BRONCOS

Russell Wilson is one of the biggest villains in Denver sports history

Dec 27, 2023, 1:44 PM | Updated: 1:53 pm

Russell Wilson came to the Mile High City in search of an MVP to top a Hall of Fame caliber career; he’ll leave unlikely to reach Canton and as one person who has had one of the strongest negative impacts in Denver sports history.

Wilson’s final legacy of his impact in Denver is yet to be written. How the Broncos bounce back from his disastrous trade and contract will be consequential into how the last chapters are told. Plus there’s a world in which Wilson moves on—plays on the cheap and beats up on the Broncos. But before all of that, he’s still a name that will haunt the history of sports in this city.

Wilson was first introduced to Broncos Country on the gridiron in Super Bowl XLVIII. While he was not the reason Denver painfully lost 43-8, the peak of Wilson’s career came at the expense of the Broncos. The quarterback threw for 206 yards and two touchdowns as the Seahawks rode their defense to win the Super Bowl. In doing so, Seattle took down one of the best teams in Broncos history.

A year later Wilson led a 13-play overtime drive to beat the Broncos in a big game rematch. The win capped a 258-yard and two-touchdown afternoon from the star quarterback. Wilson wouldn’t face the Broncos again until a 2018 Denver win, where he threw two picks and was sacked six times.

Aside from the battles on the field, Denver sports fans were already pretty familiar with Wilson at this point. Wilson was taken No. 75 in the 2012 NFL Draft, the next quarterback selected after the Broncos chose Brock Osweiler at No. 57. He’d only go on to start seven games in his first Denver stint, backing up Peyton Manning. Osweiler was key in helping the 2015 team stay afloat during a Manning injury, but his play was nowhere near that of Wilson, who nearly won Offensive Player of the Year that season. Manning retired, and Denver let Osweiler walk for a big payday; he’d eventually come back and start another four games for the Broncos.

On top of the run-ins with the Broncos on the field and the team botching their quarterback selection in the 2012 Draft, Rockies fans knew Wilson well. Wilson chose football over baseball in 2o12, significant because he was a growing prospect for the Colorado Rockies. Denver’s home nine took him in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB Draft. Wilson played 32 games in his draft season at Low-A then jumped to Single-A in 2011 as a 22-year-old. In Asheville, he was the starting second baseman for a team that featured seven future big leaguers, most of whom were from an important group of prospects that ended up not amounting to all that was hoped. If the Rockies had gone a different direction they could have selected local kid and two-time All-Star Kevin Gausman out of high school or future All-Stars Whit Merrifield or Jacob deGrom. After Wilson chose baseball, the Rockies moved him to Texas, where he would flirt with becoming a two-sport athlete and then he did the same with the Yankees. The only time Wilson would impact Coors Field is by throwing the first pitch on Opening Day in 2022 after he became the leader of the Broncos attack.

Just before he threw out the first pitch was the March 8, 2022 trade which sent one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in NFL history, Wilson, to Denver. The trade is an utter calamity already and may look even worse very soon. The deal sent quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant and defensive tackle Shelby Harris to Seattle. Additionally, Denver also sent two first-round draft picks, two second-round draft picks and one fifth-round pick in the deal. Those picks ended up being offensive lineman Charles Cross (2022 first-round pick), outside linebacker Boye Mafe (2022 second-round pick), outside linebacker Tyreke Smith (2022 fifth-round pick), cornerback Devon Witherspoon (2023 first-round pick) and edge rusher Derick Hall (2023 second-round pick). If the season ended today, the Seahawks would make their second-straight postseason while the Broncos are on the verge of going under .500 in both of Wilson’s seasons in Denver.

Before Wilson played a down, he signed a massive five-year $245 million extension—a contract that will likely be entirely eaten and will limit the Broncos back in some capacity for years moving forward.

It’s hard to overstate just how bad the trade and contract worked out for the Broncos—an embarrassment for the start of the Walton-Penner Family Ownership Group’s tenure leading the franchise. Wilson was mocked relentlessly for his corny, “Broncos Country, Let’s Ride.” All the while his corporate endeavors off the field became memes on a near-weekly basis. And all of it was unswallowable because of his poor play.

Wilson will end his time in orange blue and with an 11-19 record as a starter, throwing for 6,594 yards on a 63% accuracy while tossing 45 touchdowns to 19 interceptions. His legs went, getting sacked 100 times and only rushing for 618 yards and six touchdowns. Wilson was certainly better in year two than his debut for the Broncos. He slimmed down to become more mobile and a redesigned offense deployed him as a checking-down game manager rather than an MVP hopeful. But those improvements weren’t good enough for the Broncos to make the playoffs and yet they were too good for Denver to have a draft pick to find a capable replacement for Russ.

Wilson will be remembered for the final chapter in Denver more than the others. He’ll go down as the post-Manning quarterback who cost the Broncos the most in assets and stole the most money from the team. Sure it’s George Paton who should and will bear responsibility for these things, but it was Wilson on the field and it was him who Broncos saw be a shell of his former self as the team sunk into one of its most embarrassing modern stretches.

Wilson will occupy a unique space in Denver sports history for all that could’ve been, all that was and wasn’t. He isn’t a villain in the way Rahim Moore is for one altering moment. Wilson also won’t be the evil character Kobe Bryant is remembered as in Colorado for beating the Nuggets and other things. Nor, did Wilson have as big of an impact against a Denver team at the championship level as Dustin Pedroia. Wilson’s off-the-field embarrassments combined with a big contract doesn’t even reach the level of a Denny Neagle or Jose Reyes catastrophic Rockies contributions. Wilson wasn’t even the biggest quarterback draft miss for the Broncos in the last 15 years—that would be Josh Allen. While Wilson doesn’t equal any of these dark moments of figures in Denver sports history—he somehow has aspects of all of the parties making Russell Wilson a supervillain to fans in the Mile High City.

Yet intent matters and nothing Wilson did was ever meant to directly hurt us—in fact, he was trying to help. Wilson is no Todd Bertuzzi, but there are going to be a lot of No. 3 jerseys on Goodwill shelves for decades to come.

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