ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In the twilight of the Denver Broncos‘ final Sunday of the 2022 season, quarterback Russell Wilson stood in front of the media contingent trying to make sense of his worst season as a pro.
What happened to the nine-time Pro Bowler who had led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl XLVII win — the quarterback who was expected to lead the Broncos back to glory?
“I ask myself that same question,” Wilson said that night, “where’s he at?'”
In his first season with Denver, Wilson threw a career-low 16 touchdown passes on the way to a 5-12 finish. He was sacked a career-high and league-leading 55 times. He missed two starts with injuries while often looking unsettled and indecisive on the field. A far cry from the player whose team won at least 10 games in eight of his 10 seasons in Seattle, a quarterback who had thrown for at least 25 touchdowns in a season eight times as well.
Multiple opposing defensive coaches and quarterbacks coaches who spoke with ESPN saw several weaknesses in Wilson’s performance last season — from accuracy to decision-making to footwork — but also pointed to ways the quarterback could return to Pro Bowl form. Getting Wilson back on track, of course, will fall heavily on new coach Sean Payton.
“He just put the ball where he shouldn’t too often,” one opposing AFC coach said.
One of the most common criticisms from those surveyed was that the Broncos, until the last two games of the season, didn’t always have a game plan that gave Wilson enough play-action opportunities.
Those who responded largely believe Wilson lacked the right mix of pass routes prepared to deal with the team’s struggles in pass protection and didn’t play with enough composure to work progressions and keep drives moving instead of making ill-fated downfield attempts into coverage looks waiting for them.
“We felt like in certain looks, especially big downs and distance, he would usually try to take more [time] than he should, so we played it that way,” the opposing AFC coach added. … “We, in those situations, assumed he would hold [the ball] and we would break down their protections at the same time.”
Wilson, 34, promised in that season-ending news conference that he would indeed turn the microscope on himself and take a hard look at his game in the offseason.
“Every year you dive into the details [of] what went right, what could have gone better, what do you want to keep working on, every year,” Wilson said. “I’ll do a deep film study on all of that, examine every little detail. You’ve got to trust yourself. … This season hasn’t been that, it’s been challenging.”
But adjusting mechanics like footwork this late into an NFL career is tough, according to several coaches.
“Footwork can be a product of protection at times, and [the Broncos] stressed their front out a lot with what they were trying to do,” an opposing AFC quarterbacks coach said. “But he held the ball, there were times, in your 10th, 11th year whatever, you should get them out of it when you’re over the ball, get to something else. You have to adapt, what you did at [age] 25 may not be the answer.”
The biggest X factor in Wilson’s potential turnaround, of course, will be Payton.
In his 15 seasons as New Orleans Saints coach, Payton’s offenses topped 30 points per game five times; quarterback Drew Brees topped 5,000 yards passing five times and 4,000 yards passing 12 times; and the Saints won at least 10 games eight times.
“The work has started,” Payton said. … “Just know that we’re working, but with a little bit less visibility on social media and all those other things. We’re going to get to work, and ultimately, it’s how we do in the fall.”
Payton was quick to reach out to Wilson after he was hired, and the two had dinner in Arizona during Super Bowl week, complete with photos posted on social media.
A week before Payton had even interviewed for the job, Wilson had called his offensive philosophy “wizardry” and his experiences with Payton at the Pro Bowl when the Saints’ staff coached the NFC team “magnificent.”
Payton made it clear when he was introduced as the team’s coach Feb. 6 that change was coming for the team’s players, Wilson included.
Wilson threw one or zero touchdown passes in 12 of 15 games under former Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett, who was fired after a Christmas Day blowout loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
But in two games under interim head coach Jerry Rosburg, Wilson showed signs of his former self, passing for four touchdowns and rushing for two.
Rosburg was bullish on Wilson, contending the Broncos had “to have action off of [the run game] to open up and get the ball to your playmakers downfield” and that “you have to move the pocket — those kinds of things … to get the ball in our playmaker’s hands.”
One of Rosburg’s first moves was to put Wilson in wider personnel groupings more often, with an eye to protecting Wilson, to give him time for better decision-making. To that end, Rosburg also handed the offense over to quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak and offensive coordinator Justin Outten, with Outten calling plays from the coaches’ box and Kubiak on the sideline with Wilson.
It also helped Wilson stack completions to get the downfield looks he had so often tried to force earlier in the season.
On the season, Wilson completed 34.6% of his passes 30 or more yards down the field, often at the expense of those other open receivers. In the season finale alone, he had three of his 10 pass plays of at least 41 yards for the season and two of his seven completions of over 51 yards for the season.
Even Payton pointed to those two games saying “things changed” and alluded to poor playcalling at times last season.
“I don’t like singing, period, but none of us want to be at a karaoke bar with a song we don’t know the words to,” he said.
It was just a two-game sample size under Rosburg, but the Denver roster, with its pile of injuries across the depth chart — 22 players finished the season on injured reserve — fared better, as did Wilson, with the approach. In Week 18, the team’s 471 total yards and 205 rushing yards and Wilson’s three touchdown passes were all at least tied for best of the season.
Wilson and wide receiver Jerry Jeudy also combined for five receptions for 154 yards in that game.
Kubiak and Outten had Wilson on the move a bit more in the final two games as well, on designed rollouts, play-action, often from under center.
It will all be food for thought for Payton, his staff and Wilson, who still has his teammates behind him.
“What we put on film is what we put on film, and that is what we got to hold on to. However, we know what he does, we know the preparation he puts in, we know how much he cares about this game and how much he cares about the guys around him,” wide receiver Courtland Sutton said. “There’s nothing in my body that questions if he’s going to be able to come back and be All-Pro and a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback next year for us.”