Russell Wilson was one of the final players to leave the Broncos’ indoor practice facility Wednesday afternoon, making a long walk of shame to the locker room on what was surely one of the worst days of his professional life. He not only had to pass a gaggle of reporters before he could go inside, but he also had to pass head coach Sean Payton, who was explaining his decision to bench Denver’s $242.6 million quarterback.
“You say it’s a collective problem,” a reporter said to Payton, just as Wilson passed within earshot, “but it looks like Russ is taking the brunt of the blame.”
Payton paused before responding.
“I get that,” Payton said. “And yet, I can’t replace the entire offensive line. I can’t bring in five new receivers. And if it continues over a period of time, then there’s going to be another guy here talking to you as well. These are difficult decisions, and obviously there’s more attention when it’s a quarterback that’s under contract.”
The Russell Wilson era in Denver effectively ended on Wednesday, when the Broncos announced that Jarrett Stidham will start their Week 17 game against the Chargers. Wilson, Payton said, will be active as the backup. Throughout Payton’s 13-minute news conference, he justified the decision as being made for football reasons, and said he hoped that the quarterback swap would ignite the offense in the season’s final two weeks and keep Denver’s meager playoff hopes alive. But it certainly felt like a divorce between an underperforming former star and a controlling head coach that’s been brewing for quite some time. Benching Wilson now is a tipping point for a franchise that bet its future on this quarterback and lost, and it raises big questions about what comes next—for both Wilson and the team.
It’s impossible to look at this move solely in a Football Reasons vacuum because, as Payton himself said, Wilson is a quarterback who is under contract. Unsaid, but certainly understood, are the particulars: Wilson is an extremely expensive 35-year-old who is under contract through 2028. There’s no way to make sense of this move without accounting for the financials, with his $37 million salary for 2025 becoming fully guaranteed five days into the new league year that begins in March. Would the Broncos, a team desperate for financial flexibility, want to risk something happening to Wilson in the final two weeks of a disappointing season that would lock them into his contract for two more years? The truism holds in football as in any type of business: Follow the money.
“I understand all the speculation and everything that surrounds a move like that, but I can tell you, look, we’re desperately trying to win,” Payton said. “Sure, in our game there are economics and all those other things, but the no. 1 push behind this, and it’s a decision I’m making, is to get a spark offensively.”
Payton would not rule out the possibility that Wilson will play again in Denver—how awkward would it be if he had to replace an injured Stidham in the Broncos’ home finale on Sunday?—but this was clearly the point of no return for the relationship between coach and QB. The Athletic reported Wednesday that the franchise approached Wilson’s representatives in late October and told them that Wilson would be benched if the quarterback “did not defer the trigger date” for the $37 million injury guarantee for 2025. The key context here is that this request—which Wilson and his camp rebuffed, reportedly with help from the NFL Players Association—came when the Broncos were in the middle of their longest winning streak since the Peyton Manning era. Wilson has seemingly known for months that the Broncos were planning to move on in 2024. While he has yet to speak with reporters following Wednesday’s move, he wrote on social media that he’s “looking forward to what’s next.”
God’s got me.— Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson) December 28, 2023
Looking forward to what’s next.
What an inglorious end to Wilson’s tenure as the Broncos starter, one that began with such optimism less than two years ago after he arrived via a blockbuster trade with the Seahawks. Wilson showed up in Denver ready to save the Broncos from their post-Peyton quarterback purgatory and bolster his own Hall of Fame résumé. In his introductory press conference in March 2022, he talked about winning Super Bowls—yes, multiple—and playing for the Broncos for at least a decade. Instead, he’s played 30 games for the team and won 11 of them; he’s collected $124 million in salary and bonuses, thrown 42 touchdown passes, and committed 26 turnovers. The Broncos are no closer to being an AFC contender today than they were when he got here. It feels like they might even be further away.
The Broncos’ trade to bring in Wilson—in which Denver sent Seattle two first-round picks, two second-rounders, a fifth-rounder, and three players (quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant, and defensive tackle Shelby Harris) in exchange for Wilson and a fourth-round pick—will now go down as one of the worst deals in NFL history. That’s not just because of the draft capital involved and how quickly and successfully the Seahawks moved on at quarterback with Geno Smith. It’s also because of the money. The deal looks exponentially worse since, within six months of the trade and before Wilson took his first regular-season snap for the team, the Broncos signed him to a contract extension worth $242.6 million over five years, just over half of which was fully guaranteed upon signing. It’s also notable that the Broncos gave Wilson significant injury protections in the deal, which, as mentioned above, they reportedly asked Wilson to waive.
(The only thing preventing this trade and contract from being considered the worst deal in recent NFL history is that the Browns gave up even more draft capital for and gave more guaranteed money to Deshaun Watson in the same 2022 offseason. At least Wilson has a reputation as an exemplary citizen off the field and a reliably healthy, if recently mediocre, player on it; neither of those things apply to Watson.)
