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Russell Wilson and the Star-Quarterback-Savior Complex

An elite QB can change a franchise’s destiny. The Broncos are betting big that Wilson is that kind of player.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Russell Wilson looked miserable. He was in Tampa, Florida, sitting in a luxury box at Raymond James Stadium, wedged between his wife, Ciara, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. It was February 7, 2021, almost 13 months ago to the day. Wilson watched Tom Brady cruise to his seventh Super Bowl victory on the field below him and earn one more ring than Michael Jordan. All Wilson could think about, he later told NBC Sports’ Peter King, was that he had been to just two Super Bowls, and needed more.

Wilson has decided he’s better off chasing Super Bowls somewhere other than Seattle. On Tuesday, the Seahawks sent Wilson and a fourth-round pick to the Denver Broncos in exchange for two firsts, two seconds, and a fifth, plus quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant (who was Denver’s first-rounder in 2019), and defensive lineman Shelby Harris. Wilson has a no-trade clause, so the deal was done with his blessing—if not his prayers.

Wilson’s Mile High arrival overloads an already stacked AFC West and makes Denver a Super Bowl contender. For Wilson, it’s a chance to prove he is a Tier 1 elite quarterback in today’s NFL and, perhaps, to prove he is an all-time great. After 10 years in Seattle, Wilson’s career has come full circle. When he entered the league, he was a game manager and the archetype for a new team-building strategy: structuring rosters around young quarterbacks whose salaries were limited by the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. Now he becomes the latest in a line of savior quarterbacks brought in to bring a good team to glory.

The Broncos are in a similar situation as the Bucs were before they added Tom Brady in 2020—they have a roster littered with underappreciated talent that just needs higher-level quarterback play to unlock its full potential. Denver’s offensive skill group does not have the star power of DK Metcalf or the veteran rapport that Wilson had with Tyler Lockett, but it might be better than Seattle’s overall group. The Broncos boast third-year receiver Jerry Jeudy, who was Denver’s first-rounder in 2020, veteran receiver Courtland Sutton, and jittery KJ Hamler (who is recovering from a torn ACL). While Fant is now in Seattle, young tight end Albert Okwuegbunam might be the better player. Broncos running back Javonte Williams is already one of the nastiest rushers in football. It might be the best skill group Wilson has ever played with.

That’s just the guys who touch the ball. Denver’s offensive line is not elite, but it’s probably better than any line Wilson has played behind in a half-decade. And Denver’s defense is definitely the best that Wilson has played with since the Legion of Boom disintegrated in 2018. Last season, the Broncos finished top three in points allowed, but still lost 10 games (they were the one of two teams in the top eight for points allowed to miss the playoffs). Denver’s defense might regress without former head coach Vic Fangio, who ran that unit, but pass rusher Von Miller could return to the team fresh off his Super Bowl win with the Rams. Plus, Denver won’t have to rely on its defense as much with Wilson at quarterback as opposed to last season’s starters, Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater. Last year, the Broncos went 0-7 when allowing more than 17 points. That will change with Wilson in town.

The AFC West is absolutely loaded. In addition to the Broncos and Wilson, the division has Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, Justin Herbert and the Chargers, and Derek Carr and the Raiders. Denver has already vaulted to the fifth-best odds to win the Super Bowl, behind only Buffalo, Green Bay, Kansas City, and the defending champion Rams.

This trade also exacerbates the disparity in quarterback talent between the conferences. Elsewhere in the AFC, there’s Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow, and Trevor Lawrence. Meanwhile, the NFC has Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray, and … who is the fifth-best quarterback in the NFC? Kirk Cousins? Matt Ryan? The path to the Super Bowl in the AFC looks harder than ever, judging by the conference’s quarterbacks for the next few years.

The Broncos knew this. After their season ended, Fangio was asked what was separating the team from its divisional rivals: the Chargers, the Chiefs, and the Raiders. “Well, those other three teams have top-shelf quarterbacks, which is obvious to everybody,” Fangio said. “I think the foundation is there for this franchise to close the gap.”

Denver fired Fangio the next day, but he was right: The Broncos needed to close that gap. Was Wilson their first choice? The Broncos have insisted he was and that the timing of the deal had nothing to do with Aaron Rodgers confirming he would return to the Packers just hours earlier on Tuesday.

That doesn’t pass the smell test. It seems like Rodgers was Denver’s Plan A, and Wilson was Plan B. That’s a helluva backup plan—because Denver needed to do something. The team has been in the quarterback wilderness ever since they won the Super Bowl in 2016, after which Peyton Manning retired. Since then, the team has stepped on more rakes at quarterback than Sideshow Bob. Here’s a chronological history of Denver’s quarterback moves, most of which were made by Broncos president of football operations John Elway.

