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Sean Payton Opens Up on Why Broncos Benched Russell Wilson

The Russell Wilson era in Denver is over.
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The Denver Broncos have benched quarterback Russell Wilson. Just an hour or so after the blockbuster report hit the wire, Broncos head coach Sean Payton held court after Wednesday's practice to confirm the news that Jarrett Stidham will start this week vs. the Los Angeles Chargers, and to explain his rationale for the decision. 

"Most of you know we've made a change at quarterback," Payton said. "I understand all the speculation and everything that surrounds a move like that, and I can tell you, look, we're desperately trying to win. Sure, in our game today, there are economics and all those other things, but the number one push behind all of this—and it's a decision I'm making—is to get a spark offensively. Obviously, it's difficult, and all of us feel like, 'Man, we didn't do well enough.'"

The Broncos' offense has had a few good stretches of relative efficiency this season, but it's mostly been a disjointed unit. That's atypical of a Payton-coached offense. 

Wilson has improved in several key areas this season, but he's still missing reads, holding onto the ball too long, and turning it over. With two very important games left to go, Payton, who understand the symbolism of benching Wilson, is erring on the side of sparking his offense, even if it takes an extreme personnel move. 

"One of the things we saw when we saw Stidham... he's a guy that I'm anxious to see play," Payton said. "If I didn't feel like he gave us the chance to win, we wouldn't be making that move."

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Payton confirmed that he met with Wilson on Wednesday morning to break the news of his demotion and the nine-time Pro Bowler handled it graciously despite his disappointment.

"I spent time with Russ this morning and he's been a pro and obviously disappointed," Payton said. "All the work that goes in to doing what he does—or doing what they do at that position—is difficult. It's difficult and challenging and there's a part of—certainly myself as a head coach—man, I needed to be better."

Indeed, much like Payton's remarks about Denver's 2022 coaching staff and Wilson's failure to launch last year, everyone's fingerprints are on the Broncos' offensive issues this season. That includes Payton and first-time QBs coach Davis Webb. 

When it comes to the financial considerations and motivations of the Broncos benching Wilson, Payton acknowledges that the realities of the "economics" are part of the NFL, but he claimed he's yet to sit down and discuss it with CEO Greg Penner and GM George Paton. 

"In regards to the future, we haven't had a sitdown," Payton said. "I'm sure we will. Greg and I and George, we speak frequently, but this is about now. It's about trying to get our eighth win, and we'll go from there." 

Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton talks with quarterback Russell Wilson (3) before the game against the New England Patriots at Empower Field at Mile High.

If Wilson were to get significantly hurt in one of these two last games, it would cost the Broncos more than they're already on the hook for, guaranteeing his $37 million salary. March 21, 2024 — the fifth day of the new league year — is the big decision point for the Broncos relative to Wilson. 

The Broncos are already staring down the barrel of what would be a record amount of dead money on the salary cap over the next couple of years with Wilson. If the Broncos release him as a post-June 1 cut, Wilson would carry a $35.4M dead-cap hit in 2024 alone, which would be followed by $18.4M in 2025 and 2026, and $8.4M in 2027. If a pre-June 1 cut, we're talking about almost $135M in dead money over 2024 and 2025 alone. 

Payton wanted to emphasize that this decision is more about making the most of these final two games, with the Broncos technically still alive for the playoffs (though only barely). But the reality of his 2024 contract being guaranteed against injury makes the timing conspicuous, especially after the Broncos shot themselves in the foot by losing to New England last week. It's obviously no coincidence the team is biting this bullet now. 

"I get that but then why not last week or two weeks ago, or three weeks ago, or four weeks ago? I understand the question and... I said I understand the economics here. But again, if I've got the decision, and I said to you, 'I'm only interested in winning', then... We're trying to win every game we're playing and that's the case this weekend."

Then we learned via Bleacher Report's Jordan Schultz that the Broncos threatened to bench Wilson if he wasn't willing to remove his injury guarantees. After a very involved negotiation, no deal was made on Wilson restructuring the terms of his contract. Schultz reports that this move has "been in the works for weeks," beginning as a topic between Wilson and the team after the Broncos' Week 8 win over Kansas City. 

