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How Russell Wilson Changed the Broncos’ Culture and Raised Expectations

The Broncos were a team desperate for a quarterback, and Russell Wilson was ready for a new team to lead. In just five months together in Denver, Wilson has won over his new teammates in this quarterback-crazy town.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here’s a list of players who have played quarterback for the Denver Broncos since Peyton Manning retired six years ago:

  • Trevor Siemian
  • Brock Osweiler
  • Paxton Lynch
  • Case Keenum
  • Teddy Bridgewater
  • Joe Flacco
  • Brandon Allen
  • Brett Rypien
  • Drew Lock
  • Kendall Hinton (who is a wide receiver!)
  • Jeff Driskel

Denver is a quarterback town, which makes the above list all the more tragic. The Mile High City was spoiled by John Elway, and then re-spoiled when Elway recruited Peyton Manning to finish his career in blue and orange. But since Manning and his noodle arm retired, the team has been throwing quarterbacks at the wall and seeing who sticks. Nobody has stuck, but plenty have stunk. Relatedly, the Broncos are amid five consecutive losing seasons for the first time in a half century. To stop the bleeding, Denver stopped fixing their quarterback position with Band-Aids and got surgical.

This March, Denver dealt two first-round picks, two seconds, three players, and pocket change to the Seahawks for Super Bowl–winning quarterback Russell Wilson. The Broncos are hoping that Wilson can guide them through the AFC West—perhaps the toughest division in NFL history—and lead them to a Super Bowl victory. The Broncos are banking on Wilson to become the third quarterback savior in franchise history—so it feels appropriate that Wilson has worn no. 3 his entire career.

Wilson is obviously a bajillion times better than the post-Peyton Broncos QBs who’ve preceded him. But spending time at Broncos training camp, it’s not just arm talent that separates Russ from his predecessors. He is bringing the It factor.

The It factor is a tired cliché, but around Wilson you are not allowed to be tired, nor can you avoid clichés. If the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, Wilson’s mitochondria is powered by clichés. Talk to Wilson and it’s just a matter of seconds until he uses phrases like, “Always believe,” “Why not you?,” and “Let’s be the best we can be.” He is a sentient motivational Instagram account. But he has the resumé to back up those clichés. And so with Wilson, not only is Denver getting a massive upgrade at quarterback, but also a massive upgrade in team culture. If attitude reflects leadership, then the Broncos’ attitude will be a reflection of Russ—and all of the details that Russ obsesses over.

“I’m just trying to raise their expectations and to raise ours,” Wilson said in an interview after Wednesday’s practice. “Our expectations have to be higher than anybody else’s. People are going to doubt us throughout the season, people are going to praise us throughout the season, people are going to say this and say that. But our process on who we are and who we are trying to be and how we’re going to learn and be the best version of ourselves, that’s all that matters.”

Every Wilson quote could double as a line reading for Jason Sudeikis in Ted Lasso. But that is because Wilson is always focused, teammates said.

“We’ll be out here just having a walkthrough,” Broncos 22-year-old running back Javonte Williams said. “And someone will be in the back laughing. Russ will be like ‘Lock in, lock in, this is really where it counts!’ And we’ll be like, ‘Damn, Russ, we’re just having a walkthrough.’”

In a meta moment, Williams laughs and then locks in.

“But I understand where he’s coming from,” Williams said. “He’s got a lot on his shoulders this year. He’s not letting nothing slide.”

One of the benefits of getting older is knowing what you want and how you want it. Older quarterbacks are the same way. Wilson knows exactly how he wants his teammates to do their jobs, and is extremely intentional and specific about it. He might tell a receiver on one route that he wants them to take exactly four steps, because the fifth step could mess up his timing. In a certain situation he’ll want them to change direction by planting their outside foot, not the inside one. And when he says make a cut at the white painted “30” at the 30-yard line, he wants them to cut at the bottom of the “30,” because stepping directly onto the “30” isn’t going to create the correct throwing window.

