USA TODAY Predicts Sean Payton Will 'Scapegoat' Broncos Rookie QB Bo Nix

Let's examine how an NFL writer could formulate such a bad take on the Denver Broncos.
Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton and rookie quarterback Bo Nix.
Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton and rookie quarterback Bo Nix. / Ben Swanson/Denver Broncos
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The odds are that rookie first-rounder Bo Nix will be the Denver Broncos' starting quarterback in 2024. Literally.

Most U.S. oddsmakers are predicting that Nix ends up as Sean Payton's QB1 this year, and it's easy to see why. Not only was he hand-picked in the first round by Payton, but the veterans Nix is competing with for the job aren't exactly a who's-who of proven NFL starters. Even Broncos insiders are reporting that Nix is the "frontrunner" to be named the starter.

On top of Nix's draft pedigree and the Broncos' lackluster veterans in the QB room, the first-round pick has looked as advertised throughout the team's offseason training program. Payton has complemented Jarrett Stidham and Zach Wilson at times, too, but Nix has received nothing but praise from the head coach, and the rookie has passed the eye test in every practice the media has observed with him at the helm of the first-team offense, with the exception of this past Tuesday.

That was Wilson's day with the ones. It didn't go well.

Nix is the Broncos' odds-on starting quarterback, and yet, USA Today's Robert Zeglinski turned in a rather dour prediction for the former Oregon star this season, as well as his head coach.

Let’s not kid ourselves about what this means. If Nix plays poorly and the Broncos are getting run off the field (which feels likely on both counts), then a desperate Payton will probably waste no time scapegoating his young signal-caller in the interest of saving his job.

Robert Zeglinski

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In his article, Zeglinski also writes that "a year after finishing with a middling 8-9 record," Payton could be on the hotseat in Denver. Right.

Zeglinski's premise goes something like this: Payton is headed for the hotseat, and head coaches in such a situation search for a scapegoat in the interest of self-preservation, which means that Nix is "most likely" to be the first QB the Broncos will "throw under the bus."

Ugh.

A coach potentially on the hot seat with a young quarterback he’s supposed to develop is arguably the worst possible combination in the NFL. That’s because not only is the said coach no longer concerned with the franchise’s future, but he’s also liable to shatter the confidence of a player who is ideally supposed to elevate his team. It’s the worst of both worlds.

Zeglinski

Zeglinski is yet another writer from the national perspective who simply doesn't know what he's talking about. Yes, Payton's season ended with a controversial note in the wake of his decision to bench Russell Wilson with two games left to go, but to say he moved the needle for Denver in Year 1 is an understatement.

Combined with Denver's very slow 1-5 start to the 2023 season, Wilson's controversial benching gave national writers the flawed perception that Payton's debut season was a colossal failure. That couldn't be further from the truth.

Let's not forget that Payton improved on the Broncos' 2022 record by three wins in Year 1. And he achieved that in spite of the team's historically bad start to the season defensively. The jury is still out on whether Payton erred in hiring Vance Joseph as defensive coordinator, but as historically poor as his unit's start to the 2023 season was, it was also one of the reasons why the Broncos became playoff-relevant in November.

Joseph's defense would go on a takeaway romp heretofore unseen in the past quarter-century of the NFL amid the Broncos' five-game winning streak. Combined with the defense's uncanny knack for taking the ball away, Payton managed to extract quality play from Wilson, especially in the clutch, over that month-and-a-half span of the Broncos winning six of seven games.

But when the house finally withdrew its money from Joseph, and the Broncos' defense had to sink or swim based on its own bankroll, the chickens came home to roost. Ideally, that's when a true franchise quarterback would step up and carry his team over such obstacles down the stretch.

Payton stayed true to his promise to ownership and leaned on Wilson, but the veteran quarterback failed to shoulder the load. With the Broncos very much in control of their playoff destiny, Wilson would go on to turn in a pair of stinker performances in back-to-back weeks in must-win December games vs. the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots. That's when Payton pulled the plug on the Wilson era in Denver.

It wasn't Payton's fault that the Broncos made a bad trade to acquire Wilson, getting fleeced by the Seattle Seahawks to the tune of multiple first and second-round draft picks, nor was the quarter-billion-dollar extension GM George Paton gave the veteran in August of 2022, nearly a year-and-a-half prior.

When he was hired by the Walton/Penner group to be the new head coach in January of 2023, Payton committed to giving it the 'ol college try with Wilson, hoping to make the most of a less-than-ideal coach/quarterback fit. Under Payton, Wilson played much better than he did the year prior, passing for 26 touchdowns to just eight interceptions before his benching, but he simply wasn't the right fit.

The Broncos head coach had the courage to rip off the Wilson band-aid in the face of some serious PR blowback, and doubled down on it by showing the wisdom to invest the No. 12 overall pick Nix.

As Zeglinski writes, the "disastrous" Wilson trade (and contract) robbed the Broncos of precious roster assets, and forced the team to make further tough personnel decisions. That would include releasing safety Justin Simmons. But that's what a rebuilding team has to do, especially when saddled with a punitive albatross of a contract like Wilson's, which is costing the Broncos an NFL-record $85 million in dead-money charges to the salary cap over the next two years.

This isn't to absolve Payton of responsibility for the product the Broncos put on the field. But make no mistake; Payton is more of an expert janitor called in to clean up a mess than he is the culprit who kicked over the carton of milk.

Barring an utter display of incompetency, Payton has no fear of his seat getting hot in 2024. And let's face it; Payton may not be a perfect human being or a flawless head coach, but he is competent. I'd say extremely competent. The man knows what's he's doing, and that's only doubly true when it comes to quarterbacks.

The Walton/Penner ownership group has given Payton final say over personnel and has allowed him to blaze a new trail for the team in hopes of building past the Wilson snafu. Armed with a quarterback lynchpin in his image, Payton's Broncos are now embarking on Year 1 of an old-fashioned rebuild, albeit, a rebuild on the fly.

Payton is in Denver for the long haul. The Nix pick only gave him more rope with ownership. Zeglinski misses the mark widely on his outlook for both Payton and Nix. And that's okay.

Let 'em sleep.

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Chad Jensen

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.