A slimmed-down Russell Wilson might be watching what he eats at the dinner table, but the words that come out of the quarterback’s mouth are still as sweet as sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.
With Sean Payton large and in charge as the Broncos coach, Wilson is no longer the entitled DangerRuss we saw last season, at least not out on the football field during spring practice. He is No. 3 in orange and blue. Wilson is just one of the guys, on a team that has a lot of guys with much to prove.
“I think Sean is one of the best coaches ever to coach this game,” Wilson said Thursday when asked his impression of the new boss. “He’s intense, he’s focused, he’s such a great teacher of the game.”
After observing the old-school way Payton conducts his football business and hanging out with him at a Nuggets game, Wilson’s initial impression of his new coach is as warm as freshly baked cookies.
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But is the admiration mutual?
I’m not so certain. My guess: Although Wilson has won more than 100 games as a starting quarterback in the NFL, he must earn Payton’s trust and confidence.
While Payton undoubtedly respects the Super Bowl ring and 308 touchdown passes on Wilson’s resume, this is a curmudgeonly coach who cares only what you’ve done for him lately, as Broncos kicker Brandon McManus rudely found out this week, when the door at the team headquarters hit him in the hindquarters.
Wilson and the guys were out in the sun on a beautiful spring morning, learning the new offense being installed by Payton to replace that hot mess designed by coach Nathaniel Hackett a year ago.
The most direct way back to the playoffs for the Broncos is for Wilson to drive the bandwagon with the firm, guiding hand of his new coach showing the 34-year-old quarterback that his disastrous 2022 season wasn’t the beginning of the end to a beautiful NFL career.
But should Wilson struggle with the new offense or demonstrate recent signs his athleticism has slipped are irreversible? Unlike a year ago, I’m guessing this coach won’t let Wilson ride the Broncos into the ground.
When Denver signed Jarrett Stidham, a fourth-round draft choice of New England in 2019, as a free agent, the vibe from Payton was uncommonly enthusiastic for a quarterback who has started only two games as a pro.
Back in March, Payton underscored the fact that he and New Orleans Saints scouts were not only impressed with Stidham when he came out of Auburn, but this was a different situation than when Denver acquired journeyman Josh Johnson a year ago to hold a clipboard on the sideline and clap for Wilson.
“There were a handful of No. 2s that I had worked with or we felt comfortable with, but in this case I think it’s a No. 2 that his arrow is moving in a direction where we think he can become an NFL starter,” Payton said. “So the evaluation was pretty crystal clear for all of us. I think he’s going to be someone who’s great in the room. He’s smart. So quietly that was an important signing for us.”
Peyton Manning, who processed every detail of game videotape like a movie he had already seen, once told me it required more than a full NFL season for a quarterback to get fully comfortable with a new offense.
So the Broncos are expecting a lot of a quarterback who made head-scratching mistakes in his debut season with Denver. Much is expected of those handed a $245 million contract extension. When I asked Wilson how the install of the new system was going and how close to 100% efficiency he believed the offense could be when the Broncos open the season against the Raiders, he sidestepped the question.
“We focus on one day at a time,” Wilson said.
There is no quarterback controversy. But there are legit doubts regarding Wilson.
New teammate Zach Allen, who played four seasons in Arizona before joining the Broncos, got a first-hand look at Wilson when the quarterback cooked at a level that made him a legit MVP candidate.
“Russ is a superstar,” Allen said.
Check that. Wilson was a superstar. Let’s hope he can be again.
But if the Broncos can’t move the football with Wilson as quarterback I’d be surprised if Payton shows him much mercy or hesitates to bench his big, fat contract. The new boss doesn’t strike me as a guy who leaves much room in his heart for sentimentality when it’s a matter of winning or losing.