It’s easy to say the Denver Broncos made a mistake acquiring and extending Russell Wilson. The harder part is to figure out what’s next.
On Friday morning, less than 12 hours after Russell Wilson didn’t see a wide-open K.J. Hamler before throwing a game-ending incompletion into traffic, I texted a front office executive.
The question was simple: if you were Denver Broncos general manager George Paton, what would you do in terms of Wilson after last night?
My source didn’t respond with words.
He sent the Homer Simpson GIF of the famous cartoon character retreating into a bush to hide.
It was the perfect way to describe what everyone was feeling for the Broncos after falling to the lousy Indianapolis Colts, 12-9, in overtime. Wilson was particularly horrific, throwing two impossible bad interceptions including one with 2:13 remaining, lading 9-6, on 3rd and 4 from the Indianapolis 13-yard line.
Literally any result from the play would have been fine save for a turnover. Wilson threw the ball directly at former Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore.
But rehashing Wilson’s failures and the Broncos’ current plight is missing the point.
The real question is what now for Denver?
Wilson was largely seen as a massive upgrade for a Denver team that, with an upgrade at the league’s paramount position, would win. Through five games, Wilson and the Broncos have stunk, sitting 2-3 through the easy portion of their schedule.
When Denver traded two first- and second-round picks, a 2022 fifth-round choice, quarterback Drew Lock, defensive tackle Shelby Harris and tight end Noah Fant for Wilson, he had two years left on his contract. In August, Paton signed Wilson to a five-year, $245 million extension that pays him through his age-40 season in 2028.
Realistically, Denver is tied to Wilson through the ’25 campaign, when it can cut him and eat $48.4 million of dead money over the following three years, including $44 million in ’26 and ’27.
There’s no way out. The Broncos aren’t releasing Wilson, as the dead cap hits would destroy the franchise. Nobody is trading for a quarterback playing this poorly, with a bloated contract covering his twilight years. Denver’s only hope is Wilson rediscovers his previous form.
Let’s be really clear. If Wilson doesn’t significantly improve this season, head coach Nathaniel Hackett will be the first one-and-done in Broncos history. The belief from some is Hackett’s scheme is vanilla and limits Wilson by eschewing bootlegs and rollouts for quick, immobile throws. If the offense remains in shambles, Hackett is the easiest person to swap out.
As for Paton, he’s probably safe for another year. But if Wilson continues to look more past than present for another year, the general manager should surf Zillow.
Neither Paton nor Hackett was hired by new owner Rob Walton, the Walmart heir who took over team control this spring. He has no allegiances here, and watching paying customers file out of his building on national television before overtime began is a damning, embarrassing moment.
Owners can deal with angry fans for a short while, hoping to turn things around. They can’t deal with apathetic ones who are at risk of no longer handing over their hard-earned dollars.
Of course, there’s a chance this column is premature.
Maybe Wilson gets going. Maybe the Broncos end up being thrilled with this deal. But frankly, that feels incredibly unlikely. Wilson is 33 years old and doesn’t move the way he once does, both in the pocket and downfield. His accuracy has waned, as evidenced by his career-low 59.4 completion percentage. The arm still appears live, but the decision-making has been safe and scattershot.
For the Broncos’ sake, they better hope Wilson is simply off to a slow start.
Because if this is the beginning of a rapid descent, that bush won’t have enough room for everyone in Denver trying to hide.
