Sunday might have been rock bottom for the 2022 Denver Broncos. Losing is nothing new, given that the 3-8 Broncos have now lost seven consecutive games on American soil (amid the streak, there was a narrow victory over the Jaguars in England). A 13-point loss to the Panthers and returning quarterback Sam Darnold would also be a low point for most teams, but even that overstates how competitive this contest looked. The lasting memory from the game will be Denver nose tackle Mike Purcell screaming at embattled quarterback Russell Wilson on the sideline.
I don’t want to make too much of a shouting match on the sideline; most teams have a player shout at another player or a coach at one point or another during the season. Given the context of everything else that has happened in 2022, Purcell might have been representing most of the NFL, let alone the rest of the franchise. Wilson was supposed to be the Broncos’ savior and the guy who was supposed to do what Matthew Stafford did for the Rams last season. Instead of turning the 2022 Broncos into the 2021 Rams, Wilson has this team looking like the 2022 Rams.
Wilson had arguably his best game of the season in Week 11, when Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett handed over the playcalling reins to Klint Kubiak. The turnaround lasted exactly one week. Wilson was back to his frustrating self Sunday, going 19-of-35 for just 142 yards while losing a fumble on a strip sack just outside the red zone. Denver scored 10 points on 12 offensive possessions, and even when it was given a bit of hope by recovering an onside kick in the fourth quarter, he threw four consecutive incompletions to end his day.
It’s past the point of expecting Wilson to turn things around in 2022; even if he did look like the old Wilson from here on out, this would still qualify as a disappointing season. As someone who thought the Wilson trade was a victory for the Broncos and who projected the Broncos as one of five teams most likely to improve, I clearly was wrong. I’ll admit defeat, but I want to take a closer look. What has gone wrong for Wilson in Denver? And, perhaps more importantly for a player who is under contract through 2028, can it be fixed?
Let’s start at the time of the trade and work our way through what’s gone on this season before looking forward to what happens next:
Jump to a question:
Where has Wilson improved and gotten much worse?
Is there anyone else to blame for this catastrophe?
Is this Wilson trade already one of the most lopsided?
When could the Broncos move on from Wilson?
What needs to change for Denver in 2023?
Could we have seen this coming?
It would require a certain amount of revisionist history to answer “yes.” Wilson struggled at times over his final two seasons in Seattle, in part because of a broker finger in 2021, but he was generally very good. His 64.4 QBR over that stretch ranked eighth in the league, just ahead of Dak Prescott and Kyler Murray.
After recovering from the finger injury, Wilson was particularly effective at the end of his Seahawks tenure. He struggled with his accuracy after rushing back from injury, but over the final seven weeks of last season, he posted a QBR of 67.8, the seventh-best mark in football. He threw 15 touchdown passes against three picks, and while it was a frustrating season for his team, the Seahawks won four of their final seven games. The wheels were not falling off at the end of 2021.
I will say there’s one element of Wilson’s game which slowed in 2021 and has continued to be off the pace in 2022: his mobility. He scrambled for nearly 28 yards per game in 2020, a figure that dropped by more than half to 11.5 yards per game in 2021. He has been effective when he has chosen to scramble this season, but he doesn’t often take that choice often, as he’s averaging only 12.5 scramble yards per game.
Likewise, when Wilson’s on the move, he has been a less effective passer. NFL Next Gen Stats considers a throw on the run to come when a quarterback passes the ball while traveling faster than 8 mph. In 2020, Wilson’s EPA per play on these passes was the 11th-best in the league. Last season, that mark fell all the way to 27th. This season, he ranks 24th.
Does Wilson need that mobility to thrive at his height (5-foot-11) and with his skill set? Maybe. Given his success over the end of 2021 and how drastically those overall numbers differ from the downtrodden stats he has posted in 2022, though, we have some evidence he was able to succeed at a reasonable level without running the same way he did as a 25-year-old.
What about with Nathaniel Hackett?
Now, I feel the need to mention the other person absorbing much of the blame for Denver’s struggles. Could we have seen Hackett struggling in his first stint as a head coach? That one seems more plausible. His résumé before taking over in Denver was limited. Remember that the original story surrounding Hackett’s hire was in relation to the idea of the Broncos trading for Aaron Rodgers, who regarded the former Packers assistant as “like a brother” after three years together in Green Bay.