“I always joke and say he’s playing a game in his head,” receiver Courtland Sutton said. “He sees the stands, the fans, he sees defenses moving even though nobody is there. In his mind he knows exactly where he wants us to be, because he sees that. I think that’s what makes him great.”

Wilson does indeed see things that are not there. He is an evangelist for visualizing success before it happens. Before a Sunday Night Football game last year, Wilson went onto the field and ran an entire two-minute drill during pregame warmups despite the fact that:

A. He’d been ruled out for the game while recovering from surgery on his middle finger, and …

B. He was alone, without any teammates or defenders on the field.

Not only was he running the drill by himself, but he was talking to himself. Wilson was calling plays, barking audibles, and yelling encouragement into the real world for the teammates inside his head.

Just days after joining the Broncos in March, Wilson hosted the team’s quarterbacks and receivers for a week of practice in San Diego to install Denver’s offense (the fact that Wilson was essentially installing the offense on his own speaks to how much of Denver’s new offense will feature Wilson’s favorite parts of the system he ran in Seattle). Players on the trip joked that it was a miniature training camp because Wilson had every minute mapped out and there was zero dead time. Buses come at this time, practice at that time, weightlifting here, meeting rooms there. Even dinner was planned down to the smallest detail. Wilson picked the restaurant (obviously), but no waiters came to take anyone’s order. Instead, they were served a specific menu that Wilson had already arranged. Backup quarterback Josh Johnson, one of the most well-traveled quarterbacks in the NFL, said that Wilson’s consistency and intentionality is his superpower.

“Detail is everything,” Johnson says. “That’s what separates the good teams from the bad teams—the teams who make details second nature. So when you get to December, January, and February, you’re rolling.”

Lately, Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles’s days are often interrupted by a FaceTime from Russ. Anytime Wilson has a question, he FaceTimes Bolles. It could be about X’s and O’s, like how he wants Bolles to protect his blindside on a certain play. But it could also be how he wants Bolles to lead and instill maturity in the offensive line, or even just to discuss their lives as fathers. And since Wilson is hitting up Bolles with questions all the time, Bolles said he feels empowered to hit up Russ when he has a question, too.

“I’ve blocked for a lot of quarterbacks,” said Bolles, who arrived in 2017 and is Denver’s longest-tenured offensive player. “Having a guy like that changes the demeanor of everyone.”

Asked if he’s ever been around anyone like Wilson, Bolles shakes his head and starts rattling off a list of names.

“Michael Jordan, Kobe, Steph Curry, LeBron James, Serena Williams, Simone Biles,” Bolles says. “[Wilson’s] mindset is the same as all those people.”

At Broncos training camp on Tuesday, a few thousand fans showed up to sit on the hillside (without a lick of shade) and watch the team practice. It was 92 degrees. After the two-hour practice, at least 300 fans stuck around, crowding the yellow rope separating them from the field, waiting for Wilson to come by. The rope stretched 100 yards, from one end zone to the other, with fans packed in tight enough that it looked like a giant game of Red Rover. Wilson, methodical as ever, started all the way to the left by the VIP section at the corner of the end zone, and then autographed his way 100 yards to the other side of the field. It took him more than a half hour to get through it all. On the opposite sideline, Wilson’s wife, Ciara, lingered in the shade until her husband finished. He does this 100-yard autograph session every day. Wilson has ended Denver’s long line of quarterbacks, and he’s replaced it with a far longer line of fans.

After Wednesday’s practice, after the marathon autograph session, and after he played with his three children on the field, Wilson meandered toward the corner of the end zone for interviews in the Denver sun. While talking with a reporter, he spied that something was amiss. At the opposite corner of the opposite end zone—easily 130 yards away—Wilson noticed the Broncos tight ends exiting the Denver fieldhouse rather than their main building. A disturbance in the schedule. Russ was concerned.

“Hey, Patrick,” Russ said to Patrick Smyth, the team’s chief communications officer. “Why are they coming out of there?”

“Yoga,” Smyth said flatly.

“Ahhh, got it,” Wilson said, looking relieved. He turned back to the conversation he was having. “Sorry. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.”