When Sean Payton was hired as head coach of the Denver Broncos, nobody should have ever assumed that he was committing to a long-term marriage with Russell Wilson as his quarterback position. Financially speaking, Payton and the Broncos had their hands tied this past season. There was no choice but to work with Wilson for a season. Draft-wise it's a similar conversation. The Broncos didn't have a first or second-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, so there was not a realistic alternative.
But with a first-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, the Broncos' options are back on the table. Getting out of their deal with Russell Wilson will take a couple of years of absorbing a lot of dead money on the salary cap, but it might be what's necessary for the franchise to move forward after the blockbuster trade that occurred just under two years ago.
Drew Brees, who is very familiar with Russell Wilson and knows a thing or two about the Sean Payton offense, was speaking to the media at radio row ahead of Super Bowl LVIII. Brees was asked about the on-field relationship between Wilson and Payton and what he had to say is extremely telling on a variety of levels.
This quote here in particular requires some attention:
"As I watched them play this year, it didn't feel like the timing, the rhythm, the tempo that I'm used to seeing in a Sean Payton offense. And I know those are the hallmarks of the offense. That's the standard that has been set."- Drew Brees
The funny thing about this quote is that a lot of folks in the media world or just fans on Twitter in general have been criticizing Sean Payton for having an offense that is too intricate for quarterbacks to run, or that he didn't adapt enough to Russell Wilson.
Well, here you have Drew Brees, who basically threw for 8,000 yards a year in this offense, telling you that the "hallmarks" of the Sean Payton offense simply weren't there this past year. Now, if the hallmarks of the offense weren't there, what does that say about this idea that the offense wasn't molded to fit Russell Wilson?
I think Payton made good on his promise to play Russell Wilson's greatest hits. I think there was freedom and autonomy for Russ to operate in a way that was comfortable to him. We saw -- often -- during the team's winning streak Wilson checking out of plays, calling audibles at the line of scrimmage, etc. It was clear that he was operating the offense at his level of comfort, at least for what we can tell from the outside looking in.
Now, we started to see signs that Payton was growing frustrated with the offense not being run to his "standard", as Brees put it, as the season wore along. Things really seemed to reach a boiling point after the loss against the Houston Texans where the Broncos had an opportunity to win the game with a 1st-and-goal from the 8-yard line, and the ball was snapped before the players were properly set at the line of scrimmage with Russell Wilson throwing an interception to end the game.
You can go back and listen to Payton for yourself. We wrote a post on December 5 outlining how frustrated Payton seemed to be with Wilson, and it had very little to do with angry sideline interactions (though, those can be part of it at times).
That game against Houston was infuriating on a variety of levels. First and foremost, it was one of the games the Broncos could not afford to lose after their 1-5 start and subsequent winning streak. That win on the road in Houston would have been pivotal for Denver in terms of being a conference win against a team vying for (at the time) a Wild Card spot. Aside from the implications of losing the game, it was a microcosm of the team's primary struggles throughout the course of the season.
They were 0-for-11 on third downs in that game. They struggled at the worst possible time to convert in the red zone. Receivers were being left open. Russell Wilson was seemingly creating pressure on himself by prematurely leaving the pocket, or putting his linemen in bad situations. It would be unfair and wrong to fully blame Russell Wilson for the team's offensive struggles over the last two seasons, but he's undoubtedly a common denominator.
Under Sean Payton, we saw the Denver Broncos improve markedly in just about every tangible way. The win-loss record improved by three games. The Broncos beat the Chiefs. The special teams play was substantially better. The Broncos improved in nearly every metric offensively from the year prior. To say that Payton didn't do a good job as the head coach of the team would be insane to me. There are legitimately people in Broncos Country who think he did a poor job this past year, and it's hard to fathom being capable of thinking that way.
There are also people who refuse to believe what Drew Brees is saying is the truth. It's not that Sean Payton can't develop an offense suitable for Russell Wilson, it's that there is a ceiling to the level of success these two are capable of having together, and we may have reached it in 2023.
And with that being the case, the Broncos are going to need a new quarterback, and quickly.