Of course, it is with the benefit of hindsight that we can declare the Wilson trade a disaster. At the time, the move made a certain sense. The Broncos had been wandering in the quarterback wilderness ever since Manning retired after the 2015 season, cycling through below-average veterans like Case Keenum and Joe Flacco (before his 2023 Browns career renaissance), and draft busts like Paxton Lynch and Lock. They were routinely getting pantsed by their AFC West rivals; they had become boring and, worse, irrelevant. And the Wilson trade happened at a time when teams like the Broncos viewed all-in quarterback moves as a direct path to the Super Bowl, thanks to the way Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford transformed the Buccaneers and Rams, respectively, into champions the two seasons prior. It’s why multiple teams got into a bidding war to trade for Watson, and why the Commanders traded three picks, including a second-rounder, to acquire Carson Wentz. The Broncos, foolishly, believed they had a playoff-caliber roster and just needed a proven quarterback to launch into contention.
Would the Broncos have preferred to trade for Aaron Rodgers that March? Almost certainly: It is also with the benefit of hindsight that we can connect the dots between the organization’s hiring of Nathaniel Hackett, a noted friend of Rodgers, as head coach earlier in 2022 and its failed pursuit of the then-Green Bay quarterback. But Wilson seemed like an excellent Plan B, even though he was 33 and coming off a rocky 2021 season in which he had missed playing time because of injury for the first time in his career. Wilson wanted a fresh start away from Seattle, and the opportunity to prove that he could run a more expansive offense; ironically, he wanted to play like Drew Brees, Payton’s star pupil.
We know what came next: “Broncos country, let’s ride” was memed into oblivion; Wilson lost to Seattle in his Denver debut and was dunked on by seemingly the entire Legion of Boom–era Seahawks; the Broncos’ offense was laughably, depressingly bad; and after the Broncos were blown out by the Baker Mayfield–led Rams on Christmas, Hackett was fired before the calendar turned to 2023. The Broncos were no longer boring, but they had become a joke.
In some ways, it’s remarkable that after all of that, Wilson rebounded in 2023 to become a competent, if uninspiring, quarterback. He ranks seventh among qualified quarterbacks in passer rating and his 26 passing touchdowns are tied for the sixth most in the league. He certainly had some highs, none bigger than when he threw three touchdowns and rushed for 30 yards in Denver’s first win over the Chiefs in eight years. But he also ranks 21st in expected points added per dropback, has taken 45 sacks (the fourth most among starters), and is just 20th in average yards per attempt (6.9, the lowest mark of his career).
Payton’s offensive philosophy this season has been whatever the opposite of letting Russ cook is: handoffs and short screen passes behind the line of scrimmage, with just enough deep shots to keep things interesting. Wilson’s 2023 passing heat map illustrates how rarely he’s attempted passes in the intermediate middle of the field, and how heavily Payton has called for high-percentage, short-yardage throws:
In many ways, Wilson has been playing like an older, less-athletic version of the quarterback he was in Seattle. That’s not the player the Broncos thought they were getting when they traded for him and gave him the massive extension. Worse for Wilson, that has never been the type of quarterback who fits Payton’s preferred style of offense, one built on precise, rhythm-based, high-volume passing.
So now Payton will turn his offense over to Stidham, who the Broncos signed to a $10 million contract in the offseason. Stidham started two games for the Raiders last season, and while he largely spoke in platitudes on Wednesday afternoon, he said one thing that was telling. “I don’t think I need to overthink it,” Stidham said. “Just do what I’m coached to do.”
In the coming months, the Broncos will likely start over at quarterback, and they’ll likely pay a lot to do so. The Broncos would take on $85 million in dead money that would count against the salary cap over the next two years if they were to release Wilson with a post-June 1 designation; it’s possible they could look to trade him, which would alleviate some of the cash issues associated with future years of his contract, but even in that scenario they would still have a massive cap hit because of the signing bonuses already paid to Wilson. That amount of unprecedented dead money, a year after going on a free-agent spending spree in 2023, leaves Denver with little financial flexibility to spend on a veteran quarterback in 2024. And the Broncos are poised to pick in the middle of the draft’s first round, well out of the range for Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, or one of the other top prospects in the class. Payton and the Broncos might be free of their Wilson burden soon, but there are no simple solutions for how to solve their QB conundrum.
As for Wilson, he’s played well enough this year that a few teams could view him as a viable starter going into next fall, perhaps as a bridge quarterback to a future franchise passer. His Denver era was a failure for many reasons, some of his own creation, some beyond his control. His head was down as he made that walk across the Broncos practice field Wednesday afternoon, the afternoon sun dipping behind him, as he headed toward his new and uncertain reality. He didn’t look at Payton; he didn’t need to. There’s no turning back now.