Hackett had spent eight years as an offensive coordinator before taking over in Denver, and the results were mixed. With EJ Manuel and Kyle Orton at quarterback in Buffalo in 2013-14, Hackett’s offenses ranked 25th and 26th in offensive DVOA. Hackett followed coach Doug Marrone to Jacksonville, and while the Jaguars advanced to the postseason, it wasn’t because of their offense; Blake Bortles & Co. ranked 27th, 15th and then 30th before Hackett was fired during the 2018 campaign.
After Broncos defensive tackle Mike Purcell picks up a penalty, he appears to get in the face of Russell Wilson.
Hackett then moved on to Green Bay, where he had the offensive coordinator title on some of the league’s best offenses. With the Packers, though, he wasn’t calling plays, a duty which fell to head coach Matt LaFleur. Hackett was responsible for installing the red zone offense, and the Packers fielded what was likely the best red zone offense in NFL history during the 2020 season.
The league as a whole isn’t great at picking head coaches, so this isn’t an issue specific to the Broncos. I’m willing to bet Hackett improved as a coach during his time with the Packers, just as someone like Brian Daboll got better after being around Nick Saban. At the same time, if I had told you in 2018 that the offensive coordinator who had just been fired by the Jaguars would be an NFL head coach just over three years later, you probably would have laughed. It was way more reasonable to be skeptical of Hackett than it was to have been wary of Wilson heading into the season.
What hasn’t gone wrong for Russell Wilson?
You know things are bad when I have to start talking about 2022 by focusing on the few elements of Wilson’s game that haven’t fallen apart. In trying to track Wilson’s decline, I split up his game into a number of different categories and tracked how he had performed between the 2020, 2021 and 2022 seasons. In some places, his game really hasn’t changed much. Here’s where Wilson is still the same quarterback, for better or worse:
Quick game. This isn’t as optimistic as it might sound. Wilson never has been regarded as a particularly effective quarterback operating out of quick game, when passers are expected to make decisions shortly after getting the football and then deliver accurate throws into tight windows. He hasn’t always had a big-bodied receiver who can win in those tight spaces during his Seahawks career, but he had DK Metcalf in 2020 and 2021, and Metcalf should have been able to outmuscle and box out most cornerbacks for these sorts of passes.
I defined quick game as passes out of the pocket delivered within 2.5 seconds of the snap. Here, Wilson has been consistently below-average. Among qualifying passers, he ranked 23rd in the NFL in quick game QBR in 2020, 24th in 2021 and now is 25th in 2022. I don’t think anyone expects this to become a strong suit in Wilson’s game anytime soon, but it is something we often see older quarterbacks excel with as they grow more experienced and pick apart defenses before the snap.
Throwing out of structure. This is a Next Gen Stats concept associated with throwing while scrambling. Wilson obviously has been great at this at times during his career, but that hasn’t been the case consistently over the past three seasons. He ranked 15th in the league in EPA (expected points added) per play on throws out of structure in 2020, 17th last season and is 16th this season.
What’s interesting in terms of Wilson’s decline is that the league’s EPA per play on those attempts has dropped with each season. When he finished 15th in 2020, he was generating minus-0.1 EPA per throw out of structure. This season, with Wilson 16th in the same category, he’s down to minus-0.3 EPA per throw, which is a noticeable drop-off. While he might be struggling, it’s fair to wonder if a league in which defenders are getting smaller and faster might be causing players like Wilson to be less effective on the whole.
Deep passes. It might feel like Wilson has gone from hitting one deep pass per game to one per month, but he generally has stayed effective on these throws. His QBR on deep passes has been remarkably consistent: 96.2 in 2020, 97.4 in 2021 and 93.1 this season. The latter mark ranks 13th. He averaged 1.4 deep completions per game in 2020, just over two a year ago, and is back at 1.9 per game this season.
Those throws are traveling 20 or more yards in the air. If we change the cutoff to 40-plus air yards, Wilson’s four such completions are the second most in football this season, behind only Buffalo’s Josh Allen. To be fair, the last time Wilson completed one of these throws was during the London game in Week 8, when he hit K.J Hamler for 47 yards.
Where has Wilson gotten worse?
I’ll run through these in descending order of intensity. Where has Wilson struggled?
