After the Denver Broncos fired head coach Nathaniel Hackett on Monday, everyone started to speculate as to the name of Denver’s next head coach. it most likely won’t be interim head coach Jerry Rosburg, who Hackett brought in this season to help him with various time management issues. Most likely, it will be the most appealing quarterback whisperer, or a defensive-minded head coach who will then hire the most appealing and available quarterback whisperer.
Because the Broncos are not the problem. The problem is that Russell Wilson has played at an irredeemable level, but there’s no way for the team to move on from Wilson in a responsible salary cap sense before 2025.
Getting the best quarterback guru/offensive coordinator possible probably puts the Broncos in a situation where they have to make that guy the head coach. No offensive coordinator is going from where they are to Denver in a lateral move, and which quarterback coach would take that challenge without a major bump in status?. Wilson has proven over the years that he benefits from hard coaching, and whoever’s responsible for that hard coaching had better have enough skins on the wall to make his message resonate.
That’s a separate list, but whether it’s Sean Payton (unlikely for contractual and Vic Fangio reasons), Jim Harbaugh (interesting in a lot of ways), Frank Reich (also interesting in a lot of ways), or whomever else, that coach will be charged with what seems like the NFL’s most Mission: Impossible — saving Russell Wilson from himself.
Because, folks, the Wilson situation is exactly as bad as you think it is. Perhaps worse. It’s not just the on-field performance, which is bad enough. Wilson in on pace for his career-worst touchdown rate (2.9%), fourth-worst interception rate (2.1%), career-worst completion rate (60.1%), tied for career-worst yards per attempt (7.2), career-worst QBR (35.1), career-worst Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (5.39), and career-worst DVOA and DYAR.
That’s bad enough, but it’s the off-field stuff the new coach is REALLY going to have to fix.
There was KJ Hamler throwing his helmet to the turf in frustration after Wilson missed him in early October.
12-9 down. 4&1 with 2:38 left in OT.
Colts are on Cover 1.
KJ Hamler is wide open for the game-winning TD. instead, he locks onto Sutton (vs Gilmore, again). Could’ve ran it for a first down.
Result of the play: Incomplete pass, Colts win.
This is not a $245M QB. pic.twitter.com/Pw4WGBvLI3
— Carlos. 🦚 (@ 🔴⚪️) (@aveleyrahawk) October 8, 2022
There was defensive lineman Mike Purcell screaming at Wilson on the sideline against the Carolina Panthers in late November.
Denver D appears to be rightfully getting pissed at Russell Wilson after another inept offensive performance:pic.twitter.com/6BzaUI36FJ
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) November 27, 2022
There was Courtland Sutton going off on the field as Wilson threw his third interception of the day last Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.
It's been a long time since I've seen a group of WRs so visibly pissed off during games as Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy have been in recent weeks.
Plus KJ Hamler earlier in the season.
This Russ situation feels terminally toxic.pic.twitter.com/NSmkrUXI1R
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) December 26, 2022
Also in the Rams game, there was this highly unusual breach of offensive line protocol…
Here are the two plays before the blowup on the Broncos sideline between Dalton Risner and Brett Rypien.
Rypien was apparently mad that no one helped Russell Wilson up after either sack. pic.twitter.com/o1XM4Cp373
— Dan Zaksheske (@OutkickDanZ) December 26, 2022
…which led to this sideline fracas.
Broncos backup quarterback Brett Rypien reportedly told the offensive line to pick up Russell Wilson when he goes down. Lineman Dalton Risner was NOT having it
“Do something, Brett! Do something!” pic.twitter.com/LCzFPVF4ep
— Jomboy Media (@JomboyMedia) December 26, 2022
It is difficult to think of another quarterback in the middle of his career, who was on kind of a Hall of Fame track, having this kind of regression so quickly and starkly. Regardless, the Broncos are stuck with Wilson for a good long time, and whoever replaces Hackett will just have to deal with it. There would be a lot of coaching credibility given to the coach who could “fix” Wilson, and if Wilson is unfixable… well, that’s what was inherited.
The Broncos have a top-tier defense, or at least they had one until that defense started to crumble under the weight of this appalling offense. They have a young running back in Javonte Williams with amazing potential when he’s healthy. The quarterback targets are beyond acceptable, albeit highly pissed off at this point. The offensive line is fine for the most part.
Denver’s new coach will take on a lot of good stuff. He will also take on one of the more dangerous (Danger-Russ?) quarterback situations in professional football history.