  • Drafted Paxton Lynch in the first round. The team released him after just four starts in two seasons, making him one of the worst quarterback picks of all time.
  • Gave seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian two seasons of starting time
  • Re-signed Brock Osweiler even though he was so bad in Houston that the Texans paid the Browns a second-rounder just to take Osweiler off their hands
  • Paid Case Keenum $18 million to start 16 games
  • Traded a fourth-round pick for Joe Flacco
  • Drafted Drew Lock in the second round
  • Traded for Teddy Bridgewater

Not coincidentally, the Broncos are in their worst stretch of football in more than half a century. They’ve had five consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1968-1972. Elway was terrible at finding quarterbacks, but he is such a legend in Denver that the team had to promote him out of the general manager job role rather than fire him.

New general manager George Paton’s deal for Wilson means the Broncos will not only compete for a winning record, but challenge the Chiefs for divisional supremacy (Kansas City has won the AFC West for six seasons in a row). And the timing could not be better considering the team is up for sale and is expected to have new ownership before next season. Denver is one of the most popular franchises in the NFL, and adding Wilson should only increase its value. Billionaires will be willing to pay more money now that they can envision themselves being handed the Lombardi Trophy by Roger Goodell while Russell Wilson smiles and claps by their side. And winning is good for business, too. Forbes estimated that in the year after Brady joined the Buccaneers and won the Super Bowl, the team value increased by almost 30 percent in one year.

Wilson has said he hopes to be an NFL owner some day. He surely knows the best way to get there is to win a lot of Super Bowls and make a lot of money. He had two Super Bowl appearances early in his career, but both came before he signed a big-money contract. In 2014, the Seattle Seahawks romped over the Denver Broncos, 43-8, in one of the most lopsided Super Bowls ever. Seattle’s team was hailed as the future of roster-building: The Seahawks’ strategy was to exploit the time when quarterbacks are on cheap rookie contracts—usually the first four or five years of their career—and use the savings on the rest of the roster. Wilson made less than Seattle’s long snapper in Seattle’s Super Bowl–winning season. Almost a decade later, Wilson will arrive in Denver as a savior—and also the latest centerpiece in a new team-building strategy: Fill your roster with cheap young talent, round it out with a few pricey veterans, and then go get an expensive veteran quarterback.

That’s what the Buccaneers did when they lucked into Brady. The Rams built an amazing stars-and-scrubs roster around Jared Goff for several seasons. Once they realized Goff was the latter, not the former, they flipped him to the Lions for Stafford. Now the Broncos have parlayed five years of excellent drafting into a solid roster that they expect Wilson to elevate into a championship contender. Each of these teams, in their own way, realized their Plan A at quarterback had gone awry, so they aimed for the most extravagant Plan B possible. It’s like one of those birds in the rain forest building a fantastic nest and then doing an elaborate mating dance when they shake their tail feathers.

“Very impressive, but no one is watching,” Sir David Attenborough says, describing these birds, but also the 2019 Buccaneers.

Though Brady is retired (for now), his Super Bowl win with Tampa Bay may have done more than just solidify him as football’s GOAT. Leaving the Patriots and immediately winning with the Bucs also seems to have inspired aging NFL quarterbacks like Wilson to take a more active role in determining their professional destinies.

Brady showed that a star quarterback could demand to be treated like an NBA superstar not only in terms of money, but in terms of teams catering to his needs. After two decades of dominance in New England, Brady didn’t want to be treated like a regular player anymore; Bill Belichick did not agree, so Brady left. When he won in Tampa Bay, it proved that quarterbacks could take more control of their circumstances.

Aaron Rodgers saw this and went on a yearlong tour airing his grievances until Green Bay caved to some of his demands. Rodgers had some legitimate points. Why were the Packers cutting wide receivers without consulting him? He’s worked there for 17 years. He throws to them every day. Shouldn’t he be consulted on the decisions that directly affect his job as quarterback? He basically asked to be CC’ed on some emails. But Rodgers had the same issue as Brady. The team didn’t view him as someone worth CC’ing. Rodgers needed a lot of appearances on The Pat McAfee Show to change that.

Like Rodgers, Wilson tried a more proactive public stance to get his team’s attention. Two days after Brady’s Super Bowl win in 2021, Wilson said in an interview with Dan Patrick that he wanted a larger role in Seattle’s decision-making process, particularly as it related to the offense. Within a few weeks, Wilson’s agent released a list of possible trade destinations that Wilson would be amenable to. It was a passive-aggressive tactic that his agent insisted was not a “demand,” but rather suggestions of where Wilson would want to go “if a trade were considered.”

The Seahawks agreed to some of Wilson’s demands, or, uh, hypotheticals last season. They involved him in the hiring of offensive coordinator Shane Waldron. They traded for offensive lineman Gabe Jackson. Wilson had more say in designing the offense. But after an injury-plagued season, Wilson ended up in the same place as he did a year ago: sitting next to Goodell at the Super Bowl, watching a team who bent over backward to surround their quarterback with talent win a Super Bowl. This time it was Stafford and the Rams.

Thirteen months after he saw Brady win the Super Bowl, Wilson is on a new team. The move will be a success only if Wilson is accepting a trophy from Goodell at the Super Bowl instead of sitting next to him.