But in some ways, their 3-2 start before the Week 6 bye felt more like a typical preseason.
The Saints have been missing eight significant starters for most of the season, many of whom could be back in the lineup Monday night at the Seattle Seahawks (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).
And the offense has been fairly vanilla, for a number of reasons, with New Orleans ranking last in the NFL in pass attempts (24.0 per game).
Part of that is because coach Sean Payton has relied on known commodities like running back Alvin Kamara and a stellar defense to plow through a tough stretch, instead of Winston and a depleted passing attack that has been without injured receivers Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith.
And part of that is just an unusual sample size of games that were lopsided in both directions. The Saints didn’t need to throw the ball much in convincing wins over the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots — and they could barely get a pass off in a blowout loss to the Carolina Panthers.
“The main thing is to focus on finding a way to win,” said Winston, who has made the most of his role as a supporting cast member with 12 touchdown passes and three interceptions for an overall passer rating of 108.1, fifth in the NFL entering Week 7.
“The stats and big plays, they’ll come as we get healthier and more of an identity with this offense. I know I can throw for 500 yards and eight touchdowns, but I want to get that W in the win column. We’ve been fortunate to have more wins than losses so far and have to keep it that way.
“Coach tells me the numbers will come and all that good stuff will come with it.”
Even former Saints quarterback Drew Brees, himself, isn’t quite sure of what he’s seeing from a Saints offense that has done some things extremely well (No. 1 in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage, top 10 in third-down conversions and rushing yards per game entering this week) while falling short in other areas (31st in passing yards per game, 30th in first downs per game, 29th in completion percentage).
Winston has flashed his big arm with four throws of 49-plus yards this season, tied for the most of any QB in the league entering this week. Yet the Saints’ offense overall ranked last with a total of 10 plays that gained 20-plus yards.
“I don’t see just the rhythm, tempo, passing game that just complements the run game,” said Brees, now an analyst for NBC, after calling the Saints’ 33-22 win at Washington in Week 5 “a little sloppy.”
“You get some of these splash plays. Then you get some of these well-timed, well-designed third-down plays. But besides that, just the first and second down, moving the ball, possessing the ball, I just haven’t really seen that rhythm here over the last few weeks.”
We might not learn too much more about the New Orleans offense Monday, since the forecast calls for rainy, windy and cold weather in Seattle. But we will see this team closer to full strength, with Smith, left tackle Terron Armstead, center Erik McCoy, defensive end Marcus Davenport and linebacker Kwon Alexander all potentially back in the lineup.
Defensive tackle David Onyemata will return from suspension in Week 8. Kicker Wil Lutz should be back soon after returning to practice this past week. And eventually the passing game should get back its most crucial piece — Thomas, who had June ankle surgery. He did not return to practice this past week, his first eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list.
“Man, we’ve got a ton [of untapped potential],” Kamara said. “We’ve played some alright games on offense, but we still haven’t played our best game. I know we always say that — but I know what [our best] looks like. And I know Sean knows what he wants it to look like. And a lot of these guys know what it looks like.”
Kamara’s usage has been one of the biggest curiosities among Saints and fantasy followers alike – since he is on pace for 125 more carries and 30 fewer receptions than ever before in his career. Those numbers started to normalize a bit in Week 5, though (16 rushing attempts, eight receiving targets). And they should continue to do so once the receivers get healthy and take some of the defense’s attention away and injured backup Tony Jones Jr. comes back to share some of the workload.
When it comes to scrutiny from fans and analysts, though, Kamara has nothing on Winston. You don’t need to scroll far through social media to find hot takes declaring that the Saints are holding Winston back or Winston is holding the Saints back.
The truth is it’s too early to make any declarative statements. Winston has done a very good job so far of avoiding the turnovers that plagued him during his first five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But he admittedly needs to find that rhythm Brees described.
Winston said the No. 1 thing he wanted to improve after scouting himself during the bye week was throwing “smooth” and accurate balls in the underneath game to give receivers a chance for more yards after the catch. Payton said that will be a key at Seattle, especially, since the Seahawks are good at limiting explosive plays.
Payton doesn’t love the fact his team ranks last in the NFL in plays of 20-plus yards. But he said the most important thing is finding the right formula to win.
“The good news is I don’t have to bring the report card home to my mom right now,” Payton cracked. “We have a lot of football left.”