The success or failure of the Denver Broncos' offseason in 2024 will come down to one particular position. Let's not bury the lede, either. It's the quarterback position, which should be quite obvious.
The Broncos were improved in just about every possible way in the first year of Sean Payton as the head coach of the team. Player development was better, the offensive line improved, the skill players were better, the Broncos had fewer injuries, and ultimately the team won eight games, a three game improvement from the year prior.
No matter what metric you look at, Sean Payton made the Broncos a better team. And that would include the quarterback position with Russell Wilson. Wilson, quite frankly, was one of the most improved players on the team in 2023 based on what we had seen in 2022. Even with that improvement, though, it wasn't good enough for Payton, who benched Wilson with two games remaining in the year.
There has been a lot of controversy about whether or not that decision was strictly financially motivated or whether Sean Payton was telling the truth when he said it was a football decision. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There were obvious financial implications of that move, but the fact of the matter is, the Broncos didn't bench Wilson when the playoffs were realistically at stake. After they had been effectively eliminated, or left with virtually no chance of getting in, the move to Jarrett Stidham was made.
But to think that decision was made purely to protect the Broncos from paying Russell Wilson his $37 million salary for 2025 is erroneous. It would require people to "box score scout" as opposed to actually watching Denver Broncos games over the last two years. Case in point:
Russell Wilson is still an all-time great in my eyes. I don't think what he's done in Denver can diminish what he did in 10 years with the Seattle Seahawks. With that being said, if you have a quarterback who has to have everything around him go right in order to have success, why wouldn't you just get a guy on a rookie contract instead of having someone costing you $161 million in fully guaranteed cash?
Russell Wilson was brought in to be the guy to elevate everyone else. At his pay scale, he's not supposed to need "everything to go right". I think there's a valid argument to be made about players being in the right fit and situation. Timing matters. Coaching matters. Scheme matters. Your teammates matter. But at some point, we have to acknowledge that this has been the discussion and discourse over Russell Wilson for the last five or so years.
Dating back to his time with Seattle, the reason they had a falling out was because Russ wasn't involved in picking the offensive staff, or at least, not as involved as he wanted to be. What's hilarious now is that as the rumor mill has been churning over the last couple of years, people have been bringing up reunions with Russ and coaches like Brian Schottenheimer as ways to get him back on the right track, or reuniting Russ with Dave Canales in 2024, the current OC of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who helped Russ to some nice success in Seattle.
Isn't it funny how that works? A few years ago, all of the reports are that the staff is not right for Russ. Now we're talking about reunions and how he needs to get back with coaches who have clearly been better for him.
The grass is always greener.
Perhaps one could argue that the reins were pulled too tight with Russ in 2024 in Denver. But Sean Payton promised that we would get Russ's greatest hits, and we got them. There wasn't much success for the Broncos within the structure of Sean Payton's planned passing attack, but Wilson made some spectacular plays out of structure and can clearly still sling the ball downfield.
And we all know that the Broncos are not immune from blame in how this has been handled. Owner/CEO Greg Penner admitted as much in regards to contract negotiations at the bye week, but I think when you talk about the football side of things, the Broncos bent to what Russ wanted to do in 2022, and it failed miserably. They made Russ bend to what Sean Payton wanted to do in 2023 and the results were way better, but somehow it's the Broncos who are at fault in this current "he said, they said" going on with the media.
And so we find ourselves at a "fun" crossroads. The Broncos seemingly likely to move on from Russell Wilson in the 2024 offseason so they don't have to pay him $37 million in 2025. If the team knows that Wilson is not its QB of the future, then go ahead and move on. But the Broncos also have to keep in mind a number of things:
The playoff drought is sickening at this point. The Broncos haven't made the postseason since 2015, the second-longest playoff drought in the league behind the New York Jets.
Also, the expectation from the top down is to win more than eight games this coming season. If you remove Russell Wilson from the equation, are you removing your "high floor" in the win-loss column? If the Broncos are going youth movement at the QB position, then you have to be willing to live with the results, but the expectations for this team are playoffs every year, and championship aspirations as quickly as possible. Does cutting Russell Wilson help you achieve that?
The clock is ticking. The Broncos face an offseason where there will be a lot of uncertainty, but this is the one position they need to get right.