Top 10 rookies through the first five weeks
1. Devin Lloyd, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars – 49 tackles, 2 INTs, 6 passes defensed
2. Chris Olave, WR, New Orleans Saints – 25 receptions, 389 yards, 2 TD
3. Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Detroit Lions – 3 sacks
4. Breece Hall, RB, New York Jets – 488 total yards, 2 TD
5. Dameon Pierce, RB, Houston Texans – 412 rushing yards, 3 TDs
6. Tyler Linderbaum, C, Baltimore Ravens – 0 sacks allowed
7. Sauce Gardner, CB, New York Jets – 11 passes defensed
8. Garrett Wilson, WR, New York Jets – 23 receptions, 282 yards, 2 TDs
9. Drake London, WR, Atlanta Falcons – 22 receptions, 266 yards, 2 TDs
10. Romeo Doubs, WR, Green Bay Packers – 22 receptions, 213 yards, 2 TDs
“Frankly, I don’t like all this conversation about losing next week. I’m a firm believer in the power of words and manifestation. And we’ve got to check ourselves on that, because talking about that is not winning football. There was conversation about it in the locker room, and I don’t like it. Ja’s my guy, but we don’t need to be talking like that.”
– Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on locker room talk from his teammates after losing 27-20 to the New York Giants in London
Rodgers isn’t wrong, but Green Bay’s issues are much deeper than words and manifestations. The Packers don’t have quality talent on the outside. This is resulting in a stymied offense that is yet to eclipse 30 points. Defensively, Green Bay has seven first-round picks invested in the unit, and it’s been inconsistent at best despite playing four lousy offenses in five games.
At 3-2 and with the Jets and Washington Commanders up next, the Packers have no reason to panic. But they look far from the part of a Super Bowl contender.
The Associated Press began handing out the MVP award in 1957.
The only non-quarterback to win in consecutive years was Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, earning the trophy its first two years in existence.
Info learned this week
1. John Harbaugh eschewed the analytics and got the Ravens a win
Last week, John Harbaugh was questioned relentlessly. This week, vindication.
Against the Buffalo Bills in Week 4, the Ravens had a chance to take a three-point lead with four minutes left from the Buffalo 2-yard line. Harbaugh let his offense go for a touchdown, and Lamar Jackson threw an interception.
On Sunday night against the Cincinnati Bengals, Harbaugh once again faced a critical call. Fourth and 1 at Cincinnati 3-yard line, leading 13-10, with 9:46 remaining in regulation. The Ravens kicked, knowing even if the Bengals drove for a go-ahead touchdown, Baltimore had Justin Tucker.
As it worked out, Cincinnati got that touchdown, and Tucker erased it all with a game-winning 43-yard field goal as time expired.
While analytics would strongly point to foregoing the automatic three points in hopes of making the game a two-possession affair, Harbaugh relied on what the models don’t account for. He knows the Ravens have the best kicker in NFL history.
Ultimately, the Ravens had three timeouts and understood that barring an absurd drive, they’d get the ball back in decent shape, even if trailing. It was the right decision, and one which led to Baltimore winning a key game over Cincinnati to take sole possession of first place in the AFC North.
2. Rams are going to be Hollywood flop with this line
Matthew Stafford has no chance. Therefore, neither do the Los Angeles Rams.
Stafford was once again harassed and pummeled all night in a loss, this time by a 22-10 score to the Dallas Cowboys at SoFi Stadium. The Rams are 2-3, largely because receiver Cooper Kupp is the team’s only threat. But the biggest issue is the five men in front of Stafford, who give up a weekly beating.
Stafford entered the afternoon having been sacked 16 times, with both the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills dropping him seven times. Dallas registered five more sacks, led by Micah Parsons getting home twice.
Good coaching and quarterbacking can mask most flaws, but not a bad line. There’s no escaping it for a prolonged period, especially against teams who can win with four rushers. Dallas is such a team, and it teed off on Stafford while blanketing a group of lackluster weapons with seven.
Stafford threw for 308 yards on 7.3 yards per attempt, but take out two big plays of 75 and 54 yards, and Stafford suddenly sees his YPA drop to 3.2. A few big plays are great, but they don’t make for a sustained attack.
Los Angeles gets the Carolina Panthers next week before a much-needed bye. After that, the Niners and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
If the Rams don’t fix this front, they’ll be 3-5 and Stafford will be black and blue.
