The Broncos finished dead last in the NFL in scoring in 2022 and Russell Wilson had the worst season of his career after signing a five-year extension worth $245 million following the blockbuster trade that brought him to Denver.
Enter Sean Payton. The offensive mastermind hired to fix Wilson and prevent this from being one of the worst trades in NFL history.
But will this pairing work?
Here's a point and counterpoint argument for one of the biggest questions heading into the 2023 season.
Russell Wilson is not quite Drew Brees
Payton and Drew Brees were one of the most prolific head coach-QB duos ever, but I have questions about how Payton's scheme, with west coast principles, will translate with Wilson.
Brees was known for his amazing accuracy and quick passing. While Wilson has proven to be an excellent QB with solid accuracy throughout his career, he's made his hay with off-schedule plays and deep passing. Besides the fact that both are short, I don't see a ton of obvious similarities.
- Wilson has the seventh-longest average pass length since entering the league in 2012. Brees ranked 27th in that department in 15 seasons with Payton.
- Brees has the lowest off-target rate in the NFL (6.4%) dating back to 2017, when that stat was first available from Pro Football Focus. Wilson ranks 23rd (10.6%) in that span.
- Brees' average time to throw is a half-second faster on average than Wilson's since 2017. A half-second is an eternity for a QB, and is one reason why Wilson has taken a lot more sacks than Brees.
|NFL Careers||Brees with Payton||Russell Wilson|
Avg throw distance
Off-target rate (since 2017)
Avg time to throw (since 2017)
Counterpoint: Of course, Payton will presumably adapt to Wilson's strengths in some ways. Plus, there's reason to believe Wilson could adjust well to Payton's offense. Remember when Jameis Winston was one of the league's most erratic gunslingers? He had the second-longest average pass length (10.3 yards) in 2019 when he became the first QB all time with 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in a season. He dialed it back with Payton in 2021, ranking 12th in average throw distance (8.3 yards) and throwing for 14 touchdowns and only three picks prior to tearing his ACL. If Payton could help Winston shine, there's definitely hope for a far better QB in Wilson.
Wilson could be on the decline
Even if Payton and Wilson mesh, it won't matter much if Wilson's play is declining. That could be the case after posting career lows in completion rate, touchdown passes and passer rating last season.
Wilson's strengths looked like weaknesses in 2022.
- The deep ball was not his bread and butter. He posted career lows in completion rate (27%) and touchdown passes (0) on throws 30-plus yards downfield.
- He ranked 27th in completion rate outside the pocket after ranking 14th in the previous five seasons.
- He ranked 18th in passer rating when pressured after ranking third in the previous five seasons.
Counterpoint: Wilson's struggles across the board, particularly in areas where he usually excels, could have been a fluke with rookie head coach Nathaniel Hackett and the Broncos' injuries. They were also in part due to bad decision making, which is fixable.
Denver has a better supporting cast around Wilson in 2023, too. The Broncos signed Ben Powers and Mike McGlinchey, giving them two upgrades on the offensive line. RB Javonte Williams and WR Tim Patrick return from season-ending injuries, and the Broncos also added RB Samaje Perine from Cincinnati and WR Marvin Mims Jr. in the draft (second round).
Here's what history suggests
It's hard to bet against a pair with this kind of Super Bowl pedigree, right? Maybe not.
No head coach has ever won a Super Bowl with multiple teams. Fourteen Super Bowl-winning head coaches have even gone on to coach other teams. They combined for a losing record.
|Super Bowl winners after leaving Super Bowl team||Head Coaches||Starting QBs|
Super Bowl W-L
Perhaps expectations will be too high for this duo.
Counterpoint: This is a new team and a new situation so history only holds so much water. The success of this duo isn't necessarily measured in championships either. Plus, we haven't seen anything quite like the Wilson-Payton pairing. They will be the first primary starting QB-head coach duo in NFL history to play together after each won a Super Bowl at a previous stop.
The only instance that comes close was Trent Dilfer and Mike Holmgren with the Seahawks. Dilfer started a few games in Seattle but was primarily Matt Hasselbeck's backup.
So will it work? I don't have an obvious answer. There are clear paths to that answer being yes or no. There are many question marks about how Wilson will fit with Payton, from both an X's and O's standpoint, and coaching style. Wilson falling off a cliff last season could be signs of a decline and he is playing in a conference (and division) loaded with great quarterbacks. At the same time, this is a potential Hall of Fame duo that should still have gas in the tank, with an upgraded roster from last year.
The one certainty is there's a lot invested in this combo. The Broncos traded a haul for Wilson and Payton in the last two offseasons that included three first-round picks and three second-round picks (not to mention Wilson's new contract). I can't imagine a pair under much more pressure this season.