clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Broncos’ Russell Wilson Adventure Is Going Nowhere

Denver was promised an exciting ride with a new franchise quarterback. Instead, the Broncos have one of the worst offenses in the NFL and a seemingly grim future.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

For nearly an hour after Thursday’s abomination of a football game ended, Russell Wilson sat motionless at his locker. He refused to take off his shoulder pads, refused to stand, to shower. A few teammates stopped by on their way to the showers; defensive tackle D.J. Jones patted Wilson on the shoulder pad; offensive tackle Billy Turner pulled Wilson in for a hug. Wilson scrolled through his phone, spoke in hushed tones with his backup, Brett Rypien, and later was joined in a long conversation with his head coach, Nathaniel Hackett, and running back Melvin Gordon.

That trio, Wilson, Hackett, and Gordon, are the three most embattled members of this disappointing Broncos team: Gordon, for his fumbles; Hackett, for his bumbling game management; and Wilson for decidedly not being the savior this fan base was hoping for through five games. Wilson threw two brutal interceptions in Thursday’s 12-9 overtime loss to the Colts, and didn’t see an open receiver in the end zone on his final fourth-down pass attempt that ended the game.

“We shoulda won it,” Wilson said. “That’s on me.”

It was hard to disagree, and Denver’s Thursday night debacle likely has many in Broncos Country wondering whether the franchise made a $245 million mistake. There were boos at Empower Field at Mile High by the third quarter—and not for the first time this season, though it’s only Week 5—and fans streamed to the exits at the end of the regulation, despite the fact that the Broncos had never actually trailed in the game. How quickly “Let’s Ride” turned into “Let’s Bail.”

It’s not that the Broncos have fallen to 2-3, it’s how they got here. Wilson’s been inaccurate (he’s completing 59.4 percent of his passes, almost six percentage points below his average in his decade in Seattle) and uninspiring, and the Broncos’ offense simply can’t score points. They’ve managed just three red zone touchdowns—fewer than every other team, even the Panthers and Bears—and that’s with one more full game completed. Even Indianapolis, whose own offense was dreadful on Thursday night, has scored six red zone touchdowns this season.

Denver is more than a quarter through its first season with Wilson, and it’s nearly impossible to identify anything the offense does well. The Broncos are currently 30th in offensive EPA, according to TruMedia, and his mistakes, like his interception on a third down from the Colts’ 13-yard line, with 2:13 remaining in a game the Broncos were leading 9-6, are the mind-boggling type of errors typically made by an inexperienced QB, not a 10-year vet.

“I don’t want Russ to feel like this is on him,” Gordon said in a somber postgame locker room late Thursday night. “We all make mistakes, it’s part of the game. This is a roller coaster.”

Gordon’s right that this isn’t Wilson’s failure alone. The problem is that in trading for Wilson, the Broncos promised both teammates and fans a thrill ride, a wild adventure after years of mediocrity. So far this ride has been nothing but a busted carousel: no real highs, and not going anywhere. The Broncos paired Wilson with a first-time head coach in Hackett, and have tried to create an offense that would give Wilson some of the control he believed he lacked in Seattle, but what they’ve fielded through five games is an offense without an identity. It’s been at its best when Wilson is able to do Wilson things—move out of the pocket, scramble, throw deep downfield while on the run. They’ve been at their worst when the field is the tightest, when he’s been asked to operate on script in the red zone.

In the defining moment of Thursday’s game, the Broncos needed to pick up 1 yard on fourth down from the Colts’ 5-yard line. They had options: attempt a run and potentially earn a new set of downs from inside the 5, take a shot at the end zone and potentially score a walk-off touchdown, or kick yet another field goal and likely settle for a tie. Wilson’s passing had quickly gotten the team into the red zone in the first place—he completed his first two passes of overtime for 61 yards—and then three consecutive run plays were ineffective. But Wilson already had proved shaky as a red zone passer that night. After two timeouts, one each called by the Colts and the Broncos, they unveiled their play, and it was the most aggressive option. Wilson lined up in shotgun, with a spread formation, and laser focused on receiver Courtland Sutton, who was crossing from left to right near the back of the end zone. Wilson was so keyed on Sutton that he failed to look to his right, where receiver K.J. Hamler was running uncovered. Wilson’s pass fell incomplete, a stadium fell silent, and Wilson’s honeymoon in Denver was over. “I could have walked in,” Hamler told NFL Network reporter James Palmer after the game.

