The question of is Sean Payton developing frustration with Russell Wilson is becoming more and more fascinating by the day. The Denver Broncos are fresh off of their sixth loss of the season, a critical road game against the Houston Texans in Week 13. The loss against Houston pushed the Denver Broncos to 9th in the AFC with a conference record of 3-5, and they no longer have a shot at a tie-breaker over Houston if it comes down to that.
While the team's playoff hopes are anything but dead at this point, they took a significant shot after the loss to Houston. And understandably, head coach Sean Payton is frustrated. He's frustrated about a lot of things, but the play of his quarterback is undoubtedly one of them. In his Monday media availability (via Zoom conference call), Payton expressed his thoughts on a number of issues the team has had this season.
There are layers to this conference call, with Sean Payton being grilled about the Broncos going 0-for-11 on third down attempts against the Texans, to discussions over miscommunication on the last play, to Jerry Jeudy being consistently left wide open, to the team's incompetence offensively when they defer to the second half, and more.
In all honesty, it was one of the most enlightening post-game media sessions Sean Payton has had as head coach of this team. We're getting down to some serious issues with this team offensively, issues that could prevent the team from making the playoffs when they've got a realistic shot at it.
This is not about stirring the pot regarding Russell Wilson "haters" or people who simply believe he can do no wrong. This is an honest look from the head coach at where things are offensively 12 games into the season.
Regarding the team's struggles passing the ball in general, Payton had this to say...
"I think there’s probably a combination of two or three things. I think it starts with protection. I think communication has to be on point. We finished the game yesterday, [and on] the last play of the game, we leave a shift off, so at the snap of the ball, you have three receivers that are trying to run a route, but they haven’t shifted into their final formation. My experience has always been it’s the details—it’s the little things. Those things have to be better."- Sean Payton (via Broncos PR)
When he was asked about the team's struggles coming out in the second half offensively, Payton made note that the team could start installing a second "script" between the second and third quarter. It's not a bad idea at all since the Broncos have been pretty good on their game-opening script this season, but it's also indicative of where this team is at in terms of being able to execute whatever they feel is their "bread and butter" offensively.
Since you don't have a bread and butter, you've got to bring out a second set of scripted plays for the offense to attempt to be cohesive.
Again, a big part of the issue against Houston, specifically, was the Broncos' inability to convert on third down (0-for-11). On that issue, Payton had this to say:
"It’s not good enough. Obviously, it’s frustrating. It’s a combination of a handful of things—protection, guys open and us not making a play. I felt like the yardage and the distances were what we wanted. We have to be better in that area. Our third down plan has to be cleaner. It wasn’t a game where so many of them were third-and-long."- Sean Payton
Guys open and us not making a play?
That's a very interesting comment right there from Payton, who also added that he felt they were in relatively favorable third down situations. The execution and simply wasn't good. This wasn't an issue of the team being buried in 3rd-and-long situations. There are people who may disagree that he's really pinning things on Russell Wilson with those comments, but when asked about why losses now might be more frustrating than earlier in the season, Payton assigned blame to a variety of places including special teams allowing a free rusher (resulting in a partially blocked punt) as well as the Alex Singleton penalty which resulted in the Texans getting a touchdown instead of a field goal (four point difference).
But here's what he had to say about the offense's role in the loss...
"Offensively, we talked about it—communication. Communication has to improve, especially on the road. Too many snaps where guys aren’t ready, or we didn’t get the shift, or we didn’t get the call. That’s troubling, especially this time of year."- Sean Payton
Ultimately, who does communication fall on? The quarterback.
A lot of people have come to Russ's defense since these comments are hitting the masses, and they've talked about protection. And protection was definitely an issue against Houston. Russell Wilson did well on a variety of occasions to break the pocket and create plays with his legs, something he's done well his entire career, and Payton acknowledged that the down-to-down protection has to be more consistent. But he also said this:
"We leave a little early a couple of times, and then pretty soon, your pocket is compromised. Now, you’re better off just being out of the pocket."- Sean Payton
Again, that is something that he's seeing on tape with Russell Wilson compromising the pocket by leaving early too frequently.
Payton also noted that on the final play of the game for the Broncos, an interception thrown by Russell Wilson to young tight end Lucas Krull, there was a major communication error. The three receivers didn't "shift" into their final formation, causing the offense to play what Payton labeled "street ball" on a critical down. As Payton said previously, it's the details, the little things that make the biggest difference in games like this.
Perhaps most notable in his media availability is what Payton had to say about Jerry Jeudy running wide-open on a play at one point in the game for a surefire touchdown. Fans on Twitter were up in arms over Jeudy running wide open and there seems to be at least one major argument every week about Jeudy being wide open and not getting the ball, and it's something Payton has taken notice of as well.
"I think it’s a fair question. [WR] Jerry [Jeudy] went through a stretch. I don’t want to call it a dry spell, but certainly frustration. Even when we won, he wanted to be a part of it. We want to get his hands on the ball. That was a play, though, where they dropped coverage, and he very easily was a viable target for a big play. Finally, he was able to make a few in that game. Really, if you look at the tape closely and you watch all of it—I know some of you get to do that. If you watch all of it, holy cow, there are about two or three of those plays."- Sean Payton
Is Payton saying that if you watch the tape from this game closely that you'll see two or three plays where Jeudy is a viable target for a big play? Or is he saying that it's a more regular occurrence? Either way, this is another bad look for Russell Wilson. Payton isn't calling him out by name, but in my opinion having read through his comments and listened to the presser multiple times, he seems to be calling out Russ without saying his name.
Identifying issues like communication, receivers not getting shifted and set, needing a script for the second half, breaking the pocket too early, leaving big plays to Jerry Jeudy on the field...
I mean, it should be rather clear. This isn't about arguing over who is right between Russell Wilson's biggest haters and supporters, this is about identifying why the Denver Broncos are 6-6 instead of 7-5 right now, and a major reason for that is the play of quarterback Russell Wilson. He's absolutely been clutch at times, and he's absolutely made some great plays. He deserves plenty of due credit.
But the Denver Broncos are also one of the worst teams right now in the entire NFL when it comes to percentage of pass plays that go for a first down.
It's long past time to call a spade a spade. The truth of the matter is, as fun as the Broncos' five-game winning streak was, a new level of expectations will be heaped upon this team, and rightfully so. This team should expect excellence and in all areas. Russell Wilson needs to find ways to be much more consistent throwing the ball than he has been this season.
The Broncos punted on 6 of their first 7 drives against the Texans. Wilson's QBR is the second-lowest of his NFL career. His air yards per attempt is one of the lowest it's ever been. There must be more consistency in pass protection, absolutely, but for the Broncos to make the playoffs, they're going to need Russell Wilson to provide them with a bread and butter passing game.
Frustrations aside, Year 1 of the Sean Payton era has clearly been a step forward for Denver and you can take your shot at cashing in on it at FanDuel. Just sign up, deposit $10 or more and then bet $5 or more on Denver's moneyline odds vs. the LA Chargers this week. If the Broncos win, you'll win $150 in bonus bets. Sign up with FanDuel today!