At least on the field, here’s how that coach (and his coaches) might be able to extricate Russell Wilson from that particular nightmare.
Syncing the timing and rhythm of routes.
Wilson has never been a traditional timing-and-rhythm passer; he is an extemporaneous quarterback who lives to make splash plays. That may have worked earlier in his career when his mobility was more of a threat to enemy defenses. It’s not the same threat now, and Wilson doesn’t have the understanding of route timing and nuance to make up for it. This has shown up over and over throughout his 2022 season.
The third interception he threw against the Rams — the same play where Sutton was throwing a tantrum during the play and walked off the field before the play was over — was particularly baffling. Whatever you think about Hackett’s play designs through the season, this one wasn’t on the coach. It was a nicely-designed concept in which tight end Greg Dulcich ran the seam route from the front-side slot, receiver Freddie Swain ran the deep over from the backside slot, and Sutton and Jerry Jeudy ran mirrored stop routes to either side outside. Dulcich had slot cornerback Jalen Ramsey beaten from his first move, and as deep safety Nick Scott had to monitor Swain’s over route in Cover-3, this was wide open.
Wilson threw late in part because he bailed from the pocket before he had to — a cardinal sin he’s struggled with throughout his career — and he actually threw Dulcich closed, giving Ramsey and Scott time to converge. If anybody on the field had the right to go off, it was Dulcich, who was denied an easy explosive touchdown because his quarterback was processing at a subpar level.
This was a second-and-4 play with 13:08 left in the third quarter. The Broncos were already down 31-6 in an eventual 51-14 loss, and Wilson had that on his mind when he really shouldn’t have.
Even the explosive plays that have worked this season tend to be mysteries in the air, because Wilson isn’t timed up. On this 40-yard completion to Jerry Jeudy against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 13, Jeudy won against Baltimore’s Cover-3, and if Wilson throws this with a hint of anticipation, we might have a 93-yard touchdown on our hands. But Wilson waits a hitch too long, allowing safety Geno Stone to catch up. Yes, this was another example of a deep over turning the safety the wrong way, and Wilson failing to take optimal advantage.
Wilson’s next coach will have to get him on board with more simple and potentially less explosive concepts, at least to start. When you’re dealing with a broken quarterback, any completion is a good one.
Staying in the pocket for your own benefit.
This season, per Sports Info Solutions, Wilson has thrown 359 passes from the pocket, completing 230 for 2,732 yards, 1,312 air yards, 11 touchdowns, eight interceptions, and a passer rating of 88.1. He’s thrown 62 passes outside the pocket, completing 23 for 287 yards, 189 air yards, one touchdown, one interception, and a passer rating of 50.9. Only Kenny Pickett of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Zach Wilson of the New York Jets have lower passer ratings this season when throwing outside the pocket.
So. Whatever it may have been that made Wilson a dynamic out-of-pocket thrower in previous years (he had a 91.5 rating on out-of-pocket throws in 2021)? Throw it out of the playbook. Now, Wilson is a quarterback who must get back to (or perhaps start to) run reads from the pocket, so that he can actually operate in the timing of the down, as opposed to doing the kind of wacky stuff he’s really not equipped to do anymore.
What happens when Wilson bails too soon? He gives up on the easy play in favor of scramble-rule anarchy that accelerates the risk. We saw that on the third pick against the Rams. This 22-yard completion to Sutton in Week 12 against the Panthers was another exasperating example.
This time, Wilson had backside trips with Sutton as the iso receiver to the front side. When he broke the pocket too soon, it eliminated a wide-open Dulcich on the clearout with Kendall Hinton and Brandon Johnson running verts up top. Instead, it was up to Sutton to align with Wilson’s scramble to catch the ball and get out of bounds.
That play started with 10 seconds left in the first half, and the Panthers up, 10-3. On the next play, kicker Brandon McManus missed a 56-yard field goal attempt. Did the Broncos have another play if Dulcich got the ball quickly and got out of bounds? That, we’ll never know.
Per Pro Football Focus, 37 of Wilson’s 42 explosive plays as a passer this season have come from the pocket. Here against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 4 was another example of backside trips. Only this time, because Wilson hung in the pocket, he saw all of it. So, he was able to hit Kendall Hinton for 32 yards on the over route.
Isolating what's there, and eliminating what isn't.
