BRONCOS

In Super Bowl, Chiefs made a case for the Broncos to keep Russell Wilson

Feb 11, 2024, 9:45 PM

LAS VEGAS — For the better part of three quarters, Kansas City’s offense bumbled and fumbled its way through Super Bowl LVIII.

It was sloppy and inefficient. It moved the football haltingly. With penalties and giveaways, it had a habit of being its own worst enemy.

And then its quarterback, who flourishes beyond play structure, made the kind of dynamic plays combining his feet and his arm to discombobulate a defense and steal a win at the end.

Sound familiar?

Now … yes, Russell Wilson is not Patrick Mahomes.

Unfortunately for the Broncos and the rest of the AFC, Mahomes is likely closer to the beginning of his pro-football life than the end. He and the Chiefs have three Super Bowl wins in six seasons as Kansas City’s starter. When it comes to early-career pace, only Tom Brady and the Patriots surpass that. Mahomes is likely still ascending; Wilson appears to be on the downside, and in a slow-but-palpable decline.

All of that makes the challenge the Broncos face a daunting one.

But Wilson does still have off-structure ability and the capacity to break down a defense in the final moments when it’s fatigued. It’s what the 12-year veteran still does best. He led game-winning, fourth-quarter comeback drives against Chicago, Green Bay, Buffalo and Minnesota last season. He guided the Broncos on a pair of madcap fourth-quarter sprints to touchdowns against New England before the defense buckled and allowed the Patriots to escape with a game-winning field goal.

When it worked for the Broncos last season, it didn’t look all that different than it did for the Chiefs.

Which is why it’s worth asking: Can the Broncos repair things with Russell Wilson?

TWO DAYS BEFORE SUPER BOWL LVIII, SEAN PAYTON DIDN’T SHUT THE DOOR

On Super Bowl LVIII Radio Row last Friday, Sean Payton talked about looking for “obsession” and “work ethic” in a quarterback.

“And those are the things — like, Russ and I have a great relationship,” Payton said. “And his ability to work and train, all of those things, like, we have to measure all of that versus what’s available in the draft and what’s available in free agency.”

Payton also said he was looking to fall in love with a quarterback. And to find a “perfect marriage” between himself and the starter at the position.

No doubt, that sort of relationship likely isn’t possible with Wilson. Not after a benching. Not after Wilson went to the NFLPA with his complaints about what he believed was a threat by the Broncos to bench him if he did not accept a contract restructure — something that resulted in a strongly-worded letter from the NFLPA to the Broncos and the NFL Management Council — and the NFLPA’s executive director saying Wilson was “mistreated.”

There may not be enough time to have the type of couples counseling needed to repair the relationship. And some ex-players this week — including former NFL MVP Matt Ryan, a contemporary of Wilson’s — suggested the Wilson-Broncos relationship was irreparable.

But as Ryan himself added, “Russ can still play.”

It’s just that Wilson cannot play the ideal brand of rhythm-and-timing quarterbacking required in Payton’s long-preferred offensive design.

Still, given the alternatives — reclamation project, bridge quarterback, QB4 or QB5 in the draft — there’s a scenario where this might be a reasonable choice.

THE OTHER ELEMENTS, THE BRONCOS ARE PIECING TOGETHER

Now, to make this equation work, the defense must be stout enough to repel challenge after challenge — whether it’s by squelching drives at their dawn or playing a bend-but-don’t break style that results in a key takeaway.

In Super Bowl LVIII, Kansas City’s defense did both. For some lengthy stretches of the 2023 season, the Broncos defense did that, too. It was opportunistic and stifling — like Denver’s defense was during an eight-game stretch in the middle of the season that started with a 19-8 loss at Kansas City.

The Chiefs could play defense like this because its collection of talent allowed it to do so. Kansas City hit on its draft picks — something else the Broncos must do better. But with Baron Browning, Pat Surtain II and Justin Simmons, the Broncos have some pieces. Their defensive cupboard is not bare.

The Chiefs’ Super Bowl win is also a reminder that it takes all three phases. And this is something in which the Broncos are well on their way, with a special teams that improved from one of the NFL’s worst to one of its finest. After all, Kansas City does not win Sunday without a blocked extra point.

So, let’s say the Broncos keep Wilson. At No. 12, they pick a stud defender. How does Laiatu Latu strike you? (Presumably hard, given his pass-rushing ability.) And at some point, they must figure out a coverage linebacker. This is the element the Chiefs and 49ers possess and the Broncos do not have — yet. Drew Sanders offers hope and the physical tools to handle it, but his rookie season showed how raw he was.

IS THIS PATH REALISTIC?

Probably not. The damage with Wilson is likely too much to overcome. And the young quarterbacks — even if the Broncos remain at No. 12 — are too tempting. This draft class is far deeper at the most important position than next year’s appears to be. The time to strike appears to be now.

But how the Chiefs won might be something to ponder when Broncos brass begins meeting at Centura Health Training Center on Monday.

Because the Broncos really have just two viable paths to reaching their goal:

1. Build a lockdown defense that can swarm as the Chiefs defense did three quarters and let Wilson’s off-structure work try to seize the game in the fourth and overtime.

2. Identify the desired young quarterback in the next two months, procure that prospect by any means necessary and build everything around him.

Neither one is an easy option for the Broncos. Because choice 1 means living with an offense that will not operate on schedule and rhythm in the way Payton’s elite offenses do. It puts a ceiling on the offense for as long as Wilson remains the quarterback — at least, for what it can do until the end game hits.

And choice 2 means either gutting draft capital — and possibly player capital, too — or living with a rookie quarterback on a redshirt year behind a bridge starter, potentially blowing up 2024.

It’s all about the quarterback.

But the Chiefs showed that the Broncos still might — just might — be able to do it with Wilson.

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In Super Bowl, Chiefs made a case for the Broncos to keep Russell Wilson