Inside the red zone. I wrote about Wilson’s red zone performance earlier in the season, when it looked like the Broncos were a solid offense going through a terrible time inside the 20. Through the first three weeks, the 2-1 Broncos were 13th in EPA per play on offense outside the 20 and dead last once they got inside the 20-yard line. After fumbling twice inside the 5-yard line in Week 1, I figured they would protect the football and improve in the most important part of the field.
That hasn’t really happened. Melvin Gordon fumbled again near the goal line in November, leading the Broncos to release him. Instead of their performance around the field pushing their red zone performance to improve, the struggles have permeated the rest of the offense. The Broncos still rank 32nd in red zone EPA per play, but now their offense outside of the red zone is 26th by the same metric.
The running back disasters deserve some of the blame, but so does Wilson. This was probably what the star passer did best in recent years with Seattle. In 2020, his 90.2 QBR inside the red zone was the fifth-best mark in football. Last season, even while dealing with the finger injury, he posted a 91.9 QBR inside the 20, which was first. He was second in 2019, 13th in 2018 and fifth in 2017. He ranked No. 1 in the red zone over that entire five-year span.
This season, Wilson has been the league’s worst quarterback in the red zone. His QBR has dropped from 91.9 to 6.3. That’s not a typo. The only quarterback within 15 points is Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett. Wilson’s completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) is nearly seven points below that of an average passer, and he’s averaging just 2.3 yards per attempt. He doesn’t have Metcalf or Tyler Lockett in Denver, but he was dominant in the red zone before Metcalf arrived in town, too.
What makes this even more staggering is what I mentioned about Hackett earlier. One of the first items on his résumé as a potential head-coaching candidate would have been his success building the game plan for the Packers in the red zone over the past three seasons. The Broncos have somehow combined the best red zone quarterback of the last five years with a guy who was responsible for one of the league’s best red zone offenses and landed the league’s worst red zone attack.
Hackett’s red zone success mostly was concentrated in one spectacular 2020 season, but Wilson and the players were more at fault for their red zone struggles on Sunday. Eric Saubert whiffed on a third-and-1 block as the wing tight end against Brian Burns. Wilson was inaccurate on a pair of throws, both of which should have been touchdowns. One was low and incomplete; the other was high and caught, but the leaping required to make the catch by Kendall Hinton prevented the wideout from getting into the end zone.
Another throw seemed to sum up the Broncos’ season. They ran a boot concept and Wilson had three open receivers for possible touchdowns. Instead, they ended up with an incompletion when a furious throw by Wilson went through Courtland Sutton‘s hands:
Three open receivers for the Broncos on a third-and-goal boot, but Russell Wilson’s pass goes through Courtland Sutton’s hands pic.twitter.com/hKq2oXaGq9
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) November 28, 2022
History — both in terms of team regression toward the mean and Wilson’s historical success inside the 20 — suggests the Broncos should improve in the red zone, which would have a direct impact on their record. It’s now been two-thirds of a season, though, and they aren’t showing many signs of life.
Outside the red zone. While the slide hasn’t been quite as severe, Wilson also has fallen off outside the 20-yard line. When he posted a 60.4 QBR in 2020, that mark was good enough for 16th in the NFL. Wilson fell to 21st in the league last season and his 38.6 mark ranks 27th in 2022.
He has gone from being a solid quarterback who dominated in the red zone to a struggling quarterback who falls apart inside the 20. If Wilson was his usual self near the goal line, he could still be someone such as Ryan Tannehill, who has been part of a functional offense without posting impressive numbers. Instead, the Broncos haven’t been able to overcome their mistakes near the goal line.
On play-action. Given the importance the Seahawks placed on running the football, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised Wilson thrived while using play-fakes. He ranked in the top eight in QBR in both 2020 (eighth) and 2021 (fourth), even as the Seahawks were forced to cycle through running backs because of injuries.
About the only thing the 2022 Broncos have in common with those offenses is the part about cycling through halfbacks. Denver’s 39.6% success rate on the ground ranks 23rd, and their play-action game hasn’t gotten off the ground. Wilson ranks 28th in QBR while using play-action (43.3). He averaged nearly 9 yards per pass attempt with play-fakes between 2020 and 2021; he’s down below 7 yards per attempt on those throws this season.