Certain quarterbacks have intractable beliefs in their abilities to make any throw. The result of that confidence is that the quarterbacks in question tend to make all the throws — all the good ones, and all the bad ones. Wilson has always been a “hero-ball” guy to a degree, but another issue plaguing him in 2022 is that his deep arm isn’t what it used to be. When your quarterback has an obvious divide between what he can do and what he thinks he can do, it’s up to you as the coach to manage that.
In Wilson’s case, it’ll be about getting it into his head that he needs to isolate the plays that are there, while eliminating the ones that aren’t. This likely won’t be easy, as Wilson has gotten away with a lot of stuff throughout his career that you don’t generally want your quarterback to try. Perhaps this season will create a desire to change; one certainly hopes so.
On this 23-yard completion to Dulcich against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 14. Wilson had trips right. Dulcich and receiver Montrell Washington ran intermediate stop routes, with receiver Brandon Johnson running the boundary route outside. Wilson’s key here should have been linebacker Nick Bolton, who was caught betwixt and between Dulcich and Washington. As soon as Bolton squatted to Dulcich’s side, Wilson should have hit Washington. Instead, he made the hero throw to Dulcich, who made an amazing recovery catch to save his quarterback’s butt.
This was another example where Wilson was putting too much on himself. The Chiefs were up 33-21 with 13:01 left in the fourth quarter. Taking the profit — and it would have been a decent profit — was the thing to do. But that will involve Wilson installing filters in his own brain as to what’s really open, and what really isn’t.
Accentuating the positive.
Russell Carrington Wilson is many things, but stupid is not one of them. He’s all too aware the public and private perceptions. Whatever he does in the offseason to offset this debacle, his new coaches should endeavor to focus on the positives, and build from there. What makes that easy is that it’s a pretty short list. But accentuating those positives might be the kay to rebuilding Wilson into the quarterback he needs to be at this point in his career. As opposed to the guy who thinks he needs to eat the whole dinner in one bite. It might also bring Wilson’s teammates back into the fold to a degree.
Broncos general manager George Paton, who may be the nest guy to get cut, was already going full-blast with that during a Tuesday press conference.
George Paton: "We saw flashes of Russ this year. … The first half of the Chargers game. The first half of the Raiders game. … I don't think we made a coaching move based on Russ. … It's not whether Russ is fixable or not. We do believe he is."
— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) December 27, 2022
So, there’s what to build on, and the admission that his quarterback needs fixing. In the first half of Denver’s Week 4 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, Wilson was comparatively incendiary, completing 11 of 12 passes for 149 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 158.0. On this 20-yard touchdown pass to Jeudy, Wilson did what he has struggled to do through most of the season — he read his progressions, identified the coverage void to his front side, and threw quickly and decisively.
And in the first half of Denver’s Week 6 loss to the Chargers, Wilson completed 12 of 17 passes for 173 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 122.9. Wilson’s 39-yard touchdown pass to Dulcich was predicated on staying in the pocket and identifying Dulcich motoring past safety Derwin James on the late release.
Eschewing random scrambles and hero balls for an explosive play in structure? More of that, please.
It's a tough job, but it's not impossible.
Wilson had this to say after the Rams game that was the last straw regarding Hackett’s future with the team.
“I have to play to the standards that I know how to play to and I’ve been playing to my whole career. And I’ll never let a moment like tonight define me. I’ve always believed that the highest moments and the lowest moments and we’re at a low moment right now, and I don’t fear low moments because I know that every time I’ve been in a low moment, I’ve always come to the other side of it. And that’s in life, losing my dad, that’s in life, and going through obstacles and stuff that’s in life, in your career, whatever it may be.
“And all I know is to keep fighting, keep battling, and that’s what I’m going go give. I’m going to give everything I have every day, and that’s what we’re going do. That’s how we’re going come on the other side of it and I think the reality is it’s been a storm. It’s been a storm all year and not what we hoped for, not what we dreamed for. But it doesn’t mean that’s going end that way for years to come, and we have to change it. And like I said, it starts with me and I’m going be the first one to make sure I do everything I can and that we can to change it and that’s what we’ll do. You can’t change the past. I mean, how good the past has been, how bad it’s been, whatever it may be, all you can do is be in the moment right now. And this moment tonight was a tough one. You know, we didn’t expect to play this way and we worked our butts off all week and we didn’t do well.”
The willingness to be fixed and re-created, at least externally, seems to be there. Russell Wilson does understand that this version of himself is not sustainable. Now, we can but wait and see who decides to take on that project — to find the right foundation, and to rebuild this quarterback.