So, yes, while the financial liability was a motivator, it wouldn't be an issue at all if the Broncos' offense had been executing at an acceptable level, relative to Payton's expectations. Payton acknowledged the offense's limitations under Wilson multiple times, but didn't want to dive into all of the QB's shortcomings out of respect for the player. 

"Rather than get into the specifics, because I think that would be unfair today, it's more about what we weren't doing effectively enough offensively," Payton said. "When we were getting two or three turnovers, that's one thing, but ultimately, our job is to get the ball in the end zone and we've got to be more efficient—all of us." 

As for the criticism of Payton making Wilson the scapegoat for all of Denver's offensive problems, the head coach made it clear how a quarterback change is the shortest path to igniting that spark because he can't exactly replace the entire offense. 

"Well, I get that," Payton said of Wilson being a scapegoat. "And yet, I can't replace the entire offensive line. I can't bring in five new receivers, and if it continues for over period of time, then there'll be another guy talking to you as well. This is something that—these are difficult decisions, and obviously, there's more attention when it's the quarterback who's under contract, but different than maybe earlier decisions we've made with maybe last year's prior starters."

At the end of the day, Payton wants to win. And since arriving in Denver at the enormous cost of two first and second-round draft picks, plus more draft capital and three players, Wilson has won just 12 games. 

That's not good enough. And it's definitely not commensurate with a $245M quarterback contract. 

"I can just assure you one thing and honestly—I've said this to Greg and George a number of times—I'm just interested in winning and it doesn't matter how," Payton said. "When you do this for this long a period of time, it's all you're interested in because there's nothing like it. And then, the other side of it, there's nothing like that either, so that's kind of what it is."

Payton knows that he only has a relatively brief window to make his hay as head coach. Self-preservation is part of his motivation for benching Wilson, and he understands that making such a bold move is controversial and risky. If it doesn't work out, the blow-back on Payton could cost him his job, eventually. 

"There's always risk," Payton said, "but I think as a head coach, you've got to make some tough decisions. And they're not always going to be right. They just aren't. So you trust your instincts and you go by what you feel and those have been good for me and served me well over the years." 

Last year under Nathaniel Hackett, Wilson threw just 16 touchdown passes to 11 interceptions. Under Payton, Wilson has a 26-to-8 TD-to-INT ratio, which, on the surface, is modestly impressive considering his 2022 resume — and it's the most passing scores by a Broncos QB since Peyton Manning's 39 in 2014. 

But it belies the painful lack of passing yards, which has held the Broncos back offensively. Wilson surpassed 3,000 yards on Saturday night (3,070) in what was his 15th game of the season. That averages out to 204.6 passing yards per game, and in today's NFL, it's not enough.

Even though Payton has been a net positive for Wilson, on some level, the veteran coach can't help but feel partly responsible for the QB's inability to lift off. Payton may not be the triggerman out there, making the reads and decisions, and all the throws, but it's his purview, and ultimately, the buck stops with him. 

This decision, if it lasts, will be very costly, even if the Broncos find a true quarterback answer in 2024 via the NFL draft, free agency, or, by some miracle, Stidham. Therein lies the risk, but also the possibility of an enormous gain for Payton and the franchise. 

"When it's the quarterback, everyone feels a bit responsible and certain things need to get cleaned up," Payton said. "Yeah, when you look at that tape, there's a number of things. I said to the team afterwards, 'There's seven or eight specific plays. Any one of those seven or eight are different that the result might be different.' But we're not there yet. They're trying. We're practicing but the details, all of that stuff matters." 

Somehow, some way, Wilson has failed to master Payton's details, and the coach believes it's held the Broncos back. Wilson will be the No. 2 quarterback on Sunday as Stidham gets his big opportunity to audition for the starting job in 2024 and beyond. 

For now, though, if you're feeling like the Wilson benching marks the end of an era, it's because it does. The Wilson trade ends with a whimper and will go down as one of the most lopsided transactions in NFL history. 

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