ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — First-year head coach. New offense. Revamped offensive line. A veteran quarterback unimpressive through the first week of training camp. This sounds painfully familiar to Broncos Country.
Russell Wilson experienced the same issues last year. But they were dismissed because he had a first-time head coach in Nathaniel Hackett and Wilson never colored outside the lines and scrambled — the secret sauce to his success.
In this camp under Sean Payton, Wilson is running more — and encouraged to do so to simulate game conditions — but has yet to find consistency in the passing game, most notably intercepted by Justin Simmons on three consecutive days.
The easiest explanation is that it’s August 2 and the Broncos host the Raiders in the season-opener on Sept. 10. That would be a valid argument if not for what we all witnessed a year ago.
Wilson never shook his training camp slump, finishing with career lows in completion percentage (60.2) and touchdowns (16). The arrival of Payton, a proven offensive genius through statistics, not a whiteboard All-Pro like Hackett, brought reframed expectations. Wilson would bounce back because Payton would tailor the offense to his strengths. Paraphrasing a Payton analogy, when you go to a karaoke bar, you sing songs you know and fit your voice (For me that’s shying away from Whitney Houston and focusing on the Violent Femmes).
The calendar reminds that this is a work in progress.
Wednesday brought red zone drills. Wilson showed improvement with multiple scrambles and a 10-yard bootleg connection to Courtland Sutton in his first attempt. Yet, there was no score.
In the final attempt, all momentum vanished. Wilson threw an incompletion — to be fair, it should have been caught — misfired high on a pass to Jerry Jeudy and threw behind a receiver in the end zone as nickelback K’Waun Williams held onto the pick despite a collision.
Payton was watching. He always is. It was the first day in the red zone. So, he provided context.
“You are asking me to grade today’s practice? I am sure he’s had… today was a nice day. The temperature was good. We had a good crowd. No big whoop. He’s doing fine,” Payton said. “We are in an installation pattern. As we install, sometimes we put a play in, and it doesn’t really match, and we wouldn’t run it if we were playing Denver’s defense. Throughout this training camp and preseason, you will see things we do well and some things we don’t feel as comfortable about. So, you are constantly building that memory bank of what we are seeing and how we are executing it.”
All of this makes sense. Still, watching Wilson throw picks — Simmons has become to Wilson what Lorenzo Doss was to Mark Sanchez in 2016 — remains a bit unnerving. The reality is that this offense will function best with balance. Payton admitted that running in the red zone is critical to success. That was not part of the drill on Wednesday.
If this team establishes the ground attack it envisions, it will take pressure off Wilson and allow for better fits through the air. Payton insists the run game must be part of this team’s DNA, saying he explained to the players that clubs that advance to the postseason almost always run well in the red zone. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey agrees.
“I firmly believe that you win games by running the football and you command the whole flow of the game by running the football. The NFL is about running the football and converting on third down. And if you do those things well, you are going to have a successful football team,” McGlinchey said. “I think we are built to do it. We have a great stable of backs. It takes all 11 guys. I think we have a really great shot to do it and I love the mindset of coach.”
In the end, running might be their truth. But after the first week, they can’t run from the truth that the passing game needs work.
Rookie cornerback Riley Moss had sports hernia surgery in Philadelphia and will miss roughly four weeks, explaining his absence the past three days. It’s part of the reason the Broncos added veteran CB Fabian Moreau on Tuesday.
Rookie running back Jaleel McLaughlin continues to shine in his opportunities. He is shifty with burst.
Tight end Adam Trautman made another pair of nifty catches on Wednesday. His knowledge of the offense and blocking ability is showing up in camp. Fellow tight end Greg Dulcich, after a slow start last week, has made impressive catches over the past two days for big gains.
There is a path for receiver Montrell Washington to make the team following K.J. Hamler’s release. Washington shone in 1-on-1 drills, delivering an acrobat catch.