February 24, 2024

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The Broncos' trade for Russell Wilson was a disaster, but the blame extends beyond the QB

The Broncos' trade for Russell Wilson was a disaster, but the blame extends beyond the QB

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When the Denver Broncos were nearing the finish line in negotiations with the Seattle Seahawks in March of 2022 for a blockbuster trade for quarterback Russell Wilson, general manager George Paton went to new head coach Nathaniel Hackett and asked him to look at the veteran's tape. .

“I don't need to watch the tape. It's been kicking my ass for many years,” Hackett responded, according to Patton.

Perhaps we shouldn't overstate the hilarious anecdote shared during the euphoria of Wilson's introductory news conference. Hackett, as he and Patton explained, eventually absorbed the film of the quarterback's 10 seasons with the Seahawks, a run that included nine Pro Bowl invitations. But in hindsight, amid Tuesday's news that the Broncos will bench Wilson for the final two games of his second season with the team, it's hard not to view the story as convenient context around what will almost certainly be one of the worst trades in NFL history. .

The Broncos believed Wilson would be to them what he always was in Seattle: a quarterback who always found a way to win, no matter the circumstances. They saw the glory, the quarterback who hoisted the Lombardi Trophy and was one bad throw away from getting his hands on another. They saw a player whose playoff experience, years of gaudy numbers and veteran leadership could lift a team desperately trying to find its way back to winning ways. The Broncos wanted all of those things badly enough to send five draft picks, two of them first-rounders, and three players to the Seahawks for Wilson and a fourth-round pick.

Russell Wilson was introduced by Nathaniel Hackett on March 16, 2022. (Hyung Chang/Getty Images)

They wanted him badly enough to avoid warning signs that his play was on a downward trajectory.

It was a steep price to pay, even before the Broncos extended a five-year, $245 million contract extension to the 33-year-old quarterback before he even threw a pass in a Broncos uniform. The entire deal was a huge flop — the Broncos went 11-19 during Wilson's 30 starts in Denver — but pinning all of the issues that have plagued the franchise since the trade on Wilson would be woefully misleading.

The Broncos wanted everything Wilson had to offer with the Seahawks badly enough to ignore — or at least rationalize — the clear signs, pointed out several years ago in Seattle by those who watched the quarterback closely, that his play was waning. The issues that plagued Wilson during the end of his career with the Seahawks, including a noticeable decline in mobility that hurt his work both inside and outside the pocket, were prominent in Denver. Wilson had the two worst seasons of his career while in Denver in terms of EPA (expected points added). His passer rating of 84.4 in 2022 was the worst of his career, and the 98.0 rating he posted this season is his second-worst since 2017.

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It was all less than the Broncos expected. But it's not just the quarterback who hasn't kept his end of the bargain.

Hackett, who was hired less than two months before the Wilson deal was made, was way out of his league as a first-year coach, a fact that became clear from the start of his first season on the job. In trying to blend the offense he helped build in Green Bay for Aaron Rodgers with parts of the scheme Wilson loved in Seattle, the Broncos instead produced an offense with no clear identity. The Broncos couldn't protect Wilson by creating a strong ground game and Denver gave up a franchise-record 63 sacks in 2022 — 55 of which Wilson absorbed in his 15 starts. Wilson's footwork has eroded amid the pressure attack and his decision-making late in games — exemplified by a brutal end zone interception in Week 5 against the Indianapolis Colts — has become erratic at times.

Fifteen games into the season, after Wilson and Denver's disastrous performance on Christmas Day in a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Rams, Hackett was fired. The Broncos had mortgaged much of their future for their quarterback, but his chemistry with the head coach, despite consistent public statements of chemistry, was disjointed from the start.

