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Can the Broncos Salvage Their Russell Wilson Bet?

For years, Denver seemed a franchise quarterback away from contention. Now the Broncos are supposed to have one, and yet everything is going wrong. Are the ills of this offense fixable? If not, what other paths do the Broncos have going forward?

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Entering the 2022 NFL season, only seven teams had better odds of winning the Super Bowl than the Broncos. Vegas oddsmakers had Denver ahead of Cincinnati, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Miami, which sounds silly now, but at the time made perfect sense. For years, the Broncos seemed to be a quarterback away from contention, and in March, they and the rest of the football world thought they’d found one when they traded for Seahawks star Russell Wilson. The cost—two first-round picks, two second-round picks, a fifth-round pick, and Drew Lock, Shelby Harris, and Noah Fant—was steep, but in a division that features Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, it was a price that had to be paid if this team was going to keep up.

As you now know, Wilson has not helped the Broncos keep up. In fact, the gap between them and the Chiefs has grown wider through 12 weeks—so much so that the NFL flexed next weekend’s game between the two teams out of Sunday Night Football. Nobody is complaining about the decision. Denver’s offense has been terribly ineffective and completely unwatchable. It’s averaging 14.3 points a game, which ranks dead last in the league, and has topped 20 points only twice all season. It ranks 28th in EPA, 29th in DVOA, and 30th in success rate. All of those numbers are way down from last year, when the Broncos were switching between Lock and journeyman Teddy Bridgewater under center.

That team finished with a league-average offense by most metrics, thanks in large part to a young, talented stable of skill players and a solid offensive line. Adding a bona fide franchise quarterback and a sharp offensive mind at head coach should have been more than enough to elevate the unit into the upper crust of the NFL. But Wilson hasn’t looked like a franchise passer at any point this season, and first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett has been anything but sharp.

Hackett’s group has looked awkward and disjointed, which is another way to describe the vibes around the locker room after we saw Wilson get into a sideline altercation with teammate Mike Purcell during Denver’s 23-10 loss to the Panthers last weekend.

Reports of Wilson’s issues with the team started flooding in after that. NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero and Mike Garafolo reported that Wilson had “lost some people around the team” and that “guys were looking at him side-eyed when he was doing all his kind-of goofy stuff all offseason and into training camp.” His Broncos teammates have come out in droves to deny that the quarterback’s popularity is waning, and we even got a report that many of them showed up to Wilson’s birthday party this week—though it’s unclear whether getting half the team to come out to a party thrown by Ciara is supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing.

It’s not necessarily surprising that things aren’t working out. Wilson came into the year fresh off two uneven seasons in Seattle, and Hackett’s credentials were mostly based on his last name and his connection with Aaron Rodgers. A disappointing season was definitely on the table, but nobody expected this. Just a few months into the first season of this experiment, the team’s investment in Wilson—a five-year, $245 million extension inked in September—feels like a sunk cost. Yet with $165 million in guarantees included in the deal, Wilson and the Broncos are likely going to be together for a while. So let’s try to answer the two questions that everyone affiliated with Denver is asking themselves right now: How did it go this poorly this season? And is there any chance of salvaging this situation?

It’s difficult to pin down any one reason the Denver offense is so bad. As rough as the passing game has been, the running game has been even worse from an efficiency standpoint. The rushing attack has been particularly ineffective when Wilson lines up in the shotgun formation: No team has lost more EPA on shotgun runs than the Broncos, and only three have produced a worse success rate this season, according to TruMedia. Denver is finding a bit more success when it runs from under-center formations—ranking around league average in most metrics—but Wilson’s discomfort on those plays has carried over from his time in Seattle, and that’s having an effect on his new offense.

That lack of conceptual cohesion has tanked Denver’s play-action passing game. At 5-foot-11, Wilson doesn’t see the field well as it is, and putting him under center makes it even harder on the diminutive quarterback. Wilson ranks 25th in EPA per dropback on play-action passes from under center, according to TruMedia. And several times per game, it seems, he has opportunities to hit open receivers over the middle of the field and instead settles for a checkdown to the flat. Not hitting on those downfield plays kind of defeats the purpose of having a productive under-center run game, so one of the few things this offense does well is being wasted. And because Denver has had trouble running the ball from the gun, Hackett has dialed back on those calls, leading to a reduction in play-action passes from that formation—which had been a key facet of Wilson’s offenses in Seattle.

As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell noted this week, no other quarterback is throwing to “wide open” receivers—defined by Next Gen Stats as having no defender within 5 yards—more often than Wilson. So if Hackett deserves criticism for this mess of an offense, it’s not for his play designs. The coach is doing his job there. What he’s failing to do, though, is what Pete Carroll and his various offensive coordinators did for Russ in Seattle: maximize the quarterback’s efficient plays, and minimize the inefficient ones.

The numbers may have painted Carroll as a stubborn, run-first coach—which inspired a long-standing fan-led campaign to #LetRussCook—but what he really did was strip out all the unnecessary parts of the passing game. And it’s difficult to deny that his philosophy worked. The offense finished outside of the top 10 in DVOA only twice during Wilson’s decade in Seattle.

