Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton and general manager George Paton addressed the media on Monday regarding the stunning decision to bench franchise quarterback Russell Wilson for the final two games of the 2022 season. While the move led many to speculate that Wilson’s days in Denver could be numbered, both Payton and Paton left open the possibility that the 34-year-old QB could return in 2023.
Timeline of the Wilson Benching Saga
The drama began in Week 15 when Payton unexpectedly announced that backup QB Brett Rypien would start over the struggling Wilson in a key matchup against the playoff-contending Kansas City Chiefs. Wilson had led the Broncos to a disappointing 3-8 record to that point after being acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Seattle Seahawks in the offseason.
Many were shocked at the midseason benching of the 9-time Pro Bowler who Denver awarded a $245 million contract extension months earlier. Payton cited Wilson’s injuries and poor performance as reasons for the change, but reports later emerged that Broncos players were “pissed” they were not consulted or warned ahead of time.
While Rypien kept Denver competitive in the 34-28 loss to Kansas City, the undrafted QB was overmatched in Week 16. The Broncos were blown out by the Los Angeles Rams 51-14 with Rypien throwing 3 interceptions before he was also pulled from the game.
|March 8, 2022
|Broncos trade for Russell Wilson
|September 1, 2022
|Wilson signs $245M contract extension
|December 14, 2022
|Payton announces Wilson will be benched
|December 25, 2022
|Broncos blown out by Rams 51-14 with Rypien
|January 9, 2023
|Payton and Paton address media on Wilson’s future
The drama reached new heights in the past week as Wilson’s long-term standing was called into question. Payton fanned those flames by stating “we’ll see” when asked if Wilson would be on the 2023 roster. But in speaking to reporters this week, both Payton and Paton softened their tone and claimed the door remains open for Wilson’s return.
Payton Now More Committal on Wilson Being in 2023 Plans
After creating uncertainty around Wilson’s future, Payton provided more reassurance on Monday that the door is not closed on the QB returning.
“It’s early on, but I think as we get into this and go through the next few months, we’ll have clarity on which direction we’re going to head. And I think it would be foolish not to include Russell in that,” Payton said.
Payton explained that he never intended to suggest Wilson would not be on the team, chalking up the confusion to semantics.
“Probably poor word choice on my part…I think it was more or less the idea of we’ve got a lot of time before we get into are you committed to this or we’re committed. That’s a little bit of semantics.”
These comments represent a slight change in tone from Payton, who had stated just a week earlier that incumbent starter Wilson would have to beat out other QBs in training camp to win back the job. The first-year coach is now speaking more openly about Wilson having a place in the team’s future plans.
Paton: Wilson’s Contract Not a Factor in Benching
There was also speculation that Wilson’s benching could have been financially motivated, considering his high salary and Denver’s tight cap situation going into 2023. But general manager George Paton firmly denied that Wilson’s massive contract was part of the decision-making process.
“It had nothing to do with money. We were trying to win football games down the stretch and it had nothing to do with his contract,” Paton stated plainly.
Paton even revealed that he had been in contact with Wilson’s agent regarding the benching during the season. This would seem to indicate the team is still viewing Wilson as a potential piece of their future despite changes needing to be made.
“I talked to Mark Rodgers during the season about the decision and kept him in the loop…No final decision has been made on Russell or any other player for next season.”
So while the team appears ready to make significant alterations around Wilson, his exorbitant contract does not seem to be forcing them to move on completely from the QB they traded multiple high draft picks to acquire just 10 months ago.
Factors at Play in Wilson Decision
Payton and Paton made clear that Wilson returning for a second season is firmly in play. But they were both noncommittal about Wilson being handed back the starting job. Several key factors could determine whether Wilson suits up for Denver in 2023.
Wilson’s Health – Wilson battled injuries to his throwing shoulder and hamstring which Payton felt hampered him significantly in 2022. If team doctors determine the injuries won’t be chronic issues, Wilson has a better chance to come back as starter. But there are now real durability concerns after Wilson struggled to recreate his early-career mobility.
Scheme and Personnel Changes – Payton and Paton both emphasized changes are coming to the offensive personnel and coaching to better suit Wilson’s strengths should he return. After struggling mightily in the zone-rushing scheme former coach Nathaniel Hackett installed, a move back to more familiar concepts could benefit Wilson. But more talent is likely needed around him.
Competition at QB – Even if deemed healthy, Wilson won’t simply be handed his old starting job automatically. He would have to legitimately beat out backup options currently on the roster like Rypien and Josh Johnson. Payton has openly embraced a camp battle for the QB1 role which Wilson hasn’t had to worry about in over a decade. The Broncos could also look to the draft, free agency, or trades to bring in external challengers.
Contract Restructuring – While Paton claims Wilson’s current deal isn’t the reason for his benching, his $57 million cap hit for 2023 currently puts Denver $24 million over next year’s spending limit. The team could look to extend Wilson’s deal for cap relief, but likely only if paired with a strong performance in camp and the preseason. If Wilson appears to regress further, he could instead be an outright release candidate.
What’s Next for Wilson and the Broncos
The ambiguity around Russell Wilson’s status will be an ongoing storyline throughout this long offseason in Denver. While Payton and Paton seem open to a return, much needs to be addressed regarding the veteran quarterback’s health, supporting cast, and contract. Their noncommittal stance likely indicates they will take a wait-and-see approach.
Wilson’s performance in OTAs, minicamps, and eventually training camp will go a long way in determining if he gets a shot at redemption as the Broncos starter. But Denver appears willing to explore upgrades at football’s most critical position. A blockbuster trade for an Aaron Rodgers caliber QB can’t entirely be ruled out either.
In the end, this figures to be one of this offseason’s biggest questions leaguewide. Does an organization attempting to emerge from a 7-year playoff drought stake their 2023 fate on a 34-year-old QB that struggled mightily upon his highly celebrated arrival? Or do the Broncos cut ties with Wilson and reboot yet again, saddled with the costly draft capital they surrendered?
Payton, Paton, and the Broncos brass have difficult decisions ahead. And Russell Wilson faces an uncertain future, going from franchise savior to embattled starter in just 10 months in Denver. This saga appears far from over, butWilson returning under center for Week 1 next season remains firmly in play amidst the drama.
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