BALTIMORE — The tightest position battle in the New Orleans Saints’ training camp might be at quarterback.
Their decision to draft a rookie in the third round squeezed the middle, leaving only one open spot to fill in the backup role behind franchise starter Drew Brees and developmental rookie Garrett Grayson.
Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin get the preseason to stake their claim to the backup role — and with Brees held out of the Saints’ preseason opener against the Ravens on Thursday night, McCown and Griffin got plenty of chances to make a good first impression.
But after one game, the race appears to be as tight as ever.
“They played great. Those guys are true leaders at the quarterback position,” wide receiver Brandin Cooks said. “With Luke, with Griff, and with Grayson. ... to see stuff like that gives you a lot of confidence.”
McCown, the veteran who offers stability after 11 years in the league, bounced back from a pair of three-and-outs to open the game by shifting momentum, completing 6 of 7 passes on a second-quarter touchdown drive to give the Saints their first score in a 30-27 loss.
Griffin, something of a fan favorite after his time at Tulane, turned in a torrid two-minute drill at the end of the first half and set up two more field-goal opportunities in the second with a solid performance of his own.
McCown’s start, to the casual viewer, might have been dragged down by the Saints’ terrible overall start, but the veteran displayed accuracy and good decision-making in the face of a fairly strong rush from Baltimore’s first- and second-team defenses.
A low throw Cooks was unable to handle cost McCown a completion on the first drive. New Orleans failed to pick up a third-and-short in the running game on his second series.
Then McCown got to work on the Saints’ third drive, finding Josh Morgan over the middle for a third-down conversion, hitting Khiry Robinson up the seam for 19 yards and dropping in a gorgeous deep ball to Cooks up the left sideline that would’ve been a touchdown if Cooks hadn’t stepped out of bounds on the route.
“Of course, we would have liked to start faster than we did, but this is the first preseason game,” McCown said. “Once we found our rhythm, things went well for us.”
By the time Cooks took a screen and followed Terron Armstead and Morgan into the end zone for a 28-yard score, McCown had effectively given the offense a little momentum and staked his claim as the same reliable short-term option he’s been throughout his career.
Griffin largely picked up where McCown left off.
Using tight end Josh Hill and tailback Khiry Robinson well, Griffin took the Saints’ first chance at a two-minute drill and marched the offense 90 yards in six plays and 1:28. Griffin hit Hill three times for 40 yards on the drive, then found Robinson up the seam for a 21-yard touchdown catch.
Griffin cooled off a bit in the second half — he finished only 6-of-12 and missed one by throwing behind Brandon Coleman — but he also directed drives that ended in two field goals.
The final tally told a pretty even story. McCown finished 7-of-10 for 75 yards and a touchdown. Griffin ended up 10-of-17 for 112 yards and a touchdown. Neither threw an interception.
“I thought we had a pretty good night, we moved the ball well and got some points,” Griffin said. “I’m always out there competing, whether it’s practice or during the games.”
And in the process, McCown and Griffin might have proven that if something happens to Brees during the regular season, the Saints will be in capable hands, no matter who wins the race.