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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Doug Farrar

Sean Payton was the perfect choice to fix Russell Wilson. Here’s how he can do it.

On Tuesday, the Denver Broncos traded their 2023 first-round pick, and a 2024 second-round pick to the New Orleans Saints for the right to sign former Saints head coach Sean Payton to play that same role in Denver, as well as a future third-round pick. The Broncos had to make this deal because Payton, who retired after the 2021 season, had two years left on his contract.

It’s a lot to give up for any coach, especially after all the picks and players Denver gave to the Seattle Seahawks for quarterback Russell Wilson, but in the end, these two trades are absolutely and completely related.

The Broncos need a Russell Wilson fixer, and if they don’t get one, their franchise is is big trouble for a lot of years. Former head coach and offensive shot-caller Nathaniel Hackett never had the expertise or the gravitas to handle a quarterback of Wilson’s history and caliber, and that certainly showed in a 2022 season that was by far Wilson’s worst. As much as Wilson prefers to play out of structure at times, he needs to be coached hard by someone who understands the position, and has the skins on the wall, tohave Wilson take him seriously.

Payton turned Drew Brees, one of Wilson’s idols, into a Hall of Fame quarterback after Brees’ up-and-down time with the San Diego Chargers, so he’s hardly a neophyte.

Still, taking the quarterback Wilson was last season and turning him back into the Russell Wilson we’ve seen before — perhaps without some of the longtime flaws that caught Wilson short even at his best — will be a tough task.

Fortunately for those of us who are supposed to try and analyze these things and anticipate how they may go, Payton has already laid out, in fairly explicit detail, how he’d turn Wilson back into the quarterback the Broncos expected to have when they gave up a king’s ransom for him.

Payton has already "reformed" one great quarterback.

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Brees, who was selected by the Chargers in the second round of the 2001 draft out of Purdue, was hardly a hot commodity as a free agent when the Saints signed him in the 2006 preseason. He was coming off a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, and the Chargers offered him a five-year, $50 million deal that paid just $2 million in base salary in the first year, and was heavy on incentives after that. The Saints signed him to a six-year, $60 million deal after the Miami Dolphins, concerned about his injury status, balked and instead traded for Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper.

If you think that reforming Russell Wilson as a quarterback is a tough job… well, that doesn’t come close to what Payton and Brees were dealing with. The city of New Orleans was still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but as head coach and quarterback committed to the city and to the team turnaround, it worked out pretty well over time.

Payton and Brees also worked well together because Brees had no aversion to hard coaching, and Wilson had best be ready for that. The good news for Wilson is that if he cedes to that new environment, he’ll have a new guy in charge with clear idea as to how to make it work.

Starting from the ground up.

(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

During a recent appearance on the Colin Cowherd Show, Payton went deep into how he’d handle a Russell Wilson rehabilitation, should such a thing ever take place.

Step One is to get the recent noise and garbage out of the way. Step Two is to hammer home the concepts with which Wilson is most comfortable.

“You correct flaws immediately, and then we don’t worry about how long the process is going to take,” Payton said. “In other words, I’d want [a tape] cutup today, I’d want a cutup of all of Russell’s pass plays of 30 or more yards from the field, and I’d want to see, ‘Are there are some schemes that he felt very comfortable with?’”

There certainly are. Wilson has generally been great when given play-action to create explosive throws downfield, so it was odd that he had play-action on just 21.3% of his snaps with the Broncos, as opposed to 29.1% in his final season with the Seahawks.

It was also weird that in 2022, Wilson had just 27 boot-action dropbacks, when he had 51 with Seattle in 2021. It was as if Hackett and his staff had a picture in their heads of the type of quarterback Wilson could be (a more conventional timing-and-rhythm passer from the pocket) as opposed to the type of quarterback he is (a random, extemporaneous quarterback who prefers and can thrive in organized chaos).

Payton eagerly brought up one boot play from the 2021 season, which should be encouraging for his new quarterback.