While the league as a whole gets about nine points of QBR better with play-action, Hackett has used play-action less often for Wilson than coordinators Brian Schottenheimer and Shane Waldron did in Seattle. Wilson has used play-action on 20.6% of his dropbacks this season, which is down from 25.6% over the 2020 and 2021 seasons. I suspect that latter mark would have been even higher if Wilson hadn’t been dealing with the finger injury a year ago. The NFL uses play-action on about 23.5% of their dropbacks, so he has gone from using play-fakes more often to using them less than league-average this season.
Under pressure. In previous years, Wilson was able to make up for blown protections or indecisive work after the snap by scrambling his way out of mistakes. He simply ran away from free rushers for most of his time in Seattle, and even when under pressure, he was capable of breaking hearts. He ranked seventh and 10th in QBR in 2020 and 2021, respectively, when hurried by the opposing pass rush.
This year, Wilson is 28th under pressure. Some of that owes to a decline in escapability or maneuverability. He was sacked just under 20% of the time when pressured between 2020 and 2021, a mark which has jumped over 27% this season. Even when he’s gotten the ball away, though, his completion percentage under pressure has dropped by more than 10 percentage points.
Not under pressure. Bad news! Wilson has gotten worse when given time to throw. After ranking 11th and 13th over the prior two seasons in QBR, his 49.7 mark in a clean pocket this season is 28th. We can’t pin this one on declining mobility, either.
Against split safety coverages. You might remember this one from 2020, when the “Let Russ Cook” Seahawks sputtered out in the second half amid a sea of two-high shells. Combined with the league’s shift on the whole toward more two-safety coverages, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which defenses see Wilson stagnate against split-safety looks and plays them more often, resulting in reduced effectiveness.
That’s not really what’s happened. Wilson did see lots of split-safety looks in 2020. Opposing defenses played him with two deep safeties 41.4% of the time, the fifth-highest rate in the league. A year ago, that jumped to 45.5%, but with the league as a whole moving toward two-deep coverages, that was actually a drop to the sixth-highest two-deep look. And this season, teams have actually gone to that shell less often against the Broncos, as Wilson’s 43.5% rate of dropbacks against two-deep is only 13th.
Wilson’s effectiveness against those shells, though, has steadily declined. Despite the issues in the second half of 2020, his EPA per play against two-deep shells in 2020 was the fourth-best mark in football. A year ago, he fell to 17th. This season, Wilson’s minus-0.13 EPA per play against those looks is 29th.
Of course, all two-high defenses aren’t created equal. Lining up two deep safeties before the snap and playing static, spot drop Cover 2 isn’t the same thing as disguising your coverage and showing one thing before the snap while playing a man-match hybrid defense afterward. Wilson’s play has dropped off there, too. When teams disguised their coverage before the snap in 2020 and 2021, Wilson’s 80.0 QBR was the best in football. This season, when teams show one coverage before the snap and something different afterward, his 25.7 QBR ranks 28th.
Has Hackett made things worse?
It’s difficult to parse a quarterback’s performance from the surrounding offensive infrastructure, which includes the playcaller, scheme and coaching staff. It’s one thing when a quarterback works with multiple coordinators and through a generation of players, as Wilson did in Seattle. We don’t have that luxury in Denver, where all we’ve seen is Wilson in Hackett’s offense. The only real change has been personnel (mostly due to injuries) and at playcaller, where Kubiak took over two weeks ago.
With that being said, we can compare what this offense does to the rest of the league (or the Seahawks) in terms of giving Wilson easy answers. Given his size and style, it behooved the Seahawks to get Wilson out of the pocket and to take advantage of his mobility. We haven’t seen the same thing in Denver.
I already mentioned the drop in play-action rate, which would typically make just about any quarterback look worse. In terms of designed rollouts, Wilson also is moving less often than he has in the past. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, he rolled out on 11.1% of his dropbacks in 2020 and 12% a year ago. He’s down to rolling out on just 7.8% of his dropbacks this season, a year where it hasn’t been as if the Broncos have dominated inside the pocket. Again, while the mobility could be an issue here, Wilson was rolling out nearly twice as often a year ago.
I also mentioned how Wilson had generally sustained his effectiveness outside of structure. I can’t say the same for what he has done inside the structure of his offenses. After ranking 10th in EPA per play in structure during the 2020 season, he dropped to 21st a year ago and is all the way at 28th this season. I don’t think he’s ever going to be a great quarterback within structure — and he already was struggling here a year ago — but it’s tough to argue that he has consistent solutions within the context of the offense.
