Greg Penner should learn from history in Payton-Wilson feud

Jan 2, 2024, 3:39 PM | Updated: 5:40 pm

Here’s hoping Greg Penner is a student of history. Here’s hoping that the Broncos new owner believes valuable lessons can be learned from what transpired in the past.

If so, he can avoid making a gigantic mistake this offseason.

Last week, the Broncos announced a change at quarterback. Russell Wilson was heading to the bench; Jarrett Stidham would become the starter.

That was big news heading into a do-or-die game against the Chargers. It had a big impact on the two final remaining games of the season, especially while Denver was still mathematically alive for their first postseason berth in eight years. But the long-term effect of the move was even bigger.

Barring a change of heart by both sides, something that seems unlikely given the mud-slinging that’s gone on the past week, Wilson’s days in a Broncos uniform will end on Sunday. His tenure in the Mile High City will last a grand total of two seasons, ending before the five-year extension the quarterback signed when he was acquired by the Broncos in March of 2022 even kicks in.

The player who was brought in to be the answer to Denver’s seemingly never-ending search for a successor to Peyton Manning will join a long list of signal callers who’ve tried and failed to replace the Hall of Fame QB. He’ll just be the most-expensive example.

The Broncos sent two first-round picks, two seconds and three players (Noah Fant, Shelby Harris and Drew Lock) to the Seahawks for Wilson. They also signed him to a $245-million contract extension, with $165 million guaranteed.

He started 30 games in Denver. He amassed an 11-19 record.

That’s not what anyone had in mind when the deal was done. Not the Broncos. Not Wilson. Not anybody.

But it’s the reality, which leaves the Broncos at a crossroads. They already owe their quarterback $39 million for 2024, whether he plays a down in orange and blue or not. If he’s on the roster five days after the league calendar begins in mid-March, they’d also be on the hook for another $37 million in 2025.

Do they bite the bullet and move on now, with $85 million in dead cap spread over the next two seasons? Or do they pay him $76 million over the next two seasons, with a potential $31 million dead cap in 2026 if they decide to move on prior to that season?

Neither option is great. But one is certainly better than the other.

And it appears the Broncos are taking the bad path, the one with no potential upside. Why? Because Penner is apparently siding with Sean Payton in the latest coach-QB battle to hit Denver.

Back in 1991, Dan Reeves strongly considered trading John Elway. Tired of bristling with his quarterback, an athletic player who was often better off-script than on it, the head coach fielded offers, narrowing in on a deal with the Redskins for offensive tackle Jim Lachey.

The Broncos were coming off a 5-11 season, one in which Elway threw 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. They’d played in three Super Bowls during the late 1980s, but lost in every appearance. The head coach thought a change of scenery might be best for everyone.

He wanted a quarterback who would run his system, one he brought with him from Dallas and coveted. He wanted the precision that Tom Landry had demanded with the Cowboys, something that the free-wheeling Elway just didn’t offer during the first eight years of his career.

Sure, he’d scramble around and make big plays, using his nimble feet and rocket arm to dazzle fans and frustrate opponents. But Elway wasn’t great from the pocket. He didn’t have great touch. He was more of a football player than a quarterback.

Sound familiar?

Payton has the same frustrations this year with Wilson. Sure, he loves when the quarterback bails him out of a bad call on fourth-and-two against the Bills, slinging a nearly impossible touchdown pass to Courtland Sutton. But he’d prefer someone who stays in the pocket, goes through his progressions and lets the mastery that Payton created on the whiteboard come to fruition.

Enter Stidham.

In 1991, if Reeves had gotten his way, it would’ve been enter Gary Kubiak. Or Enter Tommy Maddox, a quarterback the Broncos took in the first round of the 1992 NFL Draft. Neither was particularly athletic. Neither had a rocket arm. But both could operate the system, which is what Reeves wanted.

He’s not the only head coach to make that mistake. It’s happened two other times since.

In 1999, Mike Shanahan chose to defend back-to-back Super Bowl titles with unproven Brian Griese as opposed to Bubby Brister, who went 4-0 in place of Elway during the Broncos second championship season. Why? Because Griese ran his system better. Brister could hardly verbalize the plays in the huddle.

In 2016, Kubiak decided that Trevor Siemian was the best option to defend Denver’s championship, despite the fact that he’d taken a grand total of one NFL snap, which a was kneel-down the previous season. Mark Sanchez was the veteran in camp that year; but he fumbled behind a backup offensive line during the preseason and was $5 million more expensive.

When Reeves wanted to trade Elway, Pat Bowlen stepped in. The owner wasn’t about to let his head coach run off a future Hall of Fame quarterback and the face of the franchise.

Bowlen didn’t intervene when Shanahan bungled his decision. And the trust that was running the team in his place didn’t say anything when Kubiak made the same mistake.