“Like, I know they did a great job in Seattle of bringing him in off of a naked boot and then pulling up, and we all saw that throw back to [receiver Tyler] Lockett across the field where the ball traveled 60 yards in the air.”

There were multiple instances of Wilson hitting Lockett deep outside the pocket with Seattle in the 2021 season. Here’s one in Week 2 against the Tennessee Titans. With 6:47 left in the first half, Seattle went after Tennessee’s Cover-1 with Lockett running a deep over to challenge slot defender Elijah Molden, and deep safety Bradley McDougald. Box safety Kevin Byard blitzed Wilson, who stopped on that boot rollout to redirect and make the throw to Lockett for a 51-yard gain, and all 51 yards were in the air.

This is likely the throw to which Payton refers.

Let’s fast-forward to Week 14 against the Houston Texans. With 1:00 left in the first half, the Seahawks decided that it was time to attack Houston’s Cover-3. Lockett and D.K. Metcalf each ran deep routes from either side of the formation, and Lockett eviscerated cornerback Terrance Mitchell on the right side with what started out looking like a deep sail route before turning it into more of a straight vertical. Wilson escaped the rush to his right, re-set, and zinged the ball downfield for a 55-yard touchdown.

Whether it’s a designed rollout or a scramble, Wilson has proven more than able to make shot throws outside of the pocket. It appears that Payton will make this a big priority.

Making things easier with detailed, designed openings.

(Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

Not that Payton is going to allow Wilson to just run around and do stuff willy-nilly; he’s long been one of the NFL’s most detail-obsessed play-callers, and that’s why the openings he says will be there, generally are.

“The staff here watch a ton of film,” Saints receiver Tre’Quan Smith told Robert Mays of The Ringer in 2019. “Any time [Payton] wants us to be in a certain split, or this close to each other, it’s for a reason. There’s a 99 percent chance he knows what coverage it’s going to be, so he knows what route concept he wants us to run, so we’ll be open.”

One is reminded of what Dwight Clark, and several other San Francisco 49ers receivers of the 1980s said of Bill Walsh — it took them a while to get used to the fact that every time Walsh would insist that his design would create a massive amount of space, he was always right. 

Wilson did have moments last season where he took advantage of those designed openings, albeit in a more rudimentary passing offense.

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 Jerry Jeudy, Wilson did what he 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 tight end Greg Dulcich was predicated on staying in the pocket and identifying Dulcich motoring past safety Derwin James on the late release.

Now, Wilson will have the benefit of alignment with a coach who creates openings as well as any in recent NFL history. It will be up to him to rein in his more chaotic tendencies, and rest completely in that structure.

Payton will meet Wilson more than halfway.

(Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

A month before he took this job, Payton had it all rehearsed in his head when it came to how he’d endeavor to make Wilson as comfortable as possible in a new, and better, environment.

“And then I’d want another film of his red-zone touchdown passes inside the 20,” Payton said, after detailing the importance of designing a playbook based on Wilson’s positive tendencies. “And what I’m asking for from assistants, is I’m asking for some of his greatest hits. And I’m seeing if we have those song lyrics available, and if not, I’m putting them in.”

Payton can speak with such confidence because he’s done it for so long. He is not beholden to this or that book of schemes — his offenses have featured Walsh-level West Coast offense concepts as much as they’ve had the flood ideas derived from Sid Gillman and Don Coryell. There isn’t a series of route concepts or personnel matchups Payton hasn’t used to his own advantage.

Even in Brees’ last season of 2020, when his arm was not nearly what it had been at its peak, Payton was still playing mad scientist, because he could. When Brees’ arm no longer allowed the consistent downfield throw for the explosive play, Payton doubled down on his expertise regarding receiver splits, route concepts, route spacing, and route timing.

Not that Wilson at last year’s worst was a patch on Brees in his last-season decline, but the Broncos did what they had to do in hiring Sean Payton: They did their best with the best available candidate to try and reverse what will go down as the biggest mistake in franchise history if Wilson and Payton don’t mesh.

And if they don’t, odds are Payton will not be the one to blame.

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