Not looking for Hamler was Wilson’s mistake. Calling a pass play there was a mistake Wilson and Hackett must share. (Wilson’s former teammate, Richard Sherman, went nuclear on the decision on Amazon Prime’s postgame show. “Run the dang ball,” Sherman yelled—unleashing pent-up frustration from their shared Super Bowl past.) Wilson defended his coach and the play call; it was a “good one,” Wilson said, adding that he was prepared to scramble if necessary there. But he didn’t. Russ didn’t cook, he didn’t create, he didn’t show patience or vision.

“We didn’t want it to end in a tie, we wanted to win the game,” Wilson said. “I think Coach made a good call. I’ve got to find a way to make a play, whatever it takes.”

Hackett explained after the game that the call was a sign of trust in his quarterback. It was a play Wilson liked, Hackett said, and with the game on the line, he wanted to put the ball in the hands of Wilson. So, the Broncos have now lost two games in the span of five weeks because Hackett didn’t trust Wilson and opted for an inexplicable 64-yard field goal in Week 1, and because he trusted Wilson too much. Those final moments Thursday night, from Hamler’s reaction to it—not only did he vent to a reporter, but also he was seen slamming his helmet to the grass—and Wilson’s stunned look on the field after the game and his long, pensive pose in the locker room after, are what will linger from this loss as a potentially landmark moment in Wilson’s Denver tenure.

The rest of what happened Thursday night should be completely erased from our collective football memory, because it was, in so many ways, a hilariously awful game. Thursday Night Football has a long history of producing stinkers of the mid-aughts Titans-Jaguars variety, and yet this one felt like it was the worst Thursday Night Football game of all time. This is the game critics will point to when they decry these short-week games: It was a sloppy slog and both teams lost multiple players to potentially significant injuries. Colts running back Nyheim Hines exited in the first quarter with a concussion, and defensive end Kwity Paye was carted off the field with an ankle injury. Denver’s left tackle Garett Bolles, the team’s longest-tenured offensive player, suffered what appeared to be a significant ankle injury in the fourth quarter, and left the stadium in a cast.

The game featured 12 punts (seven by the Colts, five by the Broncos) and seven field goals (and the Broncos also had a field goal attempt blocked). Colts quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked six times, fumbled twice (though the Colts recovered both), and threw two interceptions, to bring his season total to seven in five games (it is worth noting that Carson Wentz threw seven interceptions in all of 2021.) At one point, a Broncos tight end, Andrew Beck, dropped a would-be touchdown pass and in doing so, somehow managed to kick the ball out of the end zone. The game’s referee, Brad Rogers, misidentified Indianapolis as “San Diego”—perhaps speaking for all of us that he was wishing to be anywhere else but in the middle of that game. It was the type of contest that probably has Amazon execs rethinking their reported $1 billion a year investment in exclusive Thursday night broadcast rights, especially with … [checks notes] … Commanders vs. Bears on next week’s calendar. But there will be no refunds, not for Amazon, and not for the Broncos, who have no immediate off-ramp from this horribly offensive offense. Wilson’s contract runs through 2028 and pays him an average of nearly $50 million per season. They’re all in on this ride with Wilson—and we’ll all watch them do it again in prime time in Week 6, on Monday Night Football against the Chargers.

Eventually, Wilson did climb out of that chair in front of his locker Thursday night, and made the short walk to the interview podium. He was subdued, at first, taking the blame for the loss and saying his two interceptions were inexcusable. As he spoke, though, he came back to life, as if the more he talked the more he could distance himself from the mess he left behind on the field. It was part filibuster, part motivational speech. “I’m looking forward to turning it around,” Wilson said. “When we do, it’s going to be a special story.” But with each passing week and uninspired offensive performance, it’s getting harder to believe in a happy ending.