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Ugly TNF Performance, 1-5 Start Show Why Broncos Must Abandon Wilson-Payton Pairing

Ugly TNF Performance, 1-5 Start Show Why Broncos Must Abandon Wilson-Payton Pairing

Broncos head coach Sean Payton and QB Russell Wilson

Broncos head coach Sean Payton and QB Russell WilsonMegan Briggs/Getty Images

The Denver Broncos lost their fifth game of the season on Thursday night, dropping a 19-8 contest to the rival Kansas City Chiefs. The outcome was not a surprise.

Denver hasn’t beaten Kansas City since 2015 when Peyton Manning was the quarterback. It’s a disheartening piece of recent Broncos history, a history that quarterback Russell Wilson wanted to forget.

“We’ve got to create a new history,” Wilson said during the week, per John Riker of the team’s official website. “We have to be able to do that with one play at a time, one moment at a time, one game at a time.”

It’s a nice quote, but as has happened many times since Wilson became a Bronco, the 34-year-old failed to back up his hype with quality play. Now it’s time for the Broncos to consider making the tandem of Wilson and head coach Sean Payton part of their history.

Statistically, Wilson has been better under Payton than he was under Nathaniel Hackett in 2022. Stats can be deceiving, however. Wilson came into Thursday night with a 106.1 passer rating, fourth-highest in the league. His QBR of 45.2, however, ranked 23rd—and was almost 10 points lower than his worst season in Seattle.

Most importantly, Denver came into Thursday with just one win on its 2023 resume.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Denver hired Payton to help “fix” Wilson following a career-worst campaign from the nine-time Pro Bowler. To do so, the Broncos coughed up a 2023 first-round pick and a 2024 second-round pick to get Payton’s rights and a 2024 third-round pick from the New Orleans Saints.

Payton had a history of coaching up quarterbacks—he helped make Drew Brees a future Hall of Famer and went 5-2 with Jameis Winston in 2021—so there was logic behind the move. The coach’s first order of business was to stop coddling Wilson, as the former regime had done, and deny team facility access to the quarterback’s personal team of trainers and coaches.

“That wasn’t his fault,” Payton said in July, per Jarrett Bell of USA Today. “That was the parents who allowed it. That’s not an incrimination on him, but an incrimination on the head coach, the GM (George Paton), the president (Damani Leech) and everybody else who watched it all happen. … Everything I heard about last season, we’re doing the opposite.”

Wilson was going to be treated like one of 53 players. He was going to show his leadership on the field instead of in rah-rah social media posts, and Denver was going to be a playoff team.

“I’m going to be pissed off if this is not a playoff team,” Payton said, per Bell.

Payton overestimated his own coaching abilities, as the Broncos are nowhere close to a playoff team.

For the first month of the season, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph took most of the blame, and for good reason. Denver came into Week 6 ranked dead-last in both yards and points allowed.

On Thursday, though, the Denver D played its best game of the season. It held Patrick Mahomes and Co. to a mere 19 points, but it still never really felt like the Broncos were in the game. As was usually the case under Hackett, Wilson and the offense failed.

Payton may have brought a new approach, but the results remain unchanged.

All season, Wilson has seemed reluctant to push the football down the field. He’s also been prone to mistakes in key moments, like his fourth-quarter fumble against the Jets that yielded the game-clinching score.

Teams now have tape on Wilson operating Payton’s offense, and it has shown over the last two weeks. Granted, Kansas City has a stout defense, but Wilson was a disaster for most of the game.

Wilson finished 13-of-22 for 95 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Wilson isn’t Brees, he might not even be Winston, and he certainly isn’t the long-term answer.

It appears Payton can’t “fix” Wilson, and that’s not his only issue.

He hired Joseph and has watched the defense regress from last season. He hasn’t gotten one complete game from his team. He’s coached Denver to a worse record than it had six games into Hackett’s tenure.

That’s not a great look for Payton, who was quick to blame Hackett for Wilson’s 2022 struggles.

“It might have been one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL. That’s how bad it was,” Payton said, per Bell.

Payton has also made his fair share of mistakes, like calling a timeout before punting late in the second quarter, providing Kansas City with a chance to drive down for a field goal before halftime.

James Merilatt @jamesmerilatt

Giving up three points at the end of the half is 100% on Sean Payton. Just brutal management of the clock at the end of the half.

Losses like Thursday’s don’t do anything to positively impact team chemistry. It’s entirely fair to question how much longer the locker room can stay unified behind a high-profile quarterback and high-profile coach who aren’t bringing out the best in one another.

Robert Griffin III @RGIII

The Denver Broncos aren’t playing to win football games. They are playing to win the BLAME GAME. That’s what happens when Sean Payton comes in throwing shade at his Super Bowl Winning QB Russell Wilson EVERY CHANCE HE GETS. The locker room will implode because no one in it…

It’s becoming clear that the Broncos need to take a different direction moving forward.

Wilson will turn 35 next month, and his best days are behind him. Payton has already retired once and could choose to walk away again if a future with Wilson looks as lackluster as it currently does.

Payton is only one year into a reported five-year deal, but if he can’t win with Wilson now, he isn’t doing it in 2024 or 2025.

The solution could be tanking for a quarterback prospect whom Payton can turn into a long-term winner. The Broncos would have a top-three draft pick if the season ended today. USC quarterback Caleb Williams and North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye are both top-four prospects, according to the Bleacher Report Scouting Department.

Moving a player or two before the October 31 trade deadline could further boost Denver’s draft capital.

Payton insists that Denver isn’t looking to trade players, but it should be. The team already moved pass-rusher Randy Gregory, and fellow sack-artist Frank Clark could be next.

Field Yates @FieldYates

Frank Clark’s days as a Bronco are coming to an end, per sources. Be it via a trade or release, the team will be moving on from Clark soon.

It’s the second pass rusher Denver will have parted ways with in recent days, as the team traded Randy Gregory less than a week ago.…

Turning the page will be painful, of course. Wilson will still have $85 million in dead money remaining on his contract after this season. Netting any 2024 cap savings would only happen if Denver can find a team to take Wilson after June 1.

But continuing the tear-down and embracing the tank might be Denver’s only chance for an immediately brighter future. The Broncos just aren’t building a long-term contender with the Wilson-Payton pairing

Denver has to look at the hope that rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud is providing the Houston Texans this year and prefer that to another year of the current product. For the Broncos to find that hope, something significant must change, and it probably won’t involve hiring their third head coach in as many years.

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