Analysis: Breaking down Saints’ backup quarterback battle

Based on the way the New Orleans Saints have used the players, there has been little to suggest that there is even a competition taking place for the backup quarterback spot.

During the first three preseason games, Luke McCown has served in that role, with Ryan Griffin coming on behind him. No snaps have been split, nor have their roles shifted at any point during the exhibition schedule.

While Drew Brees was out nursing a left oblique strain, McCown worked with the starters, and Griffin came in with the second team. With Brees back Saturday against Indianapolis, McCown was the backup, and Griffin worked with the third-team offense.

So is this even a competition? The Saints have maintained that it is, and if a decision has not yet been made, it could continue to play out during the preseason finale.

It’s easy to dismiss this battle as being meaningless since, if all goes to plan, Brees will take every snap this season, and the backup quarterbacks will spend the season on the sidelines. But it is important to the overall construct of the roster.

If Griffin is able to win the job outright, then McCown would likely be let go, and the Saints would have another roster spot available to keep an additional player who has shown promise in camp. However, if McCown wins, then New Orleans might feel inclined to use that spot to protect Griffin’s promise.

Unlike some of the other battles that have unfolded throughout training camp and the preseason, the race to stand behind Brees hasn’t been as easy to get a read on. Both players have had moments where they looked good. Both have also looked bad.

Here’s a closer look at the two quarterbacks to try to determine who is first in the race to be No. 2.

UNDER PRESSURE

On the surface, McCown’s performance under pressure is not impressive. An internal look at every pass the incumbent backup quarterback has thrown this season reveals that he is 7-of-15 when facing pressure (defined as any action in the backfield that causes the quarterback to speed up) with one interception and one touchdown.

Those numbers are not going to win him a job, but a closer look at the process in which they were formed creates a more positive picture. McCown has had three passes dropped when passing under pressure and had one throwaway. Take those away, and he’s a more respectable 7-of-11.

He also has proven adept at throwing when rolling out to his right, as evidenced by the two completions he had to Robert Meachem and Jimmy Graham against the Titans. Two of McCown’s highlight moments of the preseason came when facing pressure during that game. The first was a precise pass to Brandin Cooks on the left sideline, and the other was a 19-yard touchdown pass to Graham that was an absolute dart.

Griffin’s production under pressure has been more straight forward. He’s completed nine of 18 attempts with a pair of touchdowns and an interception. Adjustments aren’t needed for receiver errors.

The issue with Griffin is that he is inconsistent in this area. He makes some spectacular plays when under pressure, such as the 52-yard pass he connected on to Joe Morgan against the Titans. But he also speeds himself up into poor decisions.

One his biggest errors of the preseason came against the Colts when he stood through a near sack in the end zone only to throw an interception on a deep pass to Robert Meachem. Griffin had another pass nearly intercepted against the Titans when he hurried a throw to running back Derrick Strozier in the red zone.

Edge: It’s difficult to declare a winner. Griffin is better when he keeps his wits about him, but McCown consistently makes safer decisions. If the goal is minimize errors and manage the game, then McCown should win out in this category.

DEEP PASSING

There’s no question Griffin is much better at throwing deep passes. The aforementioned 52-yard connection with Morgan was one of the better plays of the preseason, and Griffin came back a few plays later to hit Morgan again on a deep pass against the Titans while under pressure.

Griffin’s deep-passing yards could be even higher if Nick Toon hadn’t dropped one down the left sideline against the Colts, and if a pass to Cooks against the Titans had arrived 2 feet sooner.

Meanwhile, McCown’s deep-passing game can be summed up by watching him sail a pass down the left sideline against the Titans to an indiscernible target.

A few of his other attempts ended as such: A near interception on a ball to Cooks, a pass thrown way over Morgan, and an overthrow to Toon.

McCown’s only quality deep pass of the preseason was the aforementioned 19-yard touchdown pass to Graham.

Edge: Griffin by a wide margin.

BALL PLACEMENT

McCown has only a few plays worth nitpicking. The worst of the lot was on a pass to Benjamin Watson in the red zone against the Colts. He led the tight end a little too much, causing an incompletion, and the Saints had to settle for a field goal.

McCown also missed a back-shoulder throw to Meachem against the Titans. If the deep passes qualify, there are three or four other instances where the ball could have been better located. Overall, though, McCown delivers a catchable ball.

Griffin has admitted that some of his passes could be better placed. There’s no argument here.

He’s flat out missed on some throws and was lucky that a pass he threw over Andy Tanner against the Titans drew a flag to wipe out an interception. Even the 23-yard touchdown that Griffin delivered to Mark Ingram could have been better thrown, as Ingram had to turn back to reel in the pass.

But Griffin’s also made some incredible passes. One that stands out was a pass to Travaris Cadet in the red zone against Tennessee. Moise Fokou was breathing down Cadet’s neck and had him blanketed, yet Griffin delivered a pass where only Cadet could catch it.

Edge: A slight edge to McCown.

POCKET AWARENESS

McCown has been mixed in this regard. He panicked when he spotted a cornerback blitz against the Rams and forced himself into an interception. But he also has shown a good sense for when to flee the pocket and scramble, as evidenced by the pair of first downs he ran for against the Colts.

The same is true for Griffin. He’s stood in against some tough pressure. The only real red marks came against the Titans when he held the ball too long and walked into a sack, and the interception he threw after nearly taking a safety.

Edge: Push.

VERDICT

There’s no question that Griffin has more upside than McCown.

McCown could probably better manage a game today if Brees were to go down.

Griffin could also likely stand in. He might even win some games for the Saints, but he’d also likely lose some games for them.

However, that assessment might be unfair. We’ve yet to see Griffin with the starters. McCown has been afforded that opportunity, and things might not look the same if the roles had been reversed through the first three games.

If it is a one or the other decision, then Griffin should win based on potential. The categories he lost out on were due to inconsistency, not talent.

But if the team determines it can carry all three quarterbacks, then it might be wise to do so — even if it means letting another player go with promise at another position.