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Defining the ‘Sean Payton’ quarterback

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By: Joe Mahoney

Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

What type of QB does Sean Payton need to effectively run his offense?

The two word answer to the titular question is “Drew Brees”, but how do you know who, if any, of the current college QBs are the “Breesiest”? For that we need some history and some data.

Sean Payton got his start in the NFL as the QB coach for the Eagles in 1997. In the table below I have listed the QBs with whom Sean Payton has worked at every stop during his NFL career (although I didn’t go too deeply into who QB2 was during the majority of Brees’ career).

Season Team Coaching Role QB1 QB2 QB3
1997 Philadelphia Eagles Quarterbacks Ty Detmer Bobby Hoying Rodney Peete
1998 Philadelphia Eagles Quarterbacks Bobby Hoying Koy Detmer Rodney Peete
1999 New York Giants Quarterbacks Kerry Collins Kent Graham
2000 New York Giants Offensive Coordinator Kerry Collins
2001 New York Giants Offensive Coordinator Kerry Collins
2002 New York Giants Offensive Coordinator Kerry Collins Jesse Palmer
2003 Dallas Cowboys Asst. Head Coach/Quarterbacks Quincy Carter Chad Hutchinson
2004 Dallas Cowboys Asst. Head Coach/Quarterbacks Vinny Testaverde Drew Hensen
2005 Dallas Cowboys Asst. Head Coach/Passing Game Coordinator Drew Bledsoe
2006 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Drew Brees
2007 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Drew Brees
2008 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Drew Brees
2009 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Drew Brees
2010 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Drew Brees
2011 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Drew Brees
2012 New Orleans Saints Head Coach (Suspended for 2012 season) Drew Brees
2013 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Drew Brees
2014 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Drew Brees
2015 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Drew Brees
2016 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Drew Brees
2017 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Drew Brees
2018 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Drew Brees Teddy Bridgewater
2019 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Drew Brees Teddy Bridgewater
2020 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Drew Brees Taysom Hill Jameis Winston
2021 New Orleans Saints Head Coach Jameis Winston Taysom Hill Trevor Siemian
2023 Denver Broncos Head Coach Russell Wilson Jarrett Stidham

So while Payton spent the majority of his career working with Drew Brees, he had multiple seasons with other QBs including Rodney Peete, Kerry Collins, Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill (who no longer plays QB). Trying to find similarities between these very different QBs seemed like a fool’s errand, so I decided to focus on what Drew Brees did using the Next Gen Stats data that we have for him from 2016 onward. Brees was the primary starting QB for the New Orleans Saints until his retirement after the 2020 season. We can also use data from PFR like success rate which is a stat that I discussed in my directional passing deep dive from the 2023 season.

Brees’, who will be a first ballot Hall of Fame QB, success rate by season is shown below. Asterisk denotes Pro Bowl selection, + = first team AP All-Pro

Year Age TEAM Succ% NFL Rank
2001 22 SDG 48.3
2002 23 SDG 42.7
2003 24 SDG 35.3
2004* 25 SDG 48.3
2005 26 SDG 48.2
2006*+ 27 NOR 50.0 3
2007 28 NOR 53.0 4
2008* 29 NOR 52.0 2
2009* 30 NOR 53.9 3
2010* 31 NOR 51.2 3
2011* 32 NOR 56.5 1
2012* 33 NOR 50.3 5
2013* 34 NOR 52.0 3
2014* 35 NOR 52.9 2
2015 36 NOR 48.5 8
2016* 37 NOR 53.9 1
2017* 38 NOR 51.6 1
2018* 39 NOR 57.3 1
2019* 40 NOR 56.2 1
2020 41 NOR 52.6 7

Notice that even in his worst season in New Orleans, Brees was successful on 48.5% of his throws. His best success rate came in the 2018 season when he was successful on 57.3 of his throws. Remember that success means gaining 40% of the needed yards on a first down throw, 60% of the needed yards on a second down throw and converting on a third or fourth down throw. Only five QBs had a success rate greater than 50% this season

  1. Brock Purdy – 54.7
  2. Dak Prescott 51.5
  3. Jared Goff 50.9
  4. Tua Tagovailoa – 50.8
  5. Josh Allen – 50.7

Not surprisingly all five led their teams to the playoffs. To put Brees success rate into perspective, he averaged 52.6 during his entire time in New Orleans and only Brock Purdy bested that this season. In fact if you look at Brees’ NFL rank in success rate during his time in NO, he never finished lower than 8th and he averaged a third place finish. He also led the league in four straight seasons.

So Drew Brees made the right pass, the right decision, better than half of the time in his career. In other words, he put the ball in the hands of the players who could get the needed yards to keep the sticks moving. He kept the offense “ahead of the chains”.

For what it’s worth, Russell Wilson had a success rate of 43.3 this past season which was 23rd among qualifiers.

One way that Drew Brees was able to keep the offense moving was by making quick decisions with the ball. This can be seen in both average time in the pocket and average time to throw. Average time in the pocket is the average time in seconds before a QB either threw the ball or had the pocket collapse on him. Average to time throw is fairly self-explanatory.

The table below shows average time to throw (TT) for 2023. (from NFL Next Gen Stats).

Notice that Russ took a long time to get rid of the ball in 2023.

Comparison of the pocket time and TT is shown below. You can see that some guys had little difference between pocket time and average time to throw while others had large differences. Those with large differences are QBs who would move out of a crumbling pocket to create a throw instead of just scrambling.

At 2.7s Russ had one of the longest pocket times in the league last season (showing that much of the pressure that he faced was self-inflicted).

