MERILATT MONDAY

Greg Penner has to answer one question: Who’s the boss?

Feb 20, 2024, 4:00 AM


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In the next month, the Denver Broncos have to make a franchise-altering decision. By the time the calendar turns to March 18, the team will have to decide what to do with Russell Wilson.

Everyone knows the scenario by now. The quarterback has a $37 million salary for 2025 that becomes guaranteed if he’s on the Broncos roster beyond that date. That’s in addition to the $39 million in cash that the team will already owe him in 2024, no matter what.

Given the financial obligation, plus the fact that Denver hasn’t 11-19 since coming to the Mile High City in a blockbuster trade, most people expect the Broncos to move on and cut their losses. All signs are pointing that direction.

At the end of the ’23 season, Wilson was benched, protecting the team against an injury that would force their hand for 2025. Recently, he and his wife, Ciara, have put their multi-million-dollar home on the market.

It seems like a foregone conclusion that the two parties are going their separate ways. And soon.

But should they be? Is that the best course of action?

Even if they cut him, the Broncos will still owe Wilson $39 million. More importantly, they’ll take on $85 million in dead cap over the next two seasons, more than double the previous NFL record.

Cutting the quarterback will hamstring the team to a huge degree for 2024 and ’25. They’ll have a lot of cap space tied up in a player not on their roster. That’s a bad recipe for any team; it’s especially problematic for one that already has cap issues.

That’s why someone has to step in and prevent them from making such a big mistake. A cooler head needs to prevail.

Normally, it’s not a good thing if an owner meddles too much in the football side of his team. Typically, they need to hire people to make those decisions, from the front office to the sidelines, and let them do their jobs. Otherwise, they run the risk of being someone like Jerry Jones, an owner who gets in the way far too often and ultimately prevents his team from winning big.

On occasion, however, something is so important that the owner has to step in. They have to show who is in charge. They have to be the boss.

Now is one of those times for Greg Penner.

The Broncos owner needs to sit Sean Payton and Russell Wilson down in a room and give them a simple message: Figure it out. And he shouldn’t let his head coach and quarterback leave until they’ve ironed out their differences.

Penner certainly has the right to do so. And not just because he’s the owner of the Broncos.

He inked Wilson to a five-year, $245-million contract extension before the QB ever played a down in Denver. The quarterback is yet to play a single down of that new deal, which doesn’t kick in until the 2024 season.

He gave Payton a five-year, $90-million deal to come out of the Fox studios and return to coaching. So far, he’s gotten only eight wins for his money.

Penner also gave up a lot to get Wilson. The Broncos sent two first-round picks, two second-round selections and three players (Noah Fant, Shelby Harris and Drew Lock) to the Seahawks for the quarterback.

Penner surrendered a ton for Payton, too. Denver sent first-round pick last season and a second-round selection this year to New Orleans for Payton and a third-round pick in 2024.

Add it up and it’s a haul.

The Broncos shelled out $345 million for Wilson and Payton, plus the two years left on the QB’s deal when he got to town. They also gave up three first-round picks, three second-rounders and three players.

They paid too steep of a price. Obviously. But there’s nothing they can do about that now. That ship has sailed.

But they have to get a return on their investment. They need more than 11 wins from Wilson. They need more than an 8-9 record out of Payton.

The most-likely route to reaching those goals is for the duo to work together. Finding a way for both to find success in Denver is the path of lease resistance.

It’s not just cash and cap problems that will hurt the Broncos moving forward. It’s also the fact that they won’t have a quarterback.

Sure, Wilson hasn’t been great in orange and blue. But there are certainly worse options than a QB who threw for 26 touchdowns and tossed just eight interceptions in 2024. And Denver could be forced to play one for the foreseeable future.

Picking at No. 12 in April’s draft, the odds of the Broncos landing one of the top rookie quarterbacks is slim. The free-agent pool, especially those who Denver can afford, is shallow. So that leaves Jarrett Stidham, a second-rate newcomer or a journeyman as the option, this year and beyond.

That’s not going to work. There are very few examples of players like Sam Darnold finally figuring it out once they reach their fourth NFL stop. The fourth- or fifth-best QB in any particular drafting panning out has happened more, but it’s still a long shot.

Winning with a quarterback who has a Super Bowl ring is much more likely. Finding a way for a head coach who has hosted a Lombardi Trophy to carve out success with a future Hall of Fame QB seems much more prudent.

The Broncos have a roster devoid of talent. They can’t afford to let one of their best players leave town. Wilson was in that group in 2023. And they won’t be heading in the right direction is they don’t add skill position players, no matter who the quarterback is next season.

If Payton and Wilson can co-exist, maybe they can build upon one they had going in ’23. After all, this is a team that needed eight yards against the Texans and one drive on Christmas Eve against the Patriots to reach the playoffs for the first time since Super Bowl 50. They’re close.

Draft Brock Bowers at No. 12. Sign a free-agent wide receiver. Hope that Tim Patrick can stay healthy. Take a running back on day three of the draft and hope he’s the next Isiah Pacheco.

It’s not hard. In fact, it’s really easy.

Egos are getting in the way. Pride is preventing it from happening.

That’s why Greg Penner needs to step in. He needs to show who is the boss in Denver.

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Greg Penner has to answer one question: Who’s the boss?