Three first-round draft picks. Two second-round picks. Two solid NFL starters (Shelby Harris and Noah Fant), and two bar-setting contracts. This is the bounty that the Denver Broncos paid for Russell Wilson and his newly presumed career-resurrector, Sean Payton.
That represents one losing hand and a double-down to recoup the losses. Broncos fans should be prepared for the white-knuckling that comes along with it.
That’s not meant to conjure a dark cloud over Denver’s trade for Payton on Tuesday. It was the best available move made under the less-than-ideal circumstance of requiring a quarterback savior. Whether or not Payton was Denver’s first choice, well, that belongs to the history books. Maybe we’ll never really know. All that matters now is that he’s in place and the priority list in front of him is crystal clear: For at least the next three seasons of Wilson’s $242 million contract extension, Payton has to do whatever he can to restore (reboot/reprogram/recalibrate) his status as a viable Super Bowl competitor. In a more granular sense, Payton has to showcase the aptitude that helped him shape a pass-heavy offense early in Drew Brees’ career into a more balanced complementary scheme as Brees aged out of the league.
Can Payton do that for Wilson? Certainly. Should there be a reality check about what that means? Absolutely.
This is going to be hard. This isn’t going to be as simple as turning a key and expecting everything to transform overnight. The upside here is Payton isn’t Nathaniel Hackett, so he comes in knowing what needs to be done to succeed. The downside is that Sean Payton isn’t Nathaniel Hackett and he’s actually willing to do whatever it takes to the current roster and organization to make it succeed.
That means it’s going to be constructed and operated in his image. And none of us knows what that might entail.
If 2022 taught Broncos fans anything, it’s that expecting big results and actually seeing them come to fruition is hardly guaranteed. Five months ago, Denver’s future was hotter than the surface of the sun. Then the regular season kicked off and the sun exploded, swallowing the entire season with it. Broncos Country and Wilson rode together off a cliff. It was an ill-fated journey that has been blamed largely (and rightfully) on the failings of Hackett, who didn’t appear to have the bandwidth required to be an NFL head coach. Payton has that in spades. That still doesn’t guarantee this is going to work.
Every head coach comes into a franchise carrying wide array of ideologies with them. That ranges from how the front office should function and procure talent, to what kind of traits that talent should exhibit on a daily basis, to opinions on communication, roster-building, ownership involvement … it goes on and on. The “language learning” aspects of this can be encyclopedic. That’s no small thing, especially when it involves a head coach with longstanding success at a previous stop. That experience tends to make them stubborn about what works and what doesn’t. This is why culture churn often destroys franchises that swap in new coaches every few years. The ramifications often run deep and headlong into personnel changes. See Denver’s recent history. There is zero chance — zero — this isn’t an adjustment under Payton, who is being hired to build the culture he knows and not adapt to the one he inherits.
Denver’s roster is going to change. While this happens every season, hiring elite level coaches typically leads to significant alterations inside depth charts in the offseason between Year 1 and 2. Coaches like Payton know what kind of players they want as leaders. They know what they expect in different skills. They have demands when it comes to attitude, effort and other intangibles. The result of that is change inside the depth chart. Key players fall out of favor. Draft picks from pre-existing years don’t have the same level of commitment. Past free-agent signings suddenly don’t fit the design of a changing landscape. There will be turnover. And that will create a revealing dynamic about how Payton and general manager George Paton (and Paton’s personnel staff) function together.
There will be scheme changes, playbook changes, practice changes — the entire way that players learn is now up for an audit. Hackett was lauded because he had a fun style that was entertaining and connecting to his players on a personal level. Payton’s can be enjoyable, but it’s also extremely expectation-driven and results oriented when it comes to applause. He will push players. He will spar with them. He will bury them on the bench. And when it comes time to being critical about who is making the cut and who isn’t, he’s not always going to shy away from being honest in his assessments with the media.
That’s going to be an important point for Wilson. Regardless of how he plays, his $242 million contract extension is going to be a financial impediment that has to be negotiated. There is no realistic exit until after the 2025 season. That means when it comes to the Super Bowl window — if one can be achieved in the next three seasons — the Broncos are operating with a quarterback who costs the massive freight of his salary. This isn’t going to be the Los Angeles Rams in 2021 with Matthew Stafford. It’s not going to be the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017 with Nick Foles on a backup contract and Carson Wentz on a rookie deal. There is no flexibility to work with when it comes to Wilson’s salary cap hit. So he either lives up to it and carries the team in the way that was expected prior to 2022, or the law firm of Payton & Paton will be tasked with rebuilding a team and scheme that covers Wilson’s flaws long enough to get him out of the franchise.
Maybe the return of Denver’s litany of injured players helps to smooth that process in 2023. Maybe Payton’s reconstruction of everything under the hood helps to recapture Wilson’s Hall of Fame momentum. Or maybe all of the suggestive griping out of the Seattle Seahawks turns out to be founded in a reality that was concealed until after Wilson’s trade to the Broncos. Maybe he really is in a state of decay that can’t be repaired and this is all far worse than a Hackett issue.
The answers to those mysteries are coming. Payton’s hire assures that much. One way or another, something is going to change about this franchise and whatever went wrong in 2022. But the thought that this is going to be an easy process is another mistake. And the Broncos should have learned their lessons about that over the past five months.