Relax, Broncos Country; the “fixing” of Russell Wilson might be complete
Feb 27, 2023, 6:00 AM | Updated: 8:39 am
(Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)
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“He got a little big for his britches.” That’s what my grandma used to say when someone tried to do too much, bit off more than they could chew or got a little too confident.
After reading last week’s much-ballyhooed article in The Athletic about the Broncos 2022 season, that phrase could be used to describe Russell Wilson. Following 10 successful years in Seattle, the quarterback arrived in Denver determined to do things his way.
That’s understandable. After all, he had the resume to suggest that he knew what the Broncos needed. Wilson had been to nine Pro Bowls in 10 seasons, played in back-to-back Super Bowls and hoisted a Lombardi Trophy. He had enjoyed both individual and team success for a decade.
His desire to do things his way didn’t come from a bad place. Wilson really thought he was doing what was best for him and the team. The quarterback thought he could shoulder more responsibility than he was actually capable of carrying.
There’s nothing wrong with that; that’s what ambitious people do. They keep pushing the envelope, testing themselves and striving for more.
The article in The Athletic came across as Wilson doing just that. He bit off more than he could chew. He got a little big for his britches.
That was a big reason why last season went off the rails. But there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that a repeat performance isn’t on the horizon.
For starters, the person who allowed it to happen is gone. Nathaniel Hackett was fired after just 15 games as the Broncos head coach. He and the staff he assembled allowed the nonsense to take place. They signed off on Wilson having an office upstairs with the coaches, offensive “state of the union” meetings on the players’ off day and a personal QB coach who wasn’t on the staff being allowed in the building.
“This has to be a player-ran kind of team,” Wilson told Peter King last summer. “Coach Hackett gives us the keys to do that.” After his visit, King wrote about Wilson’s relationship with Hackett compared to his relationship with Carroll. King quoted one source close to Wilson, saying: “(Hackett) and Russell are not coach-player. They’re partners.”
At some point, the boss has to be the boss. Someone has to be in charge. Through the first 15 games of last season, Hackett failed to take the reins.
The Athletic spoke to more than 15 Broncos players, coaches and staffers about the 2022 season. Some were granted anonymity to speak freely about sensitive topics. Many of those interviewed described a team without direction: a first-time head coach who was too accommodating, an inexperienced coaching staff around him and a star quarterback who failed to live up to expectations after getting what he wanted.
Hackett is gone. So is all of his coaching staff.
Based on the article, that’s the group that had issues with Wilson. If the quarterback ruffled any feathers, it was mostly with the coaches.
They didn’t like Wilson having an office. Clearly, they felt like he was invading their space, not staying in his lane.
“The players were always on the first floor; they never really came up to the second floor,” one coach said. “If you came up to the second floor as a player, it honestly wasn’t a good thing because you were probably getting released.”
Even though teammates were welcome in his office, the QB’s “open door” policy was ridiculed.
“So, are you a coach or are you a player?” the coach asked. “Your open door should be you sitting at your locker.”
But it wasn’t just proximity that was a problem. The staff also didn’t like that Wilson would provide suggestions for the game plan, many of which Hackett implemented.
“He had too much influence,” one coach said. “And it was mainly based on what Hackett allowed him to influence.”
Perhaps the biggest rub was Jake Heaps being in the building. The presence of Wilson’s personal QB coach wasn’t appreciated by those officially on the staff.
Another coach said Heaps’ presence during the season created “a conflict of influence.” Who did Wilson listen to? Heaps? Hackett? Quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak? “Too many cooks,” the coach said.
The coaches aren’t necessarily incorrect in these feelings. In fact, they’re probably right. But ultimately, they’re the ones that allowed it.
The good news is two-fold. One, Hackett and company are gone; they’ve been replaced by Sean Payton and an entirely new coaching staff. Two, Wilson’s teammates didn’t seem bothered at all by the things that have become controversial.
When it came to Wilson’s office, there didn’t seem to be a problem.