By my eyes, nobody seems to throw more fades to covered receivers than Wilson. Next Gen Stats doesn’t quite agree, but it isn’t far off. Wilson has attempted 55 passes into tight windows this season. His rate of throwing into tight windows is the sixth-highest among passers with at least 200 attempts. He’s 12-of-55 for 331 yards on those throws, posting a CPOE 10.1 percentage points below expectation.
And yet, at the same time, Wilson has had plenty of opportunities to hit open targets. According to Next Gen Stats, when he has thrown ahead of the line of scrimmage, 21.6% of his targets have been wide open, with 5 yards of separation between them and the closest defender. It’s the only category where he leads the league, with Tua Tagovailoa just behind him in second place. Wilson has posted a 123.5 passer rating and 0.55 EPA/dropback in those situations, both of which are below league averages.
Without dominant receivers, it seems fair to at least assign Hackett some of the credit for creating open receivers in the offense. There’s one other concern, though, and it came up this week. Hackett is responsible for at least contributing to the scripted playcalls the team uses at the beginning of games. Some teams only use scripted playcalls to start the game, but as Hackett noted Sunday, the Broncos also script their third-quarter plays coming out of halftime.
It hasn’t gone great. It’s unclear which plays are specifically scripted; San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan, for example, scripts the first 24 plays of the first half and the first eight plays of the second half. If we use a more generic definition and consider the first 15 plays of each half as the “scripted” choices, the Broncos rank dead last in EPA on scripted plays. They’re 24th in EPA per play after they move toward unscripted material.
This doesn’t appear to be a Wilson problem. It was an issue in 2021, when the Seahawks ranked 23rd in EPA per play on those first 15 scripted plays of the half and No. 1 in the league afterward. In 2020, though, the Schottenheimer-led Seahawks were third in the NFL in EPA per scripted play and 14th in the league otherwise. I’m not sure it means much or represents anything sticky, but it’s difficult to make the argument that Denver is thriving because of whatever the coaching staff has scripted.
Is there anything else to blame?
There’s a legitimate argument to be made about injuries and absences impacting our expectation of what the Broncos were going to look like on offense. Heading into the season, it looked like this could be one of the league’s deepest, most robust offensive cores around the new quarterback. I had the Broncos 14th in my playmaker rankings heading into the season, and the feedback at the time ranged more toward them being too low than too high.
Things look different now. Wideout Tim Patrick didn’t play a single snap after tearing his ACL. Running back Javonte Williams tore his ACL in Week 4. Mike Boone, who was part of the rotation replacing Williams, suffered a high ankle sprain. Running back Chase Edmonds, acquired in the Bradley Chubb deal, suffered one of his own shortly after arriving. Hamler has been sidelined by knee and hamstring injuries. Receiver Jerry Jeudy has missed the past two weeks with an ankle issue. Tight end Greg Dulcich was on injured reserve to start the season, while Albert Okwuegbunam, a breakout pick before the season, fell out of favor and has been a healthy scratch for weeks.
Leaving the playmakers aside, Wilson himself was out for a game with a hamstring issue. The line also is down three likely starters in Garett Bolles, Lloyd Cushenberry and Billy Turner, all on injured reserve.
The running back rotation Sunday was between Latavius Murray and Marlon Mack, neither of whom was on the roster to start the season. Sutton was joined at wideout by Kendall Hinton and Brandon Johnson, the latter of whom caught a touchdown pass in his second career NFL game. The starting left tackle was Calvin Anderson, who was fourth on the tackle depth chart heading into the season. In the past, with a more stable offense and more mobility, Wilson might have been able to overcome weak spots in his lineup. Now, as he’s about to turn 34, it doesn’t appear he can drag a limited supporting cast to big offensive performances.
Did the Broncos make the most lopsided trade ever?
Not unless it gets much worse. The trade obviously has turned into a huge victory for the Seahawks, who are projected to land the No. 2 overall pick in the 2023 draft, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. They used Denver’s 2022 first-rounder on left tackle Charles Cross, who has been excellent as a rookie protecting quarterback Geno Smith. Shelby Harris has been a solid rotation defensive tackle. Tight end Noah Fant has been an ancillary option in the passing game and Drew Lock has backed up Smith, but even getting Cross and a top-five pick for Wilson would have been a good deal for Seattle.