In order to properly evaluate how the Seahawks called plays for Wilson, we have to throw away the old run/pass dichotomy. Instead, if we bucket play types as either “generally efficient” or “generally inefficient,” judged by yardage, EPA, or whatever metric you prefer, then we can see where Carroll and Co.’s philosophy actually succeeded—despite the constant hand-wringing about early-down pass rates. Not all “passes” are created equal when it comes to efficiency. Passes with play-action are typically more efficient than those without it. And deeper dropback passes tend to be more productive than short quick-game concepts. So simply calling for more passing is such a vague prescription that it’s pretty much useless. And the passes Russ seemingly wants more of—based on the play-calling tendencies of his teams—are those quick-game throws from the gun. So the ball is snapped, he takes a short drop, and, boom, the ball comes out, usually 5 to 10 yards downfield. They’re the sort of plays a commentator might call “an extension of the run game,” and as cliché as that is to say, it’s accurate if we’re talking about efficacy. Quick-game dropbacks and runs produce comparable efficiency numbers across the league. So replacing runs with a few more of those plays won’t provide much of an efficiency boost—which is why the cries to Let Russ Cook were mostly ignored by Carroll.

But things are different in Denver. During the offseason, much was made about Wilson finally getting full ownership of an offense, by both Hackett and Russ himself. And that’s happening for the most part! The Broncos are running a lot of quick-game from the gun—at the third-highest rate in the league, according to Sports Info Solutions—but those inefficient plays aren’t being counterbalanced by a high dosage of deeper pass concepts and play-action shots, which are the most efficient pass types. Denver’s play-action usage from the gun is half of what Wilson had in Seattle, according to TruMedia.

Team Pass Rates by Concept, Denver vs. Seattle

Season(s) Team Under center—no play-action Under center—play-action Shotgun—no play-action Shotgun—play-action
Season(s) Team Under center—no play-action Under center—play-action Shotgun—no play-action Shotgun—play-action
2019-21 Seahawks 2% 17% 71% 11%
2022 Broncos 3% 15% 76% 6%
Data via TruMedia

So maybe there’s a clear solution to all this: The Broncos need to find a coach capable of turning the right play-calling dials to replicate the offensive rig Seattle had built for Wilson. And maybe that means getting rid of Hackett and bringing in someone who’s also hopefully better at managing a game (not a high bar to clear) and overall team personalities. Carroll himself may not be available, but plenty of his assistants could be, including his former defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn.

Unfortunately, the fix may not be that simple. Because, well, Russ hasn’t even been good at the stuff he used to be good at in Seattle. Namely, the whole being the greatest out-of-structure thrower of all time thing. Flashes of that guy still pop up on his film every now and then; just not frequently enough to subsidize what always has been a volatile style of quarterbacking. Sure, Wilson’s overall statline has fallen off a cliff this season, but a gradual decline already had been happening in some key metrics:

Wilson’s Decline Started Before 2022

Season EPA/Dropback Success Rate Scramble Yds/Game Deep off-target%
Season EPA/Dropback Success Rate Scramble Yds/Game Deep off-target%
2019 0.10 48.5% 20.9 0.2
2020 0.07 48.2% 28.8 0.3
2021 0.03 44.2% 12.8 0.2
2022 -0.07 36.3% 12.5 0.3
Data via TruMedia

Maybe a new coach will reverse time and turn Russ back into the star quarterback he had been for so long in Seattle. Leaning into his more chaotic tendencies, rather than jamming him into a more traditional offense, would give Denver the best shot at getting something out of this regrettable deal. But there’s also a good chance that the Seahawks sold the Broncos a lemon and this road they’re on goes only one way.

The guaranteed money left on Wilson’s deal, which would leave Denver with an outrageous dead cap bill if it were to cut him ($107 million), pretty much forces the team to keep him on the books—unless it’s able to trade him early next offseason before a $20 million bonus becomes guaranteed in March. If the Broncos can find a team willing to take Wilson (and the over $100 million in guaranteed money that would be left on his deal) before that deadline, the cap hit would be a bit more manageable. And while a team trading for Wilson at that price may seem unlikely, this is a league that has traded premium picks for Carson Wentz in back-to-back offseasons, so there’s always a chance.

The other option is to just rip the Band-Aid off and cut him. Designating him as a post-June 1 cut would allow Denver to split the dead money charge between 2023 and 2024, so it’d be on the hook for $61 million next season and $46 million the year after that. That means Wilson would have made around $120 million from the Broncos for this one crappy season.

The financial implications of offloading Wilson would make building a winning roster nearly impossible in the near future, but maybe it’s in the best interest of the team to just stink it up and let the cap recover. The Broncos get their first-round pick back in 2024, just in time for what’s been projected to be a talented class of quarterbacks. Sticking it out with Wilson, assuming he enjoys some positive regression, would keep them out of range to draft a blue-chip prospect. And for what? To spend the next few years battling the Chargers for second place in the AFC West?

Recently, we’ve seen a number of teams just accept a big dead cap bill in order to move on from a quarterback to get a fresh start, and those teams haven’t come to regret it. The Jaguars took a combined dead cap hit of over $30 million to move on from Blake Bortles and Nick Foles in back-to-back seasons and ended up with Trevor Lawrence. The Eagles took on $33.8 million in dead money to ship Wentz off to Indianapolis and made the playoffs the very next season. The Falcons have to be thrilled with their decision to part ways with Matt Ryan earlier than expected, even if he still counts $40.5 million against their cap this season.

As those teams showed, there is no shame in waving the white flag to rectify a cap-busting mistake. And the road back isn’t nearly as daunting as it may seem now. The sooner Denver gets started down that road, the better. In the awkwardly delivered words of a very famous quarterback: Broncos country … let’s ride?