3. The Chargers have a coaching problem despite win
Most fourth-down decisions are debatable. The Los Angeles Chargers gave us one that isn’t.
While analytics models defend Chargers head coach Brandon Staley, nothing about the day’s most controversial call made sense.
Leading 30-28 over the Cleveland Browns with 1:13 remaining, Los Angeles faced 4th and 2 at its own 45-yard line. Instead of punting to a Browns team with Jacoby Brissett under center and no remaining timeouts, Staley inexplicably called a pass, which fell incomplete.
Because the Browns are the Browns, they gained 10 yards on the drive’s second play before running for no gain, throwing two incompletions and then missing a 54-yard field goal to lose the game. Los Angeles escaped defeat, but Staley shouldn’t escape criticism.
Last year, Staley famously went on 4th and 2 at his own 18-yard line against the Las Vegas Raiders. That call failed, led to three easy points, and the Raiders beat the Chargers in their Week 18 de facto playoff game … in overtime.
Additionally, Staley came to the Chargers as a defensive coach. They entered the day allowing a league-worst 6.1 YPC to running backs. Against Cleveland, Los Angeles allowed 213 rushing yards including 181 yards to the backs, on 6.75 YPC. This despite spending an entire offseason loading up on defense.
The Chargers may have won, but if Staley doesn’t massively improve, it matters little.
4. Dolphins’ depth is being tested, but timing could be optimal
This is a tough moment for the Miami Dolphins.
After beginning 3-0 including a win over the Bills, Miami is now 3-2 and on its rookie, third-string quarterback in Skylar Thompson. And while Thompson was fun in the preseason, he looked like an undrafted rookie against the New York Jets, losing 40-17 while throwing for 5.0 yards per attempt with an interception.
Right now, the Dolphins may need Thompson moving forward. Both Teddy Bridgewater and Tua Tagovailoa are dealing with concussions. It’s unclear who will be under center against the Minnesota Vikings, but Thompson could be on deck once more.
However, there’s good news for Miami. While Minnesota is a tough test, the following four games are against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans. Even with limited quarterback play — if that’s the case — the Dolphins can survive by handling inferior opponents.
Of course, Miami was hammered by the Jets, so there’s ample work to do.
5. For Raiders, a season-altering MNF showdown lay ahead
The Raiders can’t afford to lose on Monday night. Problem is, they’re facing a mammoth task.
The 1-3 Raiders are visiting the Kansas City Chiefs, a team they’re 1-7 against in the Patrick Mahomes era. Mahomes has torched the Raiders, with 318 passing yards and 37.4 points per game. Meanwhile, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce has averaged 101 receiving yards in that span. It’s been ugly, ugly football for Las Vegas in recent years against Kansas City.
For the Raiders, the key is finding a way to utilize their own weapons — specifically newcomer Davante Adams — to bite back. Las Vegas will likely need to score plenty, create a few takeaways and win in situational football. It starts with Adams, continues with new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and perhaps finishes with the combination of Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones coming off the edge.
It’ll be no easy feat for the Raiders, but falling to 1-4 and three games back of Kansas City would put them in a divisional hole almost impossible to escape from.
Thirteen Seconds. You’ll hear that plenty this week.
Come Sunday, the Chiefs will once more host at Arrowhead Stadium, welcoming in the Buffalo Bills. If Kansas City holds serve on Monday night, both teams will be 4-1 with a massive tiebreaker at stake. Whoever loses will need to outplay the other by two games over the final 11 weeks. Certainly possible, but not preferable.
For Buffalo, this week is about a rallying cry of retribution. The Chiefs have finished off the Bills each of the past two postseasons, last year in heartbreaking fashion. Buffalo needs to get over the Kansas City hump and although a regular-season win won’t officially do that — see 2021 — it’ll put the Bills in position to finally earn home-field advantage.
