Kosmider: Failed Russell Wilson tenure could define Broncos’ era of QB wandering


In June of 2016, a few months after Peyton Manning retired as the quarterback of the Denver Broncos, one of his teammates provided a warning as to how difficult finding a replacement at football’s most important position would be.

To be more accurate, Sylvester Williams laid out what he saw as the impossibility of the task.

“I just think you can’t replace a guy like him,” Williams, who was Manning’s teammate in Denver for three seasons, said as the Broncos waded into their first offseason after the quarterback’s retirement. “Because he’s such a powerful guy that you’ve just got to figure out other ways to bring some of that energy back to the locker room. You will never have another Peyton Manning in the locker room that’ll touch the team the way he did.”

Eight years later, those words from Williams ring as true as ever. The Broncos are beginning yet another offseason searching for an answer at quarterback after Russell Wilson, only two years after he was acquired by Denver in a blockbuster trade, was released by the team Monday. No signal caller since Manning retired has started more than two seasons with Denver. No quarterback has won more than 13 starts during that stretch. And 2024 will bring the seventh different Week 1 starter for the team since 2016.

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The Broncos are mired in the darkest on-field stretch in the franchise’s proud history. They have missed the playoffs in eight straight seasons and have posted losing records in seven straight, the longest such runs of futility since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. It has been an era of quarterback wandering, and nothing defines that era more starkly than the failed Wilson experiment.

The Broncos gave up five draft picks, including two first-rounders, and three players to acquire Wilson in 2022. In the seven seasons following Manning’s retirement in the aftermath of Super Bowl 50, the Broncos had already shuffled through 11 different starting quarterbacks. In Wilson, a nine-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion, the Broncos believed they had acquired a ticket off the never-ending carousel.

Wilson believed he had found a place to write a captivating second chapter, just as Manning had when he arrived in Denver 10 years earlier.

“My goal is to play 10 or 12 more years and hopefully win three or four more Super Bowls,” Wilson said on the day he was introduced as the Broncos’ new quarterback. “That’s the plan. That’s mindset. That’s why I came here, to hopefully be able to finish my career here, and to finish on top as a champion and do it multiple times. That’s my mindset.”

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Russell Wilson is introduced by then-head coach Nathaniel Hackett, right, and GM George Paton, left, on March 16, 2022. (Hyoung Chang / Getty Images)

While that vision didn’t age well — the Broncos won 11 of the 30 games Wilson started during his two seasons in Denver — it was a quote from general manager George Paton, who had inherited Denver’s quarterback mess in 2021, that serves retrospectively as evidence of where the Broncos went wrong. The Broncos made what will go down as one of the worst trades in NFL history because they failed to properly manage expectations.

“It’s just unique that you can trade for a quarterback, a franchise quarterback, in his prime, and we just felt that we had to take that chance,” Paton said. “Just watching Russell this year — once we realized he was available, you dig into the tape. He has elite arm strength, elite accuracy. … We are bringing him to a team that is talented, that is hungry, that just needs to learn how to win and we feel like he is going to get us to where we need to go.”

Wilson, who was 33 at the time of the trade, still had a big arm. He still could improvise in sticky situations. But the prime of his career had already been written in Seattle. During the second half of the 2020 season and again in 2021, day-to-day observers in Seattle noted a decline in the quarterback’s mobility. Ahead of his first season in Denver, Wilson bulked up in an attempt to become more of a pocket passer. What resulted was his third-lowest rushing yards total (277) in any full season he had played. Without that element keeping defenses honest, they preyed on Wilson in the pocket, sacking him a whopping 55 times in 15 starts.

Wilson made big changes when Sean Payton arrived to replace Nathaniel Hackett, whose disastrous performance as a first-year coach did the quarterback no favors. He trimmed down to be more of a threat as a runner. His numbers improved across the board. But the Broncos continued to languish in the red zone with Wilson as the pilot, and they were especially poor inside the 10-yard line. It became a driving wedge between coach and quarterback, illustrated by a sideline blowup by Payton in Detroit in Week 15 after the Broncos had blown another first-and-goal chance.

To blame Wilson for all that went wrong during his tenure, though, would be to ignore Denver’s recent history of failing to properly support the players it has thrust into the quarterback role. Of the 13 starters since Manning retired, Trevor Siemian, a seventh-round pick of the team in 2015, was certainly not the most talented. That he is the only quarterback of the bunch to lead the Broncos to a winning record in a season speaks to the situation he inherited when he beat out Mark Sanchez in training camp in 2016.

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The foundation of a dominant Super Bowl-winning defense was still in place when Siemian became the starter. He had aging but proven playmakers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. He had continuity with second-year coach Gary Kubiak. It all helped the Broncos go 9-7 despite starting an unheralded quarterback who had never thrown a pass in the NFL before that season. Few quarterbacks after Siemian had the same support system in place. Payton is the Broncos’ fifth head coach, including interim Jerry Rosburg in 2022, since Kubiak stepped down after the 2016 season. The shuffling of coordinators and play callers has been even more frequent. All that change has made it difficult to form a consistent strategy in the NFL Draft, and the Broncos have had many key misses that have dented their ability to build a strong roster.

The Broncos have pinned so much hope on the rotating cast of players who have stepped in at quarterback, but too often they have taken that high-pressure job without enough help around them.

So how will the Broncos finally emerge from the quarterback no man’s land that has tossed the franchise into quicksand? Payton understands the weighty responsibility belongs to him. He is the one who ultimately decided the Wilson era would end after only two seasons. He is the one charged with finding his replacement, perhaps in this year’s NFL Draft. He is the one who has to help whoever steps into that role find a way not to leave it. He is the one who must prove that finding a permanent replacement in a post-Manning world isn’t impossible, even if it has felt that way for the better part of a decade in Denver.

“I saw this humorous meme the other day,” Payton said during his appearance at the NFL Scouting Combine last week, “where there’s a Broncos fan with a shirt on with like eight quarterbacks’ names crossed through them and he’s drinking the quarterback Kool-Aid. Our job is to make sure this next one doesn’t have a line through it.”

At this point, the best thing the Broncos can hope for the Russell Wilson era in Denver is that it was the darkest period before a long-awaited dawn.

(Top photo: AAron Ontiveroz / Getty Images)





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