Penner should learn from this history. When an offensive-minded head coach chooses his system over a player, it’s ego run amok.

They all love the offense that they devise on their whiteboard in the wee hours of the morning. And they all bristle when it’s not run to perfection, if reads are missed, shifts don’t happen or throws are late. It drives them crazy.

And it’s why they need to be saved from themselves.

The game isn’t played on paper. It’s not about being a robot behind center.

It’s hard for a team to put together a 12-play, 80-yard drive. At some point, something is going to go awry. A penalty, a dropped pass or something will put the offense off schedule. That’s when a play has to be made.

Great quarterbacks can do that. Playmakers can do that. Game managers can’t.

And that’s why their offenses tend to be mediocre, at best. They can’t put together enough dink-and-dunk drives in a game to light up the scoreboard. Case in point, Stidham and the Broncos scored 16 points in his debut, despite a fumble and a botched fake punt giving them great field position.

To be a great offense, a team has to be led by someone who can deliver the “wow” moment. They have to be capable of special.

People can criticize Wilson, but they can’t say he didn’t produce those in Denver. Multiple game-wining drives in the fourth quarter, the deep ball to Courtland Sutton in Houston, the rally against the Patriots on Christmas Eve. It’s there. In full display.

But to maximize that, Payton would have to deviate from his precious system. He’d have to adapt to his players. He’d have to change.

He doesn’t want to. It’s an old-school mentality that isn’t fit for today’s NFL.

“Every single year, people call our scheme so creative,” Mike McDaniel said when he was introduced as the Dolphins head coach. “But really, we’re just adapting. We’re adapting to defenses. We’re adapting to our players. We’re constantly evolving. I think that’s important and I think that’s a winning formula. I think it puts players in position to succeed and that’s the key drive for the scheme.”

There’s a novel concept. Instead of forcing a square peg into a round hole, the coaches figure out how to get the most out of their players.

If the Broncos did that, they’d go all-in on Wilson. They’d figure out how to build an offense around what he does well, instead of lamenting what he struggles to do. They’d surround him with better skill position players, instead of having a roster of running backs, tight ends and wide receivers who couldn’t start for most other NFL teams.

That would mean Penner saying no to Payton. That would mean the owner stepping in and being the cooler head.

Instead, it appears as though he’s going to side with his head coach. And that’s a bit of a mystery.

In less than a year on the job, Payton has had plenty of fumbles. He spoke poorly of his predecessor, getting a little too loose lipped with Jarret Bell of USA Today about Nathaniel Hackett. He started the season off on a bad note, trying an ill-fated onside kick in the opener against the Raiders that gave Las Vegas a short field on their first drive. The first time his long snapper, holder and kicker attempted an in-game kick it was an extra point in the season open; Wil Lutz missed and the Broncos lost by a point. He watched his team surrender 70 points to the Dolphins, the most given up by an NFL team in more than 50 years. He called a timeout prior to a punt late in the first half at Kansas City, allowing the Chiefs the extra time they needed to get a field goal. He called two timeouts in a 23-23 game on Christmas Eve when it was evident that the Patriots were content to play for overtime, giving New England a chance to win in regulation. He bristled with reporters who dared to ask him any questions that were complete softballs.

The list goes on and on and on.

Why is that guy getting to make such an important decision? Because he stumbled into Drew Brees more than 15 years ago in New Orleans?

That’s a prime example of living in the past. Yes, Brees was a perfect fit for Payton with the Saints, and the two men won a lot of games together. But it’s a different day and age.

The Ravens built their offense around Lamar Jackson. The Bills did the same with Josh Allen. The Dolphins did with Tua Tagovailoa. And the Chiefs have always catered to Patrick Mahomes.

Jalen Hurts isn’t a traditional quarterback in Philly. Neither is Dak Prescott in Dallas. Of the QBs headed toward the playoffs with any real chance of making a deep run, only Brock Purdy fits the “traditional” mold.

The 49ers quarterback also has Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle and Deebo Samuel on his roster. He’s surrounded by an embarrassment of riches.

This is all a silly debate. Anyone with any sense knows that the smart move is to take talent over system.

To win big, to win consistently, a team needs a quarterback with the clutch gene. They don’t need someone who makes the right read on a Wednesday during practice.

But the Broncos are about to go the other way. They’re about to voluntarily go where they spent six years after Super Bowl 50, riding the carousel in QB purgatory.

The last 25 years have provided a lesson for the Broncos. Go with the playmaker (Elway, Jake Plummer, Tim Tebow, Peyton Manning) and good things happen. Go with the wizard of the whiteboard (Griese, Kyle Orton, Siemian, Brandon Allen, Case Keenum, Stidham) and it”s the HOV lane to mediocrity.

Here’s hoping Greg Penner is a student of history. Maybe he’ll avoid the mistake.


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