ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Sean Payton's quest to restore the Denver Broncos’ long-lost offensive swagger in 2023 starts with resurrecting Russell Wilson's career.
Denver's offense and its star quarterback plummeted to new depths last season under Nathaniel Hackett, who was fired after 15 games with the Broncos averaging a league-low 15.8 points per game and Wilson mired in his worst season as a pro.
General manager George Paton insisted the coaching change wasn't driven by the need “to turn around Russ," who finished with a career-low 16 touchdown passes and a career-high 55 sacks. “It's not just one player. It's not whether Russ is fixable or not, but we do believe he is.”
Payton is just the man to oversee Wilson's rebound, said NBC “Sunday Night Football” analyst Cris Collinsworth.
"Sean Payton’s one of the greatest coaches of all time," Collinsworth said. "Of. All. Time. Do I think he’s going to fix Russell Wilson? I don’t think you fix Russell Wilson, I think you find Russell Wilson. You figure out what he wants to do and what he does best, and you make it work.”
Payton appreciated Collinsworth's assessment when asked about it Wednesday.
"I think that's a pretty good observation,” Payton said. "We've talked about it ad nauseum, you know, the things he does well, putting him in those positions, putting our offense in those positions. And I agree with what he said. That makes a lot of sense to me.
“And our job is to find him.”
While that search begins in earnest Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders, the hunt really began when Payton was hired and quickly instructed his quarterback to tone down his public presence.
No more bombarding social media with updates about his workouts and his globetrotting ways. Forget the many merchandise pitches and cheesy catchphrases.
Wilson complied, quietly mapping out his comeback. He changed his diet, dropping 15 pounds. And he found many of the perks he enjoyed last year like his own upstairs office by the coaches, his premium parking spots and his personal QB coach on site, were all gone.
Early returns suggest the changes have paid off.
Wilson performed noticeably better week by week at training camp. Unlike last year, he participated in the preseason, playing in two games and showing improved mobility and decision-making running Payton's offensive schemes.
“Sean’s been able to cobble together offenses for the variety of quarterbacks and players," Collinsworth said, noting how he helped resurrect Jameis Winston's career and went 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater and 7-2 with Taysom Hill in New Orleans when Drew Brees was sidelined.
“There’s something about Sean Payton, you know, he’s a commanding presence in the room,” Collinsworth said. "I think that Russell was coming in a season ago and had a certain way of doing things and he sort of did them that way. And now, I think he’ll do things the Sean Payton way — and I’m kind of anxious to see what that might mean.”
Wilson was so bad last year many suggested he was done.
“I do not believe Russell Wilson is finished,” Collinsworth said. “And I think that we’ll see a little bit more of what we’ve seen in the past.”
And some of what's all the rage now, too.
“We’re all trying to copy Patrick Mahomes and what he does, but the ability to take deep drops, and move around, buy time for your receivers to get open — which is exactly what Russell Wilson does — is still very much en vogue,” Collinsworth said.
Mike Tirico concurred with his broadcast partner, suggesting the Wilson-Payton pairing will flourish as will the Hackett-Aaron Rodgers reunion in New York.
“Sometimes, business, society, whatever, you get a fit, and sometimes things don’t fit and for whatever reason, Nathaniel Hackett and Russell Wilson and the whole Denver situation didn’t fit,” Tirico said. “I’m gonna bet on Sean Payton figuring out a way to make this fit."
Two former NFL general managers, Mike Tannenbaum on ESPN and Mike Lombardi on his podcast, have suggested Payton won't hesitate to bench Wilson in favor of backup Jarrett Stidham if Wilson fails to find himself this season.
That would put the franchise in a difficult spot because Wilson's five-year, $245 million contract extension that he signed a year ago kicks in next season when he'll carry a dead-cap hit of $85 million.
Wilson wouldn't go so far as to say he's out to prove naysayers wrong, but he did acknowledge that, like University of Colorado coach Deion Sanders, he “keeps receipts.”
"I think you've got them in your back pocket sometimes,” Wilson said. "There's always going to be some who question whether you can do it or not. And I think I've proven throughout my career what I can do. And I've got to do it again.”
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