DENVER – The Broncos stunk over the season’s final month. They boasted a 7-6 record with their fans peeking their heads above the covers seeing a winning season and the playoffs on the horizon. They dropped three of their final four games, including a heart-in-a-blender loss to an awful Patriots team at home.
Coach Sean Payton pointed out the obvious in his season-ending presser. The offense wasn’t good enough. The Broncos finished 19th in points per game (21.0), 24th in passing yards (191.9), 21st in third down conversion rate (36.8 percent) and 20th in red zone touchdown percentage (50.9).
Payton lost patience with Russell Wilson – he holds the quarterback responsible for the entire offense, not just his personal stats – and benched him. He went to Jarrett. And Stidham did not provide the spark as hoped.
The Wilson situation was percolating for weeks as Payton initially called him out for getting the plays called too slowly. It led to an adjustment to his wristband and the veteran no longer taking a knee in the huddle. As the season progressed, Payton snapped at him during a win over the Chargers and went nuclear on the sideline in the loss to the Lions. There was never a clear explanation for why Payton reached his flash point that day, but people I trust wonder if it centered on Wilson sending a run play to Javonte Williams in the wrong direction – around the left end rather than up the middle – on third-and-1.
It led to drama. Payton called it a football decision to sit Wilson, pointing to the team’s sluggish offense. Wilson revealed that the team threatened to bench him in October after beating the Chiefs if he did not waive the vesting injury clause in his contract on the fifth day of the league year that guarantees him a $37 million salary in 2025.
Wilson, remarkably, insisted he wanted to stay in Denver. And Payton, repeating what he said last month, explained Friday that the door remains ajar. I don’t believe Wilson comes back. I haven't since he was benched.
What has changed? He would still have to restructure his contract – which was a non-starter when he was the starter – and he recognizes he does not fit Payton’s profile for the position.
As Payton waded through the carwash of Radio Row in Las Vegas, he explained the 10-hour draft meetings start Monday as they begin putting the puzzle pieces together on the 2024 roster.
Wilson has a no-trade clause so he can force the Broncos to cut him. And the Broncos will oblige without his contract getting reworked. As such, it is hard to see a conclusion other than Wilson exiting. And that was before Payton said this on Friday about what he looks for in a quarterback.
“I think it’s important that they’re quick processors. That was a strength of Drew’s (Brees). It’s a strength of (Patrick) Mahomes,” Payton said on the Jim Rome Show. “These guys have to operate quickly in six or seven seconds. It’s the hardest thing for us to evaluate.”
This is not a strength of Wilson, something I have written in this space and discussed on my podcast and radio appearances. Wilson excels when coloring outside the lines, making plays when the fire alarms are blaring. Payton wants a quarterback who reads the defense, gets the offense into the right play, and releases the ball on time.
For everyone who says just keep Wilson another season and figure it out while the roster improves, the problem is simple. The pair does not fit.
So, where does that leave the Broncos at the position? There are a few options: sign a veteran like Jimmy Garoppolo, Sam Darnold, Ryan Tannehill, or Jake Browning to compete with Stidham. The winner starts and the loser gets cut. Then draft a rookie to serve as the backup until late in the year or next season.
Let’s be clear: Wilson was not the sole reason the Broncos finished 8-9, their eighth straight year without a postseason berth and their seventh consecutive season with a losing record.
When looking at the AFC landscape, the Broncos require a long-term solution at the position. How else are they going to stare down Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, and C.J. Stroud without flinching?
Will the Broncos find the answer with their 12th overall pick? Will they move up or back? Many industry sources connect the Broncos to Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy and Oregon’s Bo Nix, who appear to check a lot of boxes that Payton seeks. While trading back is attractive as a vehicle to acquire a second-round pick in a draft where Denver only has six selections – get a tackle or edge rusher and take Michael Penix or Michael Pratt later in the draft, perhaps? – that likely takes McCarthy and Nix off the table.
For his part, Payton was not tipping his hand. Why would he?
“How does this impact Russell? Good question. Everything you have heard about us trading up or trading down, I can’t even tell you the jersey numbers on these rookie quarterbacks. We haven’t even seen them yet. So, our plan, to do this thing the right way, is really to assess the quarterback position,” Payton said on “Up and Adams.” “Are we going to be able to find it in the draft, find it in free agency or find it in the building? I think that decision is going to happen quicker rather than later relative to Russ. … Let’s say, hypothetically, six or seven (quarterbacks are) taken in the first round. How many do you end up hitting on? Two. So, are we in love with any of them?”
A perfect marriage between the coach and the quarterback makes winning in the NFL a lot easier. In fact, it feels impossible without a standout under center – Denver has had 13 starters since Peyton Manning retired.
Payton came to Denver to finish off his legacy as an all-time great coach. This is a defining moment. Get the quarterback right and everything about the culture of accountability he has created makes sense. Miss at the most important position and the Broncos remain irrelevant, turning themselves into pretzels making excuses camouflaged as reasons.