One year ago, the Denver Broncos bet just about everything they had on Russell Wilson, giving up players, draft picks and money — lots and lots and lots of money — to acquire the Seahawks quarterback and lock him up for five years. Then they dreamed dreamy dreams of AFC domination.

Instead, Year 1 of the Wilson era was such an unmitigated disaster that the Broncos this past week took whatever chips they had left and pushed them all in to hire former Saints coach Sean Payton. All told, the combo of Wilson and Payton cost Denver (please hold your applause till the end):

  • A 2022 first-round draft pick (Charles Cross)
  • A 2022 second-round pick (Boye Mafe)
  • A 2022 fifth-round pick (traded to move down and select linebacker Tyreke Smith and wide receiver Dareke Young)
  • First- and second-round picks in 2023
  • Another 2023 first-round pick (No. 29 overall, sent to New Orleans as compensation for Payton)
  • A 2024 second-round pick (ditto)
  • Quarterback Drew Lock
  • Tight end Noah Fant
  • Defensive lineman Shelby Harris

Throw in the $245 million contract extension they couldn’t wait to give Wilson, and you have the price of misguided wanderlust and resulting desperation.

The Broncos front office denies this characterization, but no doubt Payton was hired primarily to be a Wilson whisperer. The near-term fate of the franchise rests on Payton’s success in resurrecting the career of Wilson, who performed so abysmally that he became the embodiment of a plummeting franchise. Fan backlash was unwavering and increasingly bitter.

In Seattle, there was a vested interest this season in Denver’s demise, and thus by osmosis, Wilson’s. Each Broncos defeat increased the value of the second wave of draft choices the Seahawks acquired in the deal — Nos. 5 and 37 overall, when it all was sorted out. The quarterback’s demise was perversely celebrated, each of Denver’s rare victories lamented. The fact that Wilson’s unheralded replacement, Geno Smith, far outplayed him only added to the schadenfreude. The self-appointed Mr. Unlimited was nothing but limited.

Now that the Broncos’ fate no longer correlates directly with Seattle’s, perhaps folks here can muster some more empathy for Wilson, who did, after all, have a hand in a lot of Seahawks glory for a decade. Yes, Wilson was his own worst enemy in many ways, with a personality that tilted toward unctuous. And there is undeniable evidence he alienated at least a portion of the locker room and sabotaged to some extent the Seahawks success with his laser focus on being allowed to “cook” in their offense. But most can agree that his heart was in the right place, albeit with a few detours along the way.


And now Wilson has a lifeline in Payton, who provides the last, best chance to restore his good quarterbacking name. In many ways, Wilson is positioned beautifully for that ever-popular meme — the Redemption Story. You have to hit rock bottom for that to work, and Wilson (he can only hope) attained that status in 2022.

Let’s hope the decline fosters within Wilson a measure of humility, and a willingness to fully absorb the proven wisdom of Payton. It’s encouraging that Wilson’s social-media showboating has gone dark for quite a while now. Never big on reading the room, Wilson seems to have finally understood that it’s not the time to tweet, Instagram, Tik-Tok or Snapchat about how he’s outworking everyone, or that he’s hobnobbing with Justin Timberlake or piloting Ciara in a helicopter on date night. Radio silence is a good look for him right now.

Can Payton fix the wayward quarterback? By all reports he has total buy-in from Wilson, which is essential after the Nathaniel Hackett debacle. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it went off the rails for Hackett, the Broncos’ neophyte coach in 2022 — or at least until he was fired after just 15 games. But if you plug in “64-yard field goal attempt at Lumen Field” into your “Overmatched Coach” GPS, you’d get close to the destination.

Payton has the gravitas needed to get Wilson’s undivided attention. The Super Bowl ring and all those double-digit-win seasons and division titles are one thing; his work with Drew Brees is the clincher. If there’s any quarterback Wilson respects and relates to above all others, it’s Brees, whom he’s long cited as his inspiration for succeeding as an undersized QB.

When Brees moved from San Diego to New Orleans in 2006, having lost the power struggle with Philip Rivers and coming off a torn throwing shoulder, he was hardly regarded as a future Hall of Famer and someone who would go on to throw for more yards than anyone in NFL history (until Tom Brady surpassed him).

But Payton helped mold Brees into just that. He already has articulated a plan for how to proceed with Wilson. Payton told Colin Cowherd, before he was hired, that if he were asked to repair Wilson, he would want a cutup of all Wilson’s pass plays over 30 yards to pinpoint what made them work.


He also said, “I’d want to look at another film of his red-zone touchdown passes inside the 20. What I’m asking for from assistants is, I’m asking for some of his greatest hits, and to make sure that we have those song lyrics available, and if not, let’s put them in.”

Payton helped Brees by figuring out a way to protect him (Wilson was the most sacked quarterback in the league this season, and Brees was annually one of the least sacked), by perfecting the play-action game and building an offense based on rhythm and quick decisions while utilizing tight ends and passes to running backs. Wilson had career-worst totals in just about every category this season, but he’s not that far removed from success and, at 34, is young enough for a revival.

None other than Brees told ESPN’s Ed Werder this week, “To me, this is set up to be Russell Wilson’s prime. Especially with Sean Payton and the system that’s going to be built around him … this is a great opportunity for Russell Wilson.”

Who knows? Once Payton gets his hands on Wilson, we might not have him to kick around anymore. The scale of his free-fall from grace, it appears, is no longer unlimited.