It’s still too early to close the book on the trade. I think back to 2011, when Washington traded a draft haul to the Rams for Robert Griffin III and looked like geniuses after he led the team to the playoffs as a rookie. Injuries slowed him down afterward, and by Year 3, the trade looked like a huge victory for the Rams. In the end, while the Rams didn’t land any superstars, they drafted several longtime NFL veterans in Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins and Alec Ogletree. The Jamal Adams trade, too, looked a lot better for Seattle after Year 1 than it did after Year 2 or now in Year 3.
There are worse deals, both in terms of what was being offered at the time of the deal and how it turned out in hindsight. The DeAndre Hopkins trade was more lopsided at the time and helped destroy the Texans franchise. The Seahawks sending a first-round pick to acquire Percy Harvin and then extending the return man for what turned out to be 23 catches was a disaster, even if he did pick up a return touchdown while up multiple scores in the Super Bowl.
Beyond all, though, there are two legendary deals which blow this one away, both of which involve running backs. The Saints traded an entire year of draft picks and an additional first- and third-round pick to move up and grab Ricky Williams in the 1999 draft. Washington then used two of those picks to grab Champ Bailey, who had a much better career. (Washington also traded Bailey and a second-round pick to the Broncos for Clinton Portis, which ended up being a brutal mistake.)
The trade that created a dynasty, of course, was the Herschel Walker deal, with the Vikings sending what eventually amounted to four players, three first-round picks and three second-round picks. Walker posted pedestrian numbers in 2½ seasons with Minnesota. The Cowboys used the picks to land multiple building blocks for their eventual Super Bowl winner, including Hall of Fame back Emmitt Smith and future No. 1 overall pick Russell Maryland.
If Wilson continues to struggle, when can the Broncos move on?
When a team trades two first-round picks for a player, an extension usually follows. Sure enough, the Broncos inked Wilson to a five-year, $242.5 million extension on Sept. 1. Wilson had two years and $51 million left on his existing contract, so the Broncos have him on the books for about $295 million over the next seven seasons.
In practice, Wilson is owed $104 million through the 2023, 2024 and 2025 seasons, most of which is guaranteed either now or by the end of 2024. There’s not really any way for the Broncos to get out of that money if he wants to play football. Even in a league in which teams are willing to absorb more dead money than ever before, the first time they could really consider cutting Wilson would be 2025, when they could spread the $49.6 million due over two years for cap purposes. In that scenario, they would still be paying him for his guaranteed $37 million salary in 2025, but he would be playing elsewhere.
If the Broncos just wanted to dump Wilson off their books to the highest bidder next spring, it would be theoretically possible, if not particularly likely. Wilson has a $20 million option bonus due in March, so if they dealt him before then, they would owe only $40 million in dead money. While $40 million is a staggering amount of dead money — and the Broncos would have paid $57 million for one terrible season of football — that would be one way to get out of three more years of guarantees if they want nothing more than to be done with their investment.
The team acquiring Wilson would absorb those $104 million in guarantees, so it would take a front office desperate for a quarterback who believes it can fix the nine-time Pro Bowler. I would say that seems unlikely, but we just finished an offseason in which Carson Wentz returned serious draft capital for a team that was basically shopping him in the free stuff section on Craigslist, so it would be foolish to rule anything out. There are teams that likely would deal a seventh-round pick to absorb the Wilson contract, although I’m not sure Denver would be willing to take such a humiliating selldown on its investment.
Can Wilson turn things around?
History tells us it’s possible, although it’s no guarantee. I like using Pro Football Reference‘s index statistics for analyses like these, since they adjust for era and normalize statistics where a league-average performance, regardless of the year, is 100. Wilson posted a 115 era-adjusted passer rating (rating+) in 2021 and was at an 89 mark through Week 11 this season. That’s a 26-point swing. Have quarterbacks in their 30s been able to come back from that sort of single-season falloff in the past?
There have been instances where it signaled the beginning of a very sudden end. Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer, Jake Plummer, Brad Johnson and Matt Schaub suffered similar declines and either never played at their prior level or never started regularly again. Troy Aikman fell off similarly in his final season and then retired after the year, although chronic back pain and concussions also contributed to his decision.
