ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After firing Nathaniel Hackett this week, the Denver Broncos are on the hunt for their fourth head coach since 2017. And the biggest question facing the next coach will be whether quarterback Russell Wilson can improve his poor play.
“Russ even said he didn’t play up to his standard … he’d be the first one to tell you he didn’t play up to his standard, didn’t play up to our standard, he needs to be better,’’ general manager George Paton said this week. “I don’t think we made a coaching move based on Russ. That wasn’t what it was all about, that’s not why we’re getting a new coach to turn around Russ. It’s about the entire organization … it's not whether Russ is fixable or not, we do believe he is, we do.’’
There are other issues, to be sure, but they own the league’s lowest-scoring offense with Wilson still on track for a career-low in touchdowns and a career-high in sacks. Those stats loomed large when owner and CEO Greg Penner elected to fire Hackett just hours after the 51-14 meltdown against the Los Angeles Rams on Christmas. The structure of Wilson’s contract (a five-year, $245 million extension) as well as the amount of draft capital and starters, surrendered in the trade to acquire him, make repairing Wilson a top priority.
Because of the guaranteed money, option bonuses and other items in Wilson’s deal the Broncos likely can’t consider moving on from the 11-year veteran until after the 2023 season at the earliest. Even then it would require an unprecedented dead money hit of roughly $35 million (2024) and $49.5 million (2025).
“For all of us, we all want to play at the highest level,’’ Wilson said when asked this week if he’s ready to do what needs to be done in his game. “That’s the name of the game -- to be world-class and to win a world championship … Next year is next year. We’re excited for it to work out."
The Broncos have scored more than 17 points in just three games this season. Wilson has two games with more than one passing touchdown in his 13 starts and four games with no passing touchdowns.
He’s been sacked a league-leading 49 times -- three games when he was sacked at least six times -- and when multiple defensive coaches around the league were asked about his play in recent weeks, all have mentioned the Broncos' struggles in the offensive line, running back Javonte Williams' season-ending knee injury as well as Wilson’s continued aversion to open receivers in the short or intermediate areas of the field in favor of lower-percentage throws down the field.
That desire to push the ball down the field with big throws has not yielded much success.
He has a completion rate of 36 percent on pass plays longer than 20 yards this season and wide receiver Jerry Jeudy is the team’s only player with more than two touchdown catches. Jeudy and rookie tight end Greg Dulcich are the only players with more than one touchdown catch.
“A lot needs to happen, but I think that the number one is I have to play to the standards that I know how to play to and I've been playing to my whole career,’’ Wilson said this week.
A new coach will certainly have to sift through the data about the team’s injuries -- since safety Justin Simmons went to injured reserve in Week 2 for four weeks, 21 different players have gone to injured reserve and the team currently has 18 players on injured reserve -- and mismatched gameplans as well. But Wilson, according to Paton and Penner, must dig in and do the work as well.
“This season has not been up to his standards or expectations," Penner said. “We saw some glimpses of it in the last few weeks. He knows he can play better, we know he can play better and we know he’ll do the right work in the offseason to be ready for next year."
Wilson's third interception against the Rams provided a glimpse of how much of the offense's struggles do fall on his plate. The Broncos had four open receivers just after the snap, including Dulcich, who ran past a stumbling Jalen Ramsey.
However, Wilson held the ball, rolled to his right, passed up a chance to run into open space to instead force the ball late, into the end zone, after Ramsey had recovered and caught up to Dulcich. In essence, Wilson created a jump-ball situation he threw into that Ramsey won when he would have had an easier completion anywhere else in the formation or could have elected to run.
It is just one play in a season full of many, but it is indicative of what the Broncos need to do schematically to get Wilson more comfortable. For his part, he continues to say he “won’t rest’’ and will put in the work that needs to be done and that the Broncos’ job is still a highly attractive one.
“I think this is a special job, a special place, a special tradition, special players,’’ Wilson said. “[We] have to be better and that starts with me. I’m looking forward to turning this thing around and making it special.''