Another thing that “Sean Payton QBs” know how to do is get rid of the ball (throw it away) when there is nothing there. One stat that I could not find was throwaway percentage (percentage of dropbacks that result in a throwaway). PFR has throwaway totals so using that I put together the table below to see how often various QBs decided to deliberately throw an incomplete pass to avoid something worse like a sack, a completion for negative yards or an interception.

Russ had the 5th highest throwaway percentage among starting QBs in 2023. Oddly enough four of the top five were scrambling QBs (look at the SCRM column) with the exception of Aidan O’Connell who did not scramble once during last season. He was the only starting QB in the league in 2023 who didn’t scramble at all. Of course he also had the lowest pressure rate in the league at 14.4% so he didn’t have much need to scramble. Both his pocket time and his time to throw were about average for 2023.

Russ’ throwaway rate of 4.9% was more than triple that of the QBs who had the lowest values in the league in 2023. Kirk Cousins and Dak Prescott both had throwaway rates of 1.5%. We only have throwaway data for the final three years of Brees’ career, but here are his throwaway % values for those year:

  • 2018 – 2.5%
  • 2019 – 2.3%
  • 2020 – 1.7%

So Drew Brees did not have to deliberately throw many incomplete passes in his final three seasons. Compare that to the data for Russ in the data below.

Year Age Tm Pos No. G GS Cmp Att Yds Bats ThAwy Spikes Drops Drop% BadTh Bad% OnTgt OnTgt% Dropbacks Throwaway %
2018* 30 SEA QB 3 16 16 280 427 3448 0 24 8 18 4.60% 61 15.40% 508 4.7%
2019* 31 SEA QB 3 16 16 341 516 4110 9 20 3 17 3.40% 91 18.50% 376 76.30% 609 3.3%
2020* 32 SEA QB 3 16 16 384 558 4212 4 24 1 27 5.10% 84 15.80% 424 79.50% 658 3.6%
2021* 33 SEA QB 3 14 14 259 400 3113 3 13 0 16 4.10% 72 18.60% 296 76.50% 456 2.9%
2022 34 DEN QB 3 15 15 292 483 3524 19 32 1 30 6.70% 70 15.60% 330 73.30% 566 5.7%
2023 35 DEN QB 3 15 15 297 447 3070 11 26 4 17 4.10% 55 13.20% 325 77.90% 530 4.9%

Russ’ lowest throwaway % was 2.9% which was higher than Brees’ highest (admittedly with only three seasons of data).

Another thing I noticed is that Brees very rarely made what PFR deemed a “bad throw” which PFR defines as a “poor throw” (which makes it so much clearer). In 2018 and 2019 Brees’ had a bad throw% of 10.3 and 10.7%. Brees led the league both seasons and was second in the league in his final season when he had a bad throw % of 13.4%. The QB who led the league in 2020 was Teddy Bridgewater with a value of 13.0%. Teddy is another retired QB who fit the mold of what SP likes in his QBs. Here are Russ’ bad throw % rankings by year. You’ll notice that he had his best season in 2023 at 13.2% when he was leading (or attempting to lead) SP’s offense.

  • 2018 – 11th
  • 2019 – 24th
  • 2020 – 13th
  • 2021 – 23rd
  • 2022 – 17th
  • 2023 – 4th

So it would appear that influence of Sean Payton on Russ led to a significant reduction in bad throws, but that did not necessarily lead to more success on Russ passes. His success rate in 2023 was 43.3% which is below his average of 45.6% that he had in Seattle. Russ success rate in 2022 was an abysmal 36.2% which was dead last in the league among starters. I don’t know how much of Russ’ lack of success was on his receivers and how much was on him. Feel free to debate that in the comments.

So Russ cut down on his bad throws, but he was still unable to reproduce the success rates that he would consistently generate in Seattle, even with a high percentage of bad throws.


Sean Payton wants another Drew Brees. Since Hall of Fame QBs are EXTREMELY hard to draft, I have looked at the what and the how of Drew Brees success in New Orleans to see if it can give us any hint on which of the potential starting QBs Sean might be considering for 2024 (and beyond).

Payton wants a QB who makes the right throw – high success rate and low bad throw percentage.

Payton wants a QB who makes the right throw quickly – lower time to throw. Drew Brees average 2.56s for his time to throw for the five years that we have data. Obviously that is about how long it SHOULD take for a SP QB to read the defense and his receivers and get the ball out of his hands. Russ’ average time to throw for the eight seasons that we have data is 2.92 seconds.

Payton wants a QB who is accurate. We only have data for two seasons but Drew Brees ontarget% for 2019 and 2020 was 84.1% and 80.8%. Russ best value was 79.5% and that came in the 2020 season. Russ average is 76.7%. He was 9th in 2023. Dak Prescott led all starters at 82.6%.

Payton wants a QB who doesn’t have to waste downs by either throwing the ball away or taking sacks. Because of his ability to move in the pocket and make quick decisions with the ball, Brees consistently had one of the lowest sack rates in the league. It also helped that he played behind some very good offensive lines. Of course blocking for an elite QB makes any OL better.

Payton wants a QB who has the ability and the willingness to use all parts of the field as well as the ability to “throw his receivers open”, in other words, to hit his receivers in-stride so that they can get YAC. Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were all great at putting the ball exactly where the receiver needed it to maximize yardage. All three were also able to use all parts of the field – left, center, right, short, intermediate and long. They had few or no “cold spots”.

Thanks for reading! This article is the result of a reader suggestion for a discussion topic. Please let me know in the comments if there are any other topics that you want me to take a deep dive into during this rather dead time in the NFL yearly calendar.

Originally posted on Mile High Report