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Sean Payton, Broncos front office address Russell Wilson contract dispute, QB's future with team

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Posted at 1:45 PM, Jan 09, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-09 19:05:08-05

The Broncos finished with their noses pressed up against the playoff windowpane for the eighth consecutive season. It led to a postseason presser earlier than expected featuring CEO Greg Penner, coach Sean Payton and general manager George Paton.

In his first season in Denver, Payton logged an 8-9 record, his offense underwhelming. Payton benched Russell Wilson with two weeks remaining in the season, creating an audition for Jarrett Stidham. Stidham failed to provide a spark as the team averaged 15 points per game.

The Triangle of Leadership fielded multiple questions about Wilson’s future, all insisting the door is not closed on his return, though an unlikely outcome with his no-trade clause and known disappointment for how his demotion was broached and handled.

Paton dodged the question Tuesday about whether the front office threatened to bench quarterback Russell Wilson earlier this season during contract renegotiations.

“During the bye week, I did reach out to Russell’s agent in a good faith and creative attempt to adjust his contract. We couldn’t get a deal done. We moved on with our season. Fast forward to Week 17, Sean makes a change. This was a football decision made by Sean in what he thought was in the best interest of the team,” Paton said. “We made a good faith attempt to adjust his contract. We handled ourselves professionally, and just leave it at that.

Penner said the conversation was handled in a “constructive” way. I asked him if we would do anything differently. Sources have indicated that it would have helped had Payton talked with Wilson about his role before Paton spoke with the agent. However, the bye week, when contract talks are common in the NFL, complicated matters as parties left town.

“I would say anytime you have a situation like this. You try to have these conversations and it’s not always going to be easy. I am sure. ... you always look back at things and I am sure we probably could have done things in a different way,” Penner said. “But our goal was to see if there was a nice constructive path forward that was amenable to both parties.”

Wilson said after that news broke that the team told his agent during the bye week in Week 9 it would bench him if he didn’t change a $37 million injury guarantee in his deal.

The league and the players association became involved. Wilson admitted that he was “disappointed" in how it was handled, but no grievance was filed.

Paton said he alone handled the negotiations, and that coach Payton was unaware that the team had approached the quarterback. The decision to demote Wilson was “a football decision,” he explained.

Even with the apparent tension surrounding Wilson’s contract, Broncos leadership did not rule out his return under center in 2024 on Tuesday. Paton said “the door is open” and that Wilson is open to being the team’s quarterback next season, even if the odds are against it.

“It hasn’t been decided relative to what our plans are [with Wilson],” said Payton, who insisted the possibility of a return was still on the table after a 30-minute meeting with Wilson on Monday. “Otherwise, it would have been like, ‘Hey, goodbye.’ [...] We'll look at all the scenarios and try to do what's best for the Broncos.”

The most likely conclusion to Wilson’s story is that the team cuts him this offseason. His contract is not particularly tradeable based on his performance the past two seasons, and Wilson has a no-trade clause, so he can veto any deal to facilitate becoming a free agent. The Broncos can absorb an $85 million cap hit spread out over two seasons — $35.4 million in 2024 and $49.6 million in 2025 — if he’s released with a June 1 designation.

Paton called that number, which would be the largest sum of dead money in league history, “extreme” but that the team will have “flexibility either way” in regard to the Wilson decision.

Payton pointed out that several teams in this year’s NFL playoffs had some of the largest sums of dead money – guaranteed money owed to a player that hasn’t been paid – against the salary cap. The Rams, Buccaneers, Packers — all in the postseason — are among the leaders with more than $65 million in dead money.

“That's part of the puzzle,” Payton said. “It's year to year and the fortunes can quickly change or quickly go the other way. And so, it's a new puzzle every year. [I] haven't done this in a while, so we begin [examining the salary cap] really in earnest this week.”

Penner added that any decision with Wilson will come down to one thing: Winning.

"The financial part of it is a significant component in terms of how it plays out," he said, "but that's not what will drive the decision. The decision will be driven by what's in the best interest of this football team winning games."

The three separate press conferences lasted 58 minutes in total with the parties addressing multiple topics. Payton pointed the finger in the mirror, admitting he held higher expectations for his team that missed the playoffs despite a 7-4 finish.

“I said this the other day, and I just know how my peers and how I looked at it. Everyone would look at it as 8-9. That’s just how we’re wired. Specifically, there would be a number of things that, ‘Ah, I know better.’ There’s a notepad right now. I think, for me, fresh off the season — what are things as we get ready, so that this time next year, I’m not trying to remember. There’s kind of a notepad I keep of things that we’ll address or change or do differently heading into the season. As head coaches, we’re graded on our team’s success, as we should be,” Payton said. “Ultimately, it’s about winning. That’s always been pretty clear and clean and actually refreshing. The fact that we’re having this on Tuesday in whatever week in January is not the right week. Certainly, it’s not the right week for us and for when we’d like to be having this meeting.”

As the Broncos aim to improve, they face challenges. The team needs to add speed and explosiveness, but only boasts six draft picks. The Broncos have no plans to spend big during the first wave of free agency as they did a year ago. So, it was noteworthy that Paton talked about cornerback Riley Moss and center Alex Forsyth as potential starters. But it helps that Paton knows what the coach wants for his roster, including at quarterback.

““It’s going to be huge. We’ve had three coaches in three years. It’s hard on the building, and it is hard on the scouts. [We’ve had] new coaches coming in and out. [Head Coach] Sean [Payton] does a great job of describing the vision he wants for each position. The scouts have an idea, and the scouts are experts because Sean and the coaches talk so much about players and what they are looking for in players. Last year at this time, we were looking for a coach, but we feel like we have a big jump on the offseason because of that. We know exactly what he wants at each position, both on offense and defense,” Paton said. “Quarterback is a little different, but I do know what Sean is looking for in a quarterback. We’ll see.”

Penner believes in Payton. He explained that he sees a side not available to the media, the coach’s curiosity, and the accountability he creates. There was improvement from a year ago. But not enough, Penner knows, for Broncos Country.

“I want to make sure our fans understand that I get their frustrations. The main message for Broncos Country that I would have is … we’re just as impatient as you are to win here,” Penner said. “We understand that we have a lot of work to do this offseason to get better. I want to thank the fans for your loyalty, support [and] passion. I think we have the best fans in the world here.”

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