Wilson enthusiastically embraced the arrival of Sean Payton, the Super Bowl-winning coach who helped Drew Brees, Wilson's most respected passer, carve out a Hall of Fame-level career in New Orleans after signing as a free agent in 2006. He was confident he could pry Wilson from “Dive high”, which puts less of the burden of withstanding the attack on his shoulders. In doing so, the Broncos have for periods of time this season played cleaner football than they did last season. During a five-game winning streak after a 1-5 start, Wilson threw no interceptions and the Broncos took advantage of the field position provided by the ball defense to climb out of an early hole.

But it was never an offense where Wilson could thrive or really play to his strengths. Despite a decline in overall athleticism, Wilson remains a gifted playmaker, a quarterback who can make big plays down the field when operating outside the structure. That was evident in Denver's 26-23 loss to the New England Patriots on Christmas Eve. Down 23-7 in the fourth quarter, Wilson led the Broncos on two 75-plus-yard touchdown drives and capped both off with two-point conversion throws to tie the game. He improvised, moved outside the pocket and found his receivers deep down the field.

“We picked up the tempo a little bit and the guys made some great plays,” Wilson said.

It's been as close as Wilson has come this season to suggesting how he thinks the Broncos should play. But Payton's view of the sequence was different.

“A lot of it was backless, and we made some plays, (but) it's hard to say you're going to make a living that way as a base offense,” Payton said.

Payton wants to play a certain way. He wants a midfielder who can routinely deliver the ball to the rhythm of his offense. The second acts, in his opinion, could not be the first plan. Wilson being on the bench is all about playing differently, but is he just being asked to operate in a way that doesn't suit his strengths?

“With Russell, he's one of the toughest guys I've ever been around, especially in this sport,” Broncos right tackle Mike McGlinchey said last week. “And obviously no one takes more of what he does. The way he just keeps rising above it and preparing the way he always prepares, leading our football team, helping put us in good position for a playoff run. … I think two and a half months ago, you were all laughing.” “We have to. So here we have three games left. Russell is going to do what he's always done best and compete hard and put us in a position to win games.”

Payton on Wednesday showed some remorse for his role in how Wilson's season went.

“There's a part of you, and certainly me as a head coach, that feels like, 'Man, I needed to be better.'

The Broncos said Wednesday that the move was about trying to find a spark for an offense that has faltered down the stretch. But clearly this is about the future as well. There are significant financial components at play, of course. Wilson already has $39 million guaranteed for 2024, but another $37 million of his 2025 salary is guaranteed for injury alone. It would become fully guaranteed if Wilson remained on the team through the fifth day of the following league year in March. Wilson's injury over the last two games, which prevented him from passing a physical at that point, will leave the Broncos on the hook for all that salary. You can always follow the money in professional sports.

Sean Payton talks with Russell Wilson before the game against the Patriots. It appears this will be Wilson's last game for Denver this season. (Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today)

But moving on from Wilson may create more problems than it solves. Cutting him would create $85 million in dead money. He could be spread out over the next two seasons with a designation beyond June 1, but a move like that would put pressure on Denver's books and potentially require getting rid of other key players and their contracts. The Broncos don't have a wealth of young, inexpensive talent in large part because the Wilson and Payton trades netted a total of three first-round picks to Denver over the past two years. The Broncos are in desperate need of more speed to complement their quarterback.

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This says nothing about who will replace Wilson if he has already played his final game with the Broncos. Payton believes Jarrett Stidham is a “up-and-coming” quarterback, and perhaps these last two games show that, but he has made just two starts since entering the league as a fourth-round pick of the Patriots in 2019. There simply isn't much going forward.

The Broncos won't be on hand to draft top prospects Caleb Williams or Drake Maye, a vision that seemed possible when Denver started the season by losing five of six games. There may be other options in the draft. LSU's Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels may be in range. O. J. McCarthy of Michigan. All were first-round prospects The athleteLatest mock draft by prospect guru Dane Brugler.

But none of this will be as easy for the Broncos as changing their quarterback. If the ill-fated Wilson trade should teach the Broncos anything, it's that most of all.

(Top image: RJ Sangusti/Getty Images)

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