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Struggling Broncos bench Russell Wilson, likely ending time in Denver

Payton understands finances, but says decision 'about winning'
Posted: 10:35 AM, Dec 27, 2023
Updated: 2023-12-28 15:40:40-05
Russell Wilson

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Pocket change.

Given his $37 million guarantee in 2025 and the offensive’s ineffectiveness over the past month, Russell Wilson was benched on Wednesday by Broncos coach Sean Payton.

Payton turns to backup Jarrett Stidham, allowing time to evaluate a player he targeted in free agency and perhaps jumpstart an offense that the coach said Tuesday is “average to below average” in most categories. The Broncos signed Stidham this offseason following his stint with the Raiders. Wilson will serve as the backup this week, with Payton insisting this was a football, not business decision.

"We are desperately trying to win. Sure in our game there are economics and all those other things. The number one push behind this, and it's a decision I am making, is to get a spark offensively," said Payton, who was measured with his responses and declined to address specific shortcomings in Wilson's performance. "Obviously, it is difficult. And man, all of us feel like we didn't do well enough."

It is unfair to blame Wilson for all the Broncos’ issues – a sputtering run game, leaky pass protection – but he is the point man of an offense that has fizzled down the stretch. During the Broncos’ five-game winning streak, Wilson posted eight touchdowns passes and two turnovers. Over the past four games, which includes a 1-3 record, the former Pro Bowler boasts six touchdowns, four picks and a lost fumble.

Payton was asked if Wilson was the scapegoat.

"I get that. But I can't replace the entire offensive line. I can't get five new receivers. And if this continues over a period of time, there will be another guy talking to you as well," Payton said. "These are difficult decisions."

The relationship of Payton and Wilson became a central focus when the coach took the job. Wilson wanted him in charge after the 2022 disaster under Nathaniel Hackett. However, there was always a question of whether Wilson could fit in Payton’s passing offense, which requires processing information quickly and using the middle of the field. Wilson remains at his best playing off script, not the staple of a Payton attack.

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There have been issues throughout the season, suggesting Payton was not happy with his quarterback. He streamlined the information on Wilson’s wristband early in the season when there became delays getting plays called and getting the offense to the line of scrimmage, though late substitutions caused problems as well.

Then, when I asked Payton about Wilson’s excellence in the red zone midway through the season – 17 touchdowns, no interceptions at one point – he dismissed the question and said the offense wasn’t playing well enough. There was also the sideline screaming in Los Angleles not caught on camera and a dustup in Detroit for all the world to see after the Broncos failed to score at the goal line. In that instance, Payton yelled and pointed at Wilson.

Wednesday, Bleacher Report reported that the Broncos approached Wilson in October about moving back his $37 million in 2025 guaranteed for injury only that would fully vest on the fifth day of the 2024 league year in March. Denver7 confirmed through a source that the team spoke with Wilson's side about this, and the quarterback declined to make an adjustment to his contract. This is understandable because it showed a lack of faith in Wilson moving forward, meaning he would likely have to compete for the starting job in training camp. The team could have argued that it was his best chance to remain a starter after things soured in Seattle. Still, Wilson would have little incentive to give away guaranteed money and not bet on himself? Wilson also has a no-trade clause, so it's highly unlikely that he would agree to a deal if one materialized, choosing to get cut and become a free agent.

This was always an uneasy pairing between the coach who inherited the quarterback.

Payton is a confrontational leader with an abrasive personality. Wilson is relentlessly positive.

Wilson’s statistics on the surface did not scream for a benching – he has 26 touchdowns (sixth best in the league), 8 interceptions and 66.4 completion percentage. The injury guarantee factored into this equation, same as it did with Derek Carr last season with the Raiders.

Broncos head coach Sean Payton says he's benching Russell Wilson

Wilson’s 2024 salary is guaranteed. But if he gets hurt over the final two games and cannot pass a physical, his $37 million salary in 2025 becomes guaranteed as well.

The drama likely signals the end of the Wilson era in Denver. The Broncos acquired Wilson in one of the biggest deals in NFL history. The Seahawks received defensive lineman Shelby Harris, tight end Noah Fant, quarterback Drew Lock, two first-round picks, two second-round picks and a fifth-round pick. Denver received Seattle's 2022 fourth-round pick in exchange for the Broncos' 2022 fifth-round pick.

Wilson fell on his face with first-year coach Hackett, finishing with career lows in touchdowns (16) and completion percentage. Hackett was fired with two games remaining in the season. Wilson rebounded this year, but not enough to please Payton.

To move on from Wilson, the Broncos will be on the hook for $85 million in dead cap money spread across the 2024 and 2025 salary caps.

The Raiders executed a similar move with Carr with two weeks remaining in last season, and Stidham replaced him. Payton praised the film he watched on Stidham last season, especially against the 49ers. Stidham, for his part, believes he is ready for this opportunity as the team holds to scant playoff hopes if it wins the final two games.

"Obviously, your goal and objective is to get out on the field and play. Sean brought me up to his office this morning and told me I was starting. I will keep preparing like I have always and get ready to go," Stidham said. "I can't speak highly enough of Russ. A tremendous teammate, tremendous competitor. Today is a tough day. We have had great interaction. I can't speak highly enough of him."

Stidham will become the Broncos’ 13th starting quarterback since Peyton Manning. And that explains, in large part, why they haven’t been to playoffs since Manning retired following the Super Bowl 50 victory.

Stidham, 27, is 0-2 as a starter with six touchdowns and seven interceptions. He played well in the Broncos' preseason finale, and has impressed teammates in practice.

"We need something to spark this offense. We will continue to support both guys," tight end Adam Trautman said. "And roll with it."