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The Denver Post
The Denver Post
Parker Gabriel

What to expect from the early stages of Broncos’ new Sean Payton-Russell Wilson partnership: “Robots can’t play quarterback”

Sean Payton’s got a long to-do list as he gets settled into his new Denver digs.

He’ll have to get his UC Health Center key card and the human resources paperwork figured out and probably check the team store for a Broncos visor, too.

Once all of that important stuff is out of the way, he can turn his attention to minor details like figuring out a coaching staff, working on what 17 prospective free agents to sign and getting on the same page with general manager George Paton and the personnel group about what they like and what he likes. All part of the top-to-bottom evaluation of the organization CEO Greg Penner promised.

There will be changes. Probably a lot of them. It’s all in a few months’ work for a new head coach, even one with the resume Payton’s bringing with him on the jet from Southern California to the Front Range.

Somewhere along the line, Payton will link up with quarterback Russell Wilson and they will begin the process of trying to generate a resurgence for the 34-year-old quarterback.

Scott Shanle, a linebacker who played 128 games for Payton between New Orleans and Dallas — including 94 starts for the Saints — has an idea of how those early days will go between the two men the Broncos traded away three first-round picks, three second-round picks and three players to acquire over the past 11 months.

“I think Russell Wilson is going to sit there after about a week with Sean and say, ‘Thank God,’” Shanle told The Post recently. “And that’s not a slight on any other coach that Russell’s had, it’s just that Sean Payton is one of the greatest minds our game has seen.”

Wilson’s first year in Denver was the worst statistical season of his career. He also experienced the worst win-loss record of his NFL career and ended up on the injury report three times (lat, hamstring and concussion).

Much of the discourse around Dove Valley starts with something along the lines of, “Well, if Russell Wilson can just get back to average.” Or, “If he doesn’t hurt the team.” Or, “If he just plays a level better than 2022.”

People who have played for Payton are much more bullish that he can help Wilson turn his career around.

Luke McCown spent 2013-16 on New Orleans’ roster with Payton and future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. He’s open about his biases, particularly as it pertains to Brees.

“I spent a lot of time with Drew and I think he’s special special,” McCown told The Post. “He’s the best to ever play the position. Tom (Brady) is obviously the greatest to ever play, but when it comes down to on time, accurate, getting the receiver the best chance to catch the ball and gain yards, I don’t know that anybody’s ever done it better than Drew.”

But he also sees more than an uptick in the cards for Wilson.

“I don’t think he’s Drew Brees. That being said, I don’t think Russell will ever have any more productive years than he will have for the next however long with Sean Payton,” McCown said. “Sean will do that for Russ. He’s that kind of mind and play-caller that will put Russ in positions that he’s not been put in before. Certainly not in Seattle where it was run-heavy, take shots down the field. I think Sean will put Russell in position to maximize his abilities and call plays in a way that, especially if they work extremely hard to be on the field as Drew and Sean often were, they can be really, really good offensively for the next, I don’t know, five or six years.”

That’s no small task for Wilson, who played to a passer rating of 100 or better in seven of his 10 years in Seattle, threw 34 or more touchdown passes four times in a six-year span and arrived in Denver last March on a Hall of Fame track but saw his numbers drop off precipitously virtually across the board under former head coach Nathaniel Hackett.

“I think there’s a lot more in Russell Wilson,” Shanle said. “I know a lot of people question can Russell at this age return to form? I think Russell can play his best football under Sean because of what I’ve seen Sean do and what he does in the offensive game in terms of Xs and Os and the freedom he gives the quarterback at the line of scrimmage. Russell is one of those guys that can be an extension of him on the field.”

The challenge is finding a rhythm and a sync between the two that Wilson and Hackett often talked about but never fully materialized. Wilson spoke glowingly of Payton after Denver’s last game of the season and perhaps the coach’s long history with Brees — a friend of Wilson’s — will help them get on the same page.

McCown believes Wilson, a “gym rat,” will “be all in” from the start.

Payton and Brees had to adjust as the quarterback got older and his arm strength declined. Over his final three seasons, Brees’ intended air yards per attempt went from 7.1 to 6.4 to 6.1. And while his production declined, Brees in his final two seasons (2019-20) still threw for 51 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and New Orleans went 17-6 in games he started.

“Still producing massive amounts of yards and completion percentage and he did it without being able to stretch the field like he had in years prior,” McCown said. “Sean was able to see that and know how he had to call the game and know where the comfort level was.”

The raw passing numbers don’t make for a clean comparison to Wilson, but the challenge for Payton will be to take what Wilson does well and emphasize it. Broncos fans hope Wilson plays more like the guy who arrived here talking about playing for another decade rather than the one who had analysts musing about what it would take to get out of his five-year, $245 million extension as soon as possible.

By the time McCown got to New Orleans, Payton and Brees already had what he called “telekinesis.” So much so that Payton didn’t spend a lot of time in the quarterbacks’ meeting room because Brees knew what he wanted.

That obviously will not be the case early on in Denver.

“There’s going to be growing pains, some feeling out, understanding each other that Sean and Russ will get to, but one of the things Sean does well is that he doesn’t tie his players into a box,” McCown said. “It’s not ‘it has to be this read or nothing else.’ Every system has a basis. You can’t run it if you don’t have a starting point, but Sean likes guys that aren’t robots. He’s often said, playing the position of quarterback is not for robots. Robots can’t play quarterback. They have to have feel, they have to have the ability to process and change at a moment’s notice and all of that.

“Russ will probably grow a little bit, if you will, in that sense, and become more well-rounded in his ability to adjust. I don’t mean adjust — we know he can scramble and make plays that way — I mean adjust within the framework within the rhythm and scheme of the play.”

For now, roster moves, free agency and the draft all lay ahead before Denver even gets to OTAs. But the opening days of the new power partnership in Broncos Country are here already, and Payton and Wilson have little time to waste.

“Sean will spend a ton of time with him just kind of helping him understand. They’ll watch a ton of film in the offseason,” McCown said. “Just kind of watching clips and breaking down everything. Sean’s going to be heavily involved these first couple of years because it’s not every day you get to, for all intents and purposes, go from the end with Drew and go right to another really, really capable quarterback.

“I think Sean’s going to be invigorated by that and I think Russ is going to be invigorated by that.”

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