Sean Payton Gives Brutal Answer to 'Difficult' Russell Wilson Question

Sean Payton spared no one's feelings when he was asked this question about Russell Wilson.
Oct 1, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA;  Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton talks with quarterback
Oct 1, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton talks with quarterback / Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports
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Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton is an interesting case study when it comes to communication. On one hand, he can spin with the best of them and talk for minutes in response to a given question without saying or revealing a dang thing, while on the other, he can be exceedingly curt and brutally honest.

You never know what you're going to get from Payton, which is why Bob Pompeani may have been taken aback by the coach's terse reply to whether it was "difficlut" to release quarterback Russell Wilson considering the $85 million in dead-cap charges the Broncos would incur out of the gates.

"No," Payton said from the annual NFL owners meetings in Orlando, FL.

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In all honesty, even if it wasn't a "difficult" decision per se, it was a complex one for Payton and his front-office counterpart in Denver, George Paton. After all, eating $85M in dead-cap charges requires some intense pre-planning and roster reshuffling, and it was always going to trigger a domino effect.

The next domino to fall after Wilson's release was Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons, whom the Broncos sent packing to save roughly $14.5M against the cap and begin chipping away at the team's (at the time) salary-cap overages. By making the decision to part ways with Wilson, the Broncos weren't just releasing the quarterback but also one of the team's most important defenders.

Combined with the Jerry Jeudy trade ($13-plus million in savings) and several contract restructures with top veterans, including right tackle Mike McGlinchey, left guard Ben Powers, and defensive end Zach Allen, the Broncos were able to get under the salary cap by the deadline earlier this month. This afforded Denver the cap flexibility to go bargain shopping in free agency, signing safety Brandon Jones to a relatively team-friendly deal and starting-caliber defensive tackle Malcolm Roach.

The Broncos were also able to re-sign safety P.J. Locke, which was crucial after Simmons was let go, and depth linebacker Justin Strnad, amid a few other lower-level transactions. But there's no question that the Wilson release, even if the call itself wasn't "difficult," was complicated and came with a cascade of ensuing collateral decision points, including team leader and inside linebacker Josey Jewell being allowed to depart and sign with the Carolina Panthers in free agency.

If Payton's bold decision to bench Wilson with two games wasn't enough to paint the picture, his response to Denver's jettison of a nine-time Pro Bowler and possible future Hall-of-Famer is additional evidence that the head coach/quarterback marriage was doomed from the drop. We always knew it was never going to look like the Payton/Drew Brees partnership that set NFL records on the regular in New Orleans and won a World Championship, but Wilson did take steps forward in his one-and-only year under the former Super Bowl-winning head coach.

Wilson's passing yardage barely eclipsed 3,000 yards, but he did toss 26 touchdowns to just eight interceptions — a massive improvement over his 15-to-11 TD-to-INT ratio from the year prior. However, Payton's Wilson-led offense was run heavy, very inconsistent, and utterly disjointed, with the quarterback taking a whopping 50 sacks in 2023.

Brees saw Payton's frustrations coming from a mile away, although he resisted speaking to it publicly until long after the toothpaste was out of the tube.

"It kind of played out the way I thought it would, honestly," Brees told NBC Sports back at Super Bowl LVIII. "I think Russell has a skill set and I think Russell is still going to be able to go and have a great rest of his career elsewhere. As I watched them play this year, it didn’t feel like the timing, the rhythm, the tempo that I’m used to seeing in a Sean Payton offense. And I know those are the hallmarks of the offense. That’s the standard that’s been set."

You could say that again, Drew.

Payton now gets to pursue a quarterback in his image, even if it means that Denver is starting over at the position. Holding the No. 12 overall pick in the 2024 NFL draft, the Broncos are expected to take a signal-caller and have been linked to multiple trade-up rumors since the offseason began.

Stay tuned.

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Chad Jensen


Chad Jensen is the Founder of Mile High Huddle and creator of the wildly popular Mile High Huddle Podcast. Chad has been on the Denver Broncos beat since 2012 and is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.