Luke McCown has limitations, but gives Saints a chance to win

METAIRIE, La. – This scenario is the reason why the New Orleans Saints kept veteran Luke McCown as their backup quarterback over Ryan Griffin.

Griffin had a higher “upside” and might even have the chance to develop into a starting NFL quarterback one day. But McCown was more ready to step in if, say, Drew Brees injured his shoulder in Week 2 and the Saints needed someone to fill in for a week or two.

McCown, 34, is not the Saints’ quarterback of the future. But he gives them the best chance to win Sunday at the Carolina Panthers. I’d even go so far as to suggest he gives them a realistic chance of winning.

I’m not going to try and oversell McCown. He hasn’t thrown a pass since 2013, hasn’t completed a pass since 2011 and hasn’t thrown a TD pass since 2007.

His last NFL start was brutal (six completions and four interceptions in a 32-3 loss for the Jacksonville Jaguars at the New York Jets in Week 2 of the 2011 season). Yet McCown still exudes and instills a certain level of confidence – and not just because he has bested Brees in a home run derby and a handful of their classic training camp QB competitions and he absolutely nailed the Verizon commercials for backup generators this summer.

Not only does McCown know the playbook, but he also is often seen tutoring young teammates such as rookie quarterback Garrett Grayson (who will back him up on Sunday).

“It’s strange because it hasn’t happened,” Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said of the team needing to replace an injured Brees for the first time in 10 years. “But I think we feel good about having an experienced, savvy veteran, a guy who’s been around for a long time, who’s been in games and knows what to expect and knows how to prepare. He’s obviously capable. You don’t last as long as he has if you’re not. So we feel good about the guy we’ve got back there and we expect him to play well.”

McCown has been around the NFL for 12 years with five teams, making a total of nine starts (with a 2-7 record). He has looked solid in the past four preseasons with the Saints – including this summer, when he completed 24 of 35 passes for 323 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions, mostly with the first-string offense.

The 6-foot-4, 217-pound McCown has a big, strong arm. Panthers safety Roman Harper, who played for the Saints from 2006-13, said the Saints might even take more shots down the field with McCown in the lineup.

“He’s a great quarterback. I’m very comfortable playing with Luke,” said Saints receiver Brandin Cooks, who a touchdown pass from McCown when Brees sat out in the preseason opener (another potential TD catch on the same drive was called back because he stepped out of bounds). “He’s accurate; he can throw the ball well. So that’s not no worry of mine, and I don’t think there’s a worry at all on this team if that was to happen.”

The biggest hurdle for McCown might be that the Saints offense has been so stagnant this year in general. The running game has struggled to get off the ground and the Saints have scored just 38 points – their fewest through two games since 2007.

The healthy return of runner/receiver C.J. Spiller should help quite a bit. I expect a lot of ball-control passes to Cooks, Spiller and running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. But the Saints will be counting on vast improvement from an offensive line that will be without right guard Jahri Evans, who was declared out with a knee injury.

Another plus with McCown is that his skills are similar enough to Brees that coach Sean Payton stressed the game plan didn’t have to change. As Payton said, it’s not like one guy is a zone-read QB and the other a dropback QB.

“I haven’t noticed in the game plan that’s any different from what we would normally be doing. We’re not running a new offense because it’s Luke. And he’s been in this offense for a while now,” Strief said. “We’re fortunate that we have a guy like that. Some teams don’t.”