play like Russ in 2021 when he completed 64.8% of his throws for 25 TDs with only 6 INTs while only being sacked 33 times in 14 games.

In terms of running with the ball, Wilson has 144 kneel downs during his career (for -157 yards), but only seven with Denver in 2022. That means that for his career he has 757 actual carries for 5123 yards (6.77 YPC). That being said he only had 48 actual runs (for 284 actual yards - 5.92 YPC) in 2022 (15 GS). In other words, he only ran the ball about three times per game. That’s a far cry from his younger self, who ran the ball 99 times (removing kneel downs) in 2014 (16 GS) - that’s more than double the actual runs per game.

One of the things that Payton was great at during his career was scheming receivers open in the red zone. The Broncos' offense was terrible at this in 2022 (and has been for a number of years) and this led to a horrible red zone TD rate early in the season (Denver finished 16th after being dead last for the first eight or nine games).

Before you say that Payton’s red zone TD success in New Orleans was all Drew Brees, you should know that in 2020 the Saints finished 5th in RZTD% with Brees only playing 12 games. The previous season with Brees only playing 11 games, they were 11th in red zone TD percentage. They were 11th in 2021 with Drew Brees retired.

If we focus on the games in which Drew Brees did not play in his final two seasons, the Saints' offense had 30 drives that reached the red zone, 21 of which ended in touchdowns (70%). Over those two seasons, the Saints scored on 66.4% overall and 65.2% with Brees (62 of 95). So the Saints offense was actually a little more efficient at scoring TDs in the red zone without Brees than with him in 2019 and 2020. The 2019 Saints had Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill taking red zone snaps while Brees was out. In 2020 it was exclusively Hill (Jameis Winston had zero red zone snaps).

If you look solely at 2021, the first season where Brees was not on the team, the Saints scored TDs on 33 of 56 red zone drives (58.9%). So while that is lower than with Drew Brees in 2019 and 2020, it is still decent and fairly close. The average for the league in 2021 was 58.4 percent.

For comparison sake, the Saints from 2019 to 2021 scored TDs on 116 of 181 red zone trips (64.0%). Over that same time the Broncos scored TDs on 73 of 140 (52.1%). Not only did the Saints offense get many more drives into the red zone but they scored TDs on them at a much higher rate. The Saints had the 8th best RZTD% over those three seasons while the Broncos had the second worst. The Seahawks, with Russell Wilson, were the third best, scoring TDs on nearly 70% of their (69.6%) red zone trips over those three seasons (during which Russell Wilson started all but three games.

So let’s shift the focus a bit to Wilson. He has been named to the Pro Bowl every year during his career with the exception of two - 2016 and 2022. In 2016 he had a down year for him, throwing only 21 TD passes with 11 interceptions while running for only 272 actual yards on 60 actual carries (4.53 YPC). The YPC number is a career low for Wilson (both reported and actual). He also only had 18 rushing first downs in 2016 and only one rushing TD.

So let’s assume that he can bounce back from 2016 like he did in 2017. In 2017 Wilson ran for 602 actual yards on 82 actual carries (7.34 YPC) while completing 61.3% of his throws (worst career comp% before 2022) for 34 touchdowns (career high) with only 11 INTs. So he improved by 13 passing touchdowns (and two rushing TDs) while throwing the same number of INTs. FWIW, he had Darrell Bevell calling the plays both seasons.

I don’t think a similar bounce-back year is out of the question with Payton scheming the offense for Wilson in 2023.

Keep in mind that in his final season as the head coach of the Saints, Payton had four different QBs start a game: Taysom Hill (9), Jameis Winston (7), Trevor Siemian (4), and Ian Book (1). The Saints still managed to finish 9-8 with that group of limited QBs. Even a 35-year-old Wilson is better than any of those four at their best, in my opinion, and I am excited to see what Payton can get out of Wilson.


Which QB statistic do you think Sean Payton’s presence will help Russell Wilson improve the most in 2023 relative to 2022?

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Passer rating (career low 84.4)
    (98 votes)
  • 29%
    Passing TDs (career low 16)
    (121 votes)
  • 25%
    Completion percentage (career low 60.5)
    (105 votes)
  • 11%
    Sacks (career worst 55)
    (50 votes)
  • 6%
    TD% (career low 3.3%)
    (27 votes)
  • 3%
    Passing yards (3524 in 2022)
    (16 votes)
417 votes total Vote Now