“He’s got a whiteboard, the sides of the wall, and it’s just littered with (motivational) quotes and new play concepts,” receiver Kendall Hinton said. “It was crazy to see his mind thrown out on the (wall).”
“It was just strictly football,” Gordon said. “Anybody could go to his office, and he was like, ‘Hey, if you want to learn extra plays, you want to go over this, you want to go over that?’”
They also grew to appreciate the “state of the union” gatherings.
While some players grumbled about the meetings, several said they were helpful and well-attended. Risner said the meetings showed the “type of leader Russell is and what he’s willing to do for his team.”
Heck, they didn’t even mind Heaps being around.
“He wasn’t a distraction, I don’t think,” an offensive player said of Heaps, “but it was weird that he was in the middle.”
The players interviewed for the article also provided some context to other rumblings about the reasons why the Broncos struggled. There was a rumor that Wilson was slow to call plays in the huddle, leading to a lot of the clock management issues early in the season.
“Mostly in the beginning, (Wilson) would give us a motivational speech to get us going before that play,” (Jerry) Jeudy said. “I don’t think he would say anything extra or anything unnecessary. He would give us the call and some motivational words and a little something extra like, ‘Get this block,’ but I don’t think it was nothing long-winded.”
“He would always say, ‘Keep believing,’” Hinton said. “‘Believe!’”
The complicated nature of the offense, however, was an issue. That was evident.
Gordon, who was waived by the Broncos before signing with the Chiefs’ practice squad in late November, said Denver’s offense was a “mixture” of what Wilson ran in Seattle and what Hackett ran in Green Bay. “It was just…” Gordon said, pausing, “it was a bit much.”
The fact that Wilson didn’t alienate his teammates is a positive that can’t be overstated. It provides hope that they can rectify things this season, without having to mend relationships that might be irreconcilable.
The other reason for optimism actually came last season. After Hackett was fired, Wilson was asked to change. And the quarterback obliged.
He didn’t dig in his heels. He didn’t stubbornly insist that he was right. Wilson saw that things weren’t working and was more than willing to adapt.
According to team sources, Broncos leadership initiated a conversation with Wilson to talk about changes needed to salvage the end of a lost season. Team leadership brought up Wilson’s office and support staff, and the quarterback agreed to remove his staff from the building and no longer use his office for the final two weeks of the season.
That would suggest that Wilson is willing to adapt other things, as well. He needs to come into training camp in better shape, which will hopefully help him rediscover his trademark elusiveness. And he needs to tone down the social media campaigns, eliminating the perception that he has too many non-football things on his plate.
Wilson will certainly be motivated to do all of those things. Not only is he trying to erase the sting of last season, while quieting the doubters, naysayers and haters, but he also has the opportunity to play for the head coach he always wanted.
According to the story, part of the reason Wilson was traded by the Seahawks is that he asked the team to fire Pete Carroll and replace him with Sean Payton. While the quarterback denied that report, there is a lot of evidence that he’s fond of Denver’s new head coach.
Two days before the Broncos played the 4-10 Rams on Christmas, Denver running back Latavius Murray texted Sean Payton, his former coach in New Orleans, Payton recalled during a Super Bowl-week appearance on “The Pat McAfee Show.” According to Payton’s account, Murray said, “Hey, my backfield teammate and I hope you come to Denver.” Payton said he was confused and thought about the other running backs on the Broncos’ roster before finally asking Murray who he was talking about. Murray responded, “No. 3,” according to Payton: Wilson’s number.
Wilson has his guy. He had to hit rock bottom in order to get him, but the end result is the same. And there’s little doubt that Payton’s presence will change things in the Mile High City.
“(Payton) is going to set a standard, and you’re going to have to meet it,” said Risner. “That’s what Denver needs. They need him to come in and set a standard, hold guys … accountable and say, ‘Hey, this is what we are going to have to be.’”
While there were certainly things in The Athletic’s article that didn’t make Wilson look good, the piece was far from damning. It didn’t contain any bombshells. And it didn’t suggest that hope is lost.
In fact, it did just the opposite. Russell Wilson might already be fixed.