And yet, at the same time, there are a similar number of players who rounded back into form. One recent example is Philip Rivers, who looked like he might be done in his final season with the Chargers in 2019, only to run off a Pro Bowl-caliber season the following year with the Colts before retiring. Brett Favre came back from similar declines twice after frustrating seasons with the Packers in 2005 and the Jets in 2008, winning MVP votes in 2007 and 2009. Eli Manning looked to be on the way out in 2013 but still had four more seasons near or above league average before falling off entirely. Steve McNair declined notably amid injuries in 2004 and was above average again in 2005 and 2006.
If Wilson were about to turn 38, it might be a different story. As he turns 34 on Tuesday, and given that he was a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback as recently as last December, there’s enough in the tank for the Broncos to realize some return on their trade. They just can’t go into 2023 with the same plan they had this season.
What needs to change for Denver?
Writing 2022 off as a lost season, here’s what the Broncos need to do to get the most out of Wilson in 2023 and beyond.
1. Move on from Hackett. While he is generally regarded around the league as a nice guy — and coaches have survived worse starts to their head-coaching careers — it’s difficult to find any evidence that he has been suited for this opportunity. His early-season game management blunders cost the Broncos at least one win, and while he has been thoughtful about bringing in help and ceding responsibility to try to create a better atmosphere, I’m not sure there’s much he can hang his hat on after a woeful campaign. A reunion with Rodgers — either in Green Bay or elsewhere — would make sense for both parties.
2. Keep Ejiro Evero. The best thing Hackett has done in his tenure is hire Evero to be his defensive coordinator. The Broncos rank fourth in the league in defensive EPA per play allowed. Evero has built one of the league’s stoutest defenses while missing key contributors Justin Simmons and Randy Gregory for chunks of time. The much-vaunted pass rush duo of Gregory and Chubb combined to play just 101 snaps together, as Gregory went down injured before Chubb was traded to the Dolphins.
Evero will attract head-coaching consideration this offseason, and the Broncos should give serious thought to making him their own head coach this spring. Promoting Evero would limit who they can talk to for their offensive coordinator gig, since they wouldn’t be able to offer a promotion to offensive coordinators around the league. If they hire an offensive coordinator to be their head coach and lose Evero in the process, though, they will take a step forward and backward at the same time.
3. Hire a coach or coordinator with a track record of molding offenses to unique quarterbacks. After going for a first-time head coach in Hackett, I have to imagine Denver would pursue a more experienced option to take over the offense. I’m sure it is one of the many teams that would be interested in coaxing Sean Payton out of retirement, but even after getting a first-round pick back in the Chubb deal, I don’t know that it has the sort of draft capital the Saints will want for their former coach.
A more realistic option would be Frank Reich, who had built a series of solid offenses around different passers before things fell apart in Indianapolis this season. Reich also is a free agent, so the Broncos could hire him as their offensive coordinator if Reich’s interested in that role. Maybe Kubiak is that guy if the Broncos look better over the second half of the season and think he can rebuild the offense over the offseason.
Whoever ends up running the offense for Denver needs to construct an offense around Wilson and his skill set. The Broncos need to boot Wilson out more often. They need to use more play-action. They need to create more easy answers for Wilson, and given his unique stature and style, those answers might be different than they would be for other quarterbacks. (I’d trust Wilson more with throws to the flat than quick throws over the middle of the field, as an example.) In what might be a painful admission for a certain cooking-based movement, he also needs more of a running game than what he has had.
4. Get healthy. Easy, right? The Broncos would look different with Williams, Jeudy, Patrick, Dulcich, Bolles and Cushenberry all on the field at the same time, something which didn’t happen for a single snap this season. They likely will address right tackle again this offseason and should bring in another back to rotate alongside Williams and Boone, but most of their offensive core is already present. Getting them on the field should improve matters.
There’s no way to sugarcoat what we’ve seen in 2022. Wilson has been bad. The Broncos have been awful. It’s not a fluke or bad luck, and it’s telling that the best piece of evidence suggesting Wilson might turn things around is a game against the Raiders where the offense scored 16 points. There’s no secret formula or hidden stat suggesting they are about to fix this overnight.
We also have a decade of play suggesting Wilson is a top-10 quarterback and one season suggesting he’s a fabulously compensated Mitch Trubisky impersonator. While that one year is the most meaningful and recent data point, it’s not the only one. I’m still willing to hold out some hope that Wilson turns things around and looks more like the guy the Broncos thought they were acquiring in March. I’m just not sure that transformation is going to happen before this season is over.