So big that they had to open their checkbook and give up draft capital to hire Sean Payton as the coach to clean up the remnants of a 5-12 season, when they were last in the league in scoring and Wilson had his worst season as a pro.
“Look, I’ve said, like any player, it’s about how do we get them comfortable and highlight their strengths,” Payton said. “That’s our task as coaches.”
The Wilson gamble was more than the Broncos ever bet on John Elway, Peyton Manning or any of the team’s other gold jacket Hall of Famers. They bet bigger than they ever have in any trade in the franchise’s history, including the one that brought Elway to Denver in 1983.
Wilson’s first season with the Broncos was the fifth in the past six in which Denver lost at least 10 games. The Broncos struggled with clock management and sideline decisions, and had a Christmas Day meltdown in a 51-14 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Wilson posted a career-worst season on multiple fronts, and the Broncos fired another head coach when Nathaniel Hackett was let go Dec. 26, 15 games into an ill-fated tenure.
Team owner and CEO Greg Penner has tasked Payton to be “a strong leader and build a winning culture.” But at the root of it, Payton is tasked with fixing the Broncos’ offense and, with that, Wilson.
But many coaches and executives in the league, when surveyed in recent weeks, see the potential for a mismatch. Payton is a tough, proven playcaller, and Wilson is a 12-year veteran quarterback set in his ways, faced with the reality his most recent season was his worst ever.
“With any veteran quarterback, you always have the distinction between the things that have always worked for them, made them what they are, and the things, as they get older and defenses keep grinding at their weak spots, they have to fix,” said a longtime offensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL. “Last year, he just held on [to the ball] too long, too often. Things change, guys have to, too.”
Wilson is no different, the longtime playcaller said, and Payton will need to see improvement on 2022, when Wilson’s team won the fewest games in any season he has played. The QB had the fewest touchdown passes of his career (16) and was sacked the most times in his career (55). He looked so out of sorts, many leauge personnel evaluators simply wondered if Wilson, who turns 35 in November, had the willingness to fix his part of the equation.
His decision-making, fitness and play all contributed to the problem. Addressing those issues, starting with his noticeable weight loss when he returned for the spring offseason program, will be at the center of any solutions.
Former New York Jets and Miami Dolphins general manager Mike Tannenbaum has gone as far as to say he believes Payton “wouldn’t hesitate” to bench Wilson this season in favor of Jarrett Stidham if the right mix can’t be found, a sentiment former Oakland Raiders general manager Mike Lombardi has also expressed on his podcast.
For his part, Wilson said he “never” feels pressure, listens to criticism or thinks about the past.
“Last year is last year,” Wilson said. “[But] it wasn’t anything that I ever wanted in terms of expectations in how I expect to play. You take the good with the bad, the mountains with the valleys. … I’m just ready to play football.”
Teammates still see the former Super Bowl champion as a force on the field.
“He’s still dangerous, don’t get it twisted at the end of the day,” said Broncos outside linebacker Frank Clark, who played with him on the Seahawks. “Russ is a veteran who’s won on multiple levels, he’s been part of successful teams, he’s been part of teams that were not successful. … But it was the same Russ, so don’t think Russ changed or a bad season is going to shake a guy. Nah, bro, you start fresh every year.”
Payton has spoken of the importance of “having a clear vision” for what a player can do and what he expects as a coach. He has cited Wilson’s résumé of big games and quality performance in the pressure-packed moments.
Not long after Payton was introduced as the new coach, he said it was his goal to fit Wilson into an offense that simply made better sense. He likened the Broncos’ offense last season to asking Wilson to sing karaoke without giving Wilson the lyrics to the song.
“How do we highlight any player’s strengths?” Payton said. “That’s at the center of everything.”
Payton’s offensive scheme in 15 seasons with the New Orleans Saints powered Drew Brees to a record five 5,000-yard passing seasons. Those Saints’ offenses also finished in the league’s top five in scoring nine times.
In Denver, Payton has preached tempo to go with efficiency and wants Wilson to make quicker decisions. Wilson has built a career on his belief he’s the best at “off-schedule” maneuvers — the scrambles and spins to get out of trouble to make plays late in the down.
“There have been highs and lows, a lot of highs, won a lot of games, a lot of great moments, moving around, making plays,” Wilson said. “I’m trying to get moving [this year], going to be a great year. Biggest things for me is I feel great, moving great, feeling strong, feel fast.”
In 2022, however, the Broncos’ offense was often off schedule from the snap. His escapes were less frequent, the hits more frequent as Wilson suffered a partially torn muscle near the back of his right shoulder in October, then missed a start in October because of a hamstring injury and suffered a concussion in December. And there is the crux of it, to find the sweet spot between mobility, moving the ball quickly and pushing plays downfield.
“It’s a fine balance, he’s got such great instincts in there, but recognizing [the] pocket’s breaking down, you’ve got to go versus there’s a little push here but there’s still room to find a place to throw the football,” Broncos offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. “Something he’s aware of … he’s made so many plays off schedule you don’t want to lose that, but also make sure we’re finding the plays when things are going right and not bailing too early.”
Near the end of Brees’ 15-year run in New Orleans, the Saints were often among the quickest offenses in the league between snap to throw. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, between 2016 and 2019, the Saints were fourth, sixth, fourth and sixth in quickest snap-to-throw times.
In Brees’ final season, 2020, when he missed four games, the Saints were 20th in that category. In 2021, the first year after Brees’ retirement and Payton’s final year as Saints coach, the Saints were 30th.
In short, when Brees led the league in completion percentage in three consecutive years (2017-2019), the Saints were also among the quickest at getting the ball out of his hands. And when Brees wasn’t behind center, they were not.
And when the Wilson-Payton dynamic is considered by some coaches and personnel executives around the league, they wonder about Wilson’s willingness to pick up the pace in the passing game as well as Payton’s patience as the quarterback tries to figure it out.
The schedule won’t offer much opportunity for patience. Among the Broncos’ first eight games before their Nov. 6 bye, they will face:
Payton and Wilson both have spent much of the spring and summer extolling the progress Wilson has made without any public expression of concern.
“Man, his movement skills have been impressive, so his off-schedule plays, every practice you see an example, one or two, and it really forces the receivers to then get into concert — if you’re not open in the initial route progression and the pocket moves one way, you’ve got to move with it. His location has been really good,” Payton said before the Broncos’ second preseason game.
Wilson won’t say how much weight he lost during the offseason — “I’m not counting” — but he moved far better in practices and limited preseason action. In 2022, he was listed at 215 pounds. Payton has said Wilson is 15 pounds lighter now. The coach also prefers his skill players to play as close to their college weight as possible.
“I know [Wilson’s weight] was what we wanted when we left in the summer break,” Payton said.
As training camp and the preseason wore on, Wilson seemed to find the line between using his mobility and climbing the pocket to throw for a play down the field. Payton even occasionally used a called run for Wilson to go with the potential for a run-pass option.
“I [try] to do it all, as far as getting the ball out, throwing it deep, moving around, getting out of plays, getting in the right play, but the ability to be a threat in the run game,” Wilson said. “Scrambling and [running] by design.”
New teammate Mike McGlinchey, who joined the Broncos in free agency, is among those noticing Wilson’s focus.
“He’s ascending,” the tackle said. “Since the spring, since every day of training camp, you see him get better and better. And for a player of his caliber that’s special. He’s never satisfied. It’s an attitude, it’s a mindset.”