McCown, Griffin still too close to call

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
12:00
PM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- Who’s winning the battle for the New Orleans Saints' backup quarterback job?

Depends on when you’re watching. Both players have taken full advantage of their increased opportunities to shine while starter Drew Brees has been sidelined by a strained oblique.

Second-year pro Ryan Griffin seemed to leap ahead during last week’s preseason opener, when he played great after entering the game late in the first quarter at St. Louis.

[+] EnlargeLuke McCown
AP Photo/Bill HaberLuke McCown sizzled for the Saints, tossing two touchdowns in the first half on Friday night.
But then veteran Luke McCown may have looked even better throughout the first half of Friday night’s 31-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans, throwing a pair of TD passes to tight end Jimmy Graham.

But then Griffin came out hot again, connecting on two deep balls to Joe Morgan and TD passes to Mark Ingram and Seantavius Jones. (Griffin should’ve had another deep TD pass to Brandin Cooks that Cooks couldn’t hang on to -- but then again, Griffin also should’ve had an interception that was nullified by penalty).

In other words, these quarterbacks aren’t making the decision easy or obvious for the Saints. It’s one of those things they love to call, “a good problem to have.”

“I thought both Luke and Ryan did a lot of really good things,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I thought they both located the ball well. … I thought there were a lot of positives to coach off of based on … just first impressions.”

I’ve projected Griffin as the likely winner all summer, because I think his long-term potential gives him the tiebreaker. The way I figure it, the Saints have to keep three quarterbacks if McCown wins the backup job since they don’t want to let Griffin go. But if they can trust Griffin as the backup, they only need to keep two.

But I’ve got to admit, McCown made me doubt myself when he came out so sharp on Friday night -- and spoke so confidently after the game.

“Well, that’s our job,” McCown said when asked about the Saints’ crisp opening TD drive, which included four third-down conversions and completions to four different receivers. “I mean, look, I’m as confident as I’ve ever been playing the game. I thought as an offense we were very fluid, very smooth on that first series, communication was great, guys making plays, getting open. And they brought a series of a couple different pressures that we were able to pick up, capitalize on.

“That’s how you want to start every game. And I fully expect to start every series that way. That’s the kind of mentality you have to have.”

McCown, an 11th-year veteran, is pretty much everything you’d look for in a veteran backup QB. He may as well have come out of central casting.

The 6-foot-4, 217-pounder has bounced around with five different teams, starting nine games along the way. He’s got a strong arm, some veteran savvy. He’s great in the locker room. He’s a lot like the veteran journeyman backup who stepped in and became a surprise star for the Chicago Bears last year -- Luke’s brother, Josh McCown.

McCown’s second touchdown pass to Graham was gorgeous, tucked right between a linebacker and the back line of the end zone. His first TD pass came on the move after he escaped pressure. A third-down completion to Cooks earlier on that first drive came just as he was getting clobbered by a rusher. It might have been the best I’ve ever seen McCown look.

And yet, the one word that doesn’t get used often with the 33-year-old McCown is “upside.”

And that’s the first word you keep hearing when it comes to Griffin, who signed with the Saints last year as an undrafted rookie out of Tulane University, across town in New Orleans.

Griffin, 24, continues to show a combination of poise and confidence that belies his lack of experience. The 6-5, 206-pounder showed off his big arm with those pinpoint deep balls to Morgan (52 and 44 yards). And he should’ve cemented a monster night with a 46-yard TD pass to Cooks. But shockingly, Cooks actually failed to deliver for a change after he cruised behind the secondary and dropped a tough-but-catchable ball.

“He already told me, he came up to me, ‘Alright, I owe you one, I got you,’” said Griffin, who said those deep balls were part of the game plan. “I think Coach wanted to take a few shots early on. The first completion was that one to Joe, and he made a great catch. Then come down and throw it to Mark, I think he made a safety miss. So guys were making plays today.”

Griffin said he felt comfortable playing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which was also his home stadium when he played at Tulane. But that was about as close as he came to giving himself any credit.

“Some of those passes today that even were completed, I wish I had better ball placement,” Griffin said, according to the New Orleans Advocate. “... I feel like there’s a lot that I’m yet to show. I still have a lot of things I need to work on. It’s a process.”

Mike Triplett

ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter

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