ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Two days after coach Sean Payton benched Russell Wilson, framing it as a football decision, the nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback told his side of the story. Wilson explained that the team approached him about adjusting his contract during the bye week, following the Broncos’ win over Kansas City, snapping a 16-game losing streak to the Chiefs. It left him hurt and disappointed, and ultimately uncertain about his future in Denver.
“They came up to me during the bye week, Monday, or Tuesday, and told me if I didn’t change the contract, my injury guarantee, that I would be benched for the rest of the year. I was definitely disappointed about it. It was a process during the whole bye week. We had just come off beating the Chiefs. I was excited about that,” Wilson said at his locker on Friday.
“The NFLPA and NFL got involved or whatever. For me, I came here to play here. To win. I knew it was going to be a process. I signed a seven-year deal for us to go and play hard.”
The five-year, $242.5 million contract extension, agreed to in August of 2022, has yet to start. Wilson's contract states that if he is on the Broncos roster on March 17, 2024, his $37 million in salary for the 2025 season becomes guaranteed. Teams are not permitted to cut injured players; thus his benching could be construed as related to his contract as a way of prevent him from getting hurt.
While the timing was awkward because of the upset of the Chiefs, the Broncos had planned to address the contract issue with Wilson during the bye week, a common practice in the NFL. Their intention, according to multiple sources, was to find an amicable path forward in Denver for the 35-year-old by pushing back the March 17th date, not removing it. The Broncos had every right to ask, and Wilson retained the right to say no, which he did.
The team rallied for five wins in the middle of the season, built on the defense's takeaways, and Wilson’s efficiency (eight passing touchdowns, no interceptions). I asked Wilson if it left him looking over his shoulder over the past two months.
“They definitely told me I was going to be benched and all that. That whole bye week, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I wanted to go to Buffalo and beat Buffalo. I wasn’t going to (move the) injury guarantee,” Wilson said. “It was a physical game. I have played 12 years, and it matters to me. … It was a challenging (time).”
Payton replaced Wilson with Jarrett Stidham, seeking an “offensive spark” for a team that has gone 1-3 in its last four games and is “average to below average” offensively in most categories, according to the coach. During this stretch, Wilson delivered six touchdowns with five turnovers. It's been an uneasy marriage between Wilson and Payton because of Payton's scheme, which runs best on a timing passing game in the pocket. Wilson does his finest work coloring outside the lines and running an uptempo offense.
The most likely conclusion to Wilson’s story is that the team cuts him this offseason. His contract is not really tradeable, and Wilson has a no-trade clause, so he can veto any deal to facilitate becoming a free agent. The Broncos will absorb an $85 million cap hit spread out over two seasons — $35.4 million in 2024 and $49.6 million in 2025 — if, as expected, they the release Wilson.
Wilson hasn’t given up on staying in Denver, though that seems unlikely with Payton no longer viewing Wilson as giving the Broncos the best chance at achieving their first winning record since 2016.
“I hope that I am here for a long time. I hope to win more trophies and get some more championships,” Wilson said. “If it’s not here, then I am prepared to do it somewhere else. But I hope it’s here. I genuinely mean that. I brought my family here. ... Listen, at the end of the day, what God’s got for me — no matter what it is — I am going to keep trusting Him, putting my best foot forward everyday, trying to be as professional as I can be, no matter what the circumstances are.''
The Broncos organization in general and Payton, specifically, have been criticized for how they have handled Wilson’s demotion. Payton worked in the media last year, and I asked him how he is dealing with the barbs.
“I understand it. Look, I get it. But it’s the only thing that once in a while that makes me want to do 'Hard Knocks' because there is a perception. That would be the only reason to get an inside (look) at this whole old-school approach,” said Payton, who turned 60 on Friday. “Shoot, you don’t do this this long if you are not adjusting, funny, creative, all those things. And I am think I am all of those things.”