For the Chiefs, this is an opportunity. Kansas City is at home and potentially getting first-round cornerback Trent McDuffie back off IR from a hamstring injury. The Chiefs will have a raucous crowd and with a victory, would stamp themselves as the clear AFC favorite with the inside track towards making the conference once more go through the heartland.
Chiefs-Bills. It’s Christmas in October.
Inside the league
Forget mock drafts in October, but don’t forget about the actual draft.
Next year, the rookie quarterback class is supposed to be phenomenal, led by Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Alabama’s Bryce Young. Talking to executives around the league, there could be six or even seven quarterbacks taken in the first 32 picks, after seeing only Kenny Pickett come off the board in the first round last April, selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
However, unlike last year where the need for quarterbacks in the draft was mitigated by a wild offseason, 2023 promises a feeding frenzy of activity.
Although we’re only through five weeks, it seems apparent the Indianapolis Colts, Panthers, Texans and Commanders are in dire need of a long-term answer. Then there’s the Bears, Tennessee Titans and Atlanta Falcons, with young quarterbacks on their roster but also significant questions at the position. In Seattle, the Seahawks have Geno Smith thriving but do they see him as the future?
If you’re not a fan of math, let me help you. That’s eight teams.
And unlike last winter, who is the desirable, available option? Matt Ryan looks cooked. Russell Wilson is signed for seven years. Of the aforementioned teams, look at their starters. Nobody is excited about any of them save for perhaps Ryan Tannehill as a bridge, should Tennessee move on.
It’s early to be talking 2023 NFL Draft and the quarterback crop, but something to put a pin in.
BetSided’s best bet
Colts ML (-115) vs. Jaguars
Some of you may have already sworn off betting on the Colts for the remainder of the season, and I honestly can’t blame you. If not for two AFC West teams in the Kansas City Chiefs and Broncos all but gifting their Week 3 and 5 matchups, the Colts could be looking at 0-4-1 in the face, rather than a very fortunate 2-2-1.
But as I’ve preached throughout the early portion of the season, the Colts under Frank Reich always seem to stink up the joint early, and then pick it up Week 6 and beyond.
Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis points out that after Week 6, Reich’s teams have gone 29-16 over his four years in Indianapolis. Week 1-5, they’re now 10-14-1 through the start of the year.
With a long week to exact revenge from their Week 2 blowout loss, the Colts should look much more competent at home this time around, especially with Jonathan Taylor and Shaquille Leonard back healthy.
While the moneyline price is reasonable, I’ll take them straight up, but I’d bet this line up to -2.5
— Ben Heisler
In 1948, the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Cardinals played an NFL title game for the ages.
The Cardinals entered as favorites with an 11-1 record, taking on a 9-2-1 Eagles squad led by future Hall of Fame running back Steve Van Buren.
However, Philadelphia’s Shibe Park ended up under eight inches of snow on gameday, and after the grounds were cleared by workers and players, Philadelphia won its first NFL championship, winning 7-0 on a fourth-quarter touchdown from Van Buren.
The Eagles went on to claim the ’49 title as well, while the Cardinals didn’t appear in the postseason again until 1974.
The NFL doesn’t have parity, it has mediocrity. At best.
Through five weeks — save MNF — how many teams do you truly trust to make the playoffs and win a few games? My full list: Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Buffalo and Kansas City. That’s it.
There are cases for the 49ers, Bengals and Ravens, but each has clear, potentially fatal flaws. Outside of them, who’s getting shafted? The Chargers and Vikings are both fun, but both have serious coaching and defensive issues. The Dolphins have weapons but injuries abound and a lousy defense. The AFC South? Yikes.
None of this is because the league is so deep, and so spread evenly that nobody can get rolling. It’s a combination of bad coaching, worse tackling and rosters which lack true difference-makers at key positions.
Of course, teams will rise and fall as the year progresses. It’s easy to conjure a scenario where the Rams and Packers get rolling, for example. But right now, there are 25-28 teams that fall into the middling-or-worse category, and it’s been a tough watch.