WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — There were moments earlier this summer and during the first week of organized team activities when Saints quarterback Garrett Grayson, a third-round pick, appeared to be overwhelmed.
He wasn’t making the right reads and admitted that he stumbled over his words when calling plays in the huddle. It showed in his play. During the first week of practices at The Greenbrier, each practice seemed to end with the third-round pick making a mistake or throwing an interception.
The coaching staff addressed it with a message that boiled down to “sink or swim.” Premature reports from camp of the rookie’s progress were highly critical, and some questioned his ability to play.
Grayson has since settled in and put together a strong performance in a preseason loss to the Baltimore Ravens. His growth has been measurable. It’s now obvious those who were ready to write off the rookie were overlooking the difficulties of mastering this offense.
It’s an understandable oversight.
People have been watching Drew Brees step to the line, gesture, maybe bark out “kill, kill, kill” a few times, and masterfully direct the offense since 2006. Hiccups aren’t supposed to happen here. When they do, no one understands what’s happening. It’s been so long, people in New Orleans forget there are times when you have to hold your breath and take a gulp.
But the thing is, with a regular quarterback who hasn’t had the benefit to be around to grow with the offense for a decade, mistakes happen.
Sean Payton isn’t considered one of the finest offensive minds in football because he has basic ideas and basic schemes. His offense is extremely complex.
Take a second and imagine what you think happens in the huddle. There’s a quarterback getting a play-call through his headset, relaying it to his teammates, and then stepping to the line of scrimmage where he might have three or four predetermined audibles to choose from.
Seems simple. That’s how it is in Madden. Click one of four buttons and everything happens as you wish. It’s simple and easy. No thrills.
That’s not real life.
The reality is, the Saints have several play-calls that come prepackaged with multiple plays or concepts in each call.
One might start out as a run and then change to pass based on what the defense is doing. Sometimes those plays have two pass plays based out of a certain concept. Other times there are two concepts in one call, and the defense dictates which one is used.
Then there are your standard audibles, checks, line calls, and everything else on top of that.
And don’t forget there are certain plays that are only to be run against certain coverages and looks. And a clock limiting how much time you have to decipher and relay all of that information.
It’s a lot to grasp.
“There’s a volume there that — it doubles the playbook when you have two plays in one,” backup quarterback Luke McCown said. “You have different personnel to matchup with that package. And then the amount of study that any given moment I can walk to the line of scrimmage and this is the look I need for this particular play — or it’s not the look I want for this particular play, and I got to make a change.
“The objective of package plays is to get to the best play possible without a big orchestration at the line of scrimmage. It’s really taken our game to the next level.”
When McCown was a young player coming into the league, the first vision of life in the huddle is what he experienced. He’d call a play, take a look at the defense, and maybe audible out of it. Grayson is dealing with the evolution of the audible and a playbook that has bloated with new ideas and concepts over the past decade.
The rookie is working on it. Says he’s getting there. Things are slowing down.
It showed Thursday, even if he never had to progress much deeper than his first or second read against Baltimore’s third-team defense.
But his progress has been impressive, especially in practices, to the point that there’s a conversation to be had about the possibility of him winning the backup quarterback job.
Payton was presented with that idea Sunday and didn’t dismiss it out of hand, saying he’d prefer experience, but the door is still open for Grayson. Ryan Griffin, who is competing for that job as well, pointed to Jimmy Garoppolo, a second-round pick of the Patriots last year, beating out Ryan Mallett for the right to backup Tom Brady. The implication was that Grayson is still very much in the race.
If Grayson elevates to that point to make it a close race, it would make sense for the team to follow the blueprint laid out by the Patriots, save a roster spot, and roll with the rookie. There’s a long way for Grayson to travel to make it a discussion, but it speaks to his development that it’s even a discussion right now.
And at the core of that is Grayson’s ability to digest and decipher an extremely complex playbook.
“When I first came into the league 12 years ago, audibles were there — check with me’s is what they were called — but not to the extent that they are now,” McCown said. “Players, quarterbacks coming out of college are so much more prepared for the mental side of the game to control things at the line of scrimmage. You step into offenses in the NFL, and they expect you to do that.”
Step into New Orleans, and they expect you to be perfect. Grayson isn’t there yet, but he’s working on it.