MERILATT MONDAY

Broncos anemic offense proves that Sean Payton was fibbing

Dec 31, 2023, 5:54 PM | Updated: Jan 1, 2024, 8:13 am


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Whew! That was dazzling, wasn’t it? Sean Payton finally got to release the brakes on his vaunted offense, allowing the Broncos head coach to show what could happen if reins weren’t applied to his attack. And it was dynamic, wasn’t it?

Wait… what… that’s not what happened?

Yes, the Broncos won their Week 17 game against the Chargers, squeaking out a 16-9 victory that was about as entertaining as that score might indicate. And granted, Jarrett Stidham won in his debut as Denver’s starting quarterback. But that wasn’t the takeaway on Sunday. Not even close.

Instead, the lesson to be learned on New Year’s Eve at Empower Field was that Sean Payton is a bit of a fibber. And that’s putting it kindly.

On Wednesday, the Broncos head coach announced that he was benching Russell Wilson. Anyone and everyone immediately knew that the move was money related.

With the playoffs essentially out of the picture following a Christmas Eve loss to the Patriots, it made no sense for Denver to keep playing Wilson. If the quarterback got hurt in the final two games of the season, they’d potentially be on the hook for not only $39 million in guaranteed money for next season, but also $37 million in 2025.

The prudent decision was to sit him down. Anyone with any business sense could understand this move.

Then, the fibbing started.

During his press conference on Wednesday, Payton went out of his way to suggest that the move was football-related. He spoke about the Broncos being desperate to win a game. He talked about wanting to “spark” the offense.

The comments raised eyebrows. They led to a lot of conversation.

And then the spin happened.

On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that the NFLPA had been in contact with the Broncos earlier in the season when the franchise threatened to bench Wilson if he didn’t waive his 2025 injury guarantee.

“If the Broncos follow-through on the Club’s threat, the Club will violate, among other things, the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Mr. Wilson’s Player Contract and New York law. And, we are particularly concerned that the Broncos still intend to commit these violations under the guise of ‘coaching decisions.'”

Right on cue, Denver benches Wilson and Payton says it’s for football reasons. All of which leads to Sunday against the Chargers.

In a game that had all of the intensity of a late-August preseason game, Los Angeles had no interest in being at Empower Field. They were effectively fielding their JV team, led by quarterback Easton Stick. Yet, they were within one score in the final minutes.

Why? Because the Broncos offense was anemic. Again.

On the day, Denver was gift-wrapped a number of opportunities by the Chargers. They could still only manage 16 points.

Trailing 10-3 with 2:51 to play in the first half, L.A. tried a fake punt on fourth-and-one at their own 44-yard line. They botched the snap. The Broncos kicked a field after putting together an ensuring 17-yard drive.

At the start of the fourth quarter, an Austin Ekeler fumble gave the Broncos the ball at the Chargers 39-yard line. They were about to go three-and-out, before Payton decided to go for it on fourth-and-one at the 29, rather than taking a field goal that would’ve put them up 10 points. A generous pass interference penalty gave Denver a first-and-goal at the one-yard line. They wound up settling for a field goal anyway.

Even without Wilson in the lineup, the same problems persisted for Denver’s offense. All was not cured.

Their first-and-goal opportunity was thwarted by back-to-back false starts. At home.

Javonte Williams was again ineffective, averaging just 2.7 yards on 15 carries. He was also stuffed on third-and-goal from the one.

And Jerry Jeudy was invisible. Yes, the wideout had a 41-yard completion during garbage time at the end of the first half, when the Chargers were willing to give up meaningless yards with less than 30 seconds to play int he half. Otherwise, he had two catches for 13 yards.

Same stuff, different day. Same garbage, different quarterback.

That’s not to say Stidham was bad. He wasn’t. He made a nice play on third-and-eight in the second quarter to find Lil’Jordan Humphrey for a first down; the wideout then broke multiple tackles en route to a 54-yard touchdown, the only time either team found the end zone on the day.

But to suggest the Broncos offense was better without Wilson would be ridiculous. And that’s the point.

Payton was doing all he could to show that his precious system was better without the high-priced quarterback at the helm. He was getting Jaleel McLaughlin, Denver’s most-dynamic running back, involved early and often. The coach was implementing a third offensive tackle on multiple plays to bolster the running game. And he was going for it on fourth down in obvious kicking situations.

The head coach was desperately trying to show that Wilson was the problem. He wanted so badly for his offense to be better on Sunday that is was palpable.

And it wasn’t. Against a Chargers team that was mailing it in.

The Broncos offense was anemic again on Sunday. Don’t blame Stidham, necessarily. Blame the head coach. Or blame the paltry cast of supporting characters.

But the point was made. Payton’s claim that Wilson was benched to “spark” the offense was nonsense.

Wilson wasn’t the problem. He never was. And if Payton, or perhaps team owner Greg Penner don’t figure that out quickly, the snoozefest put forth on Sunday at Empower Field could become the norm in 2024.

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