Examining factors that led to Broncos benching Russell Wilson and what’s potentially next for QB

Sean Payton was hired as Denver’s new head coach earlier this year to fix the Broncos, making tough decisions in the process. No decision was more consequential and tougher than the one he made this past week when he benched quarterback Russell Wilson for the rest of the 2023 season.

The eye-popping decision sparked a whirlwind week, capped by a frustrated Wilson tweeting that he’s “looking forward to what’s next” and addressing reporters on Friday as a backup for the first time.

It also led to the widespread assumption that it’s over for Wilson in Denver. When the season ends, the entire NFL world assumes he’ll be cut, set to sign with his third team for the likely small price of a minimum salary due to off-set language in his current contract.

Yet, sources from both sides paint a different picture. Denver will only move on from Wilson if it has a better option, as the cost of keeping him is roughly similar to the cost of moving on. Neither members of the Broncos brass, nor Payton, has ruled out a return.

And Wilson, those close to him say, signed for seven years, not two years. If Payton ultimately decides he’s their best option at QB, Wilson would be back to fix it all.

Unlikely? Definitely. But not impossible.

The Broncos theoretically could trade Wilson, who has a no-trade clause, and the two sides would have to work together for a solution. Either way, because of off-set language, a new team likely wouldn’t pay more than the league minimum on a new contract for Wilson.

When the season ends, the Broncos will have a decision to make, one that has always been looming, but now takes on a whole new look after this week’s events. Payton made a football decision to bench Wilson and start Jarrett Stidham this Sunday against the Chargers, a move that also includes an important financial component. After the season, Payton will have to make a similar one.

Do they cut Wilson or keep him?

If they cut him, it results in a $85 million cap charge, plus $39 million in guaranteed money for 2024, though they can split up the cap hit with a post-June 1 designation. If they keep him, it’s a cap number of more than $90-million over two seasons, plus the $37 million due in 2025.

In other words, in the short term, it’s similar to keep him or cut him. Regardless, the Wilson contract badly hamstrings Denver and its ability to build. If Stidham impresses today, everything gets easier. He could be the Broncos’ QB, they could cut Wilson and go from there.

But there is so much else that went into the move this past week. A rundown:

  • Payton was wary of Wilson during his interview with the Broncos before they hired him last offseason, sources say. While he spoke in the interview of how to help turn him into a championship QB and how to fix him, he privately wasn’t as sure it could be done. By taking the job, he committed to trying. It has not worked.
  • When players watched film during the week of the past few games, they saw an endless string of open players that Wilson wasn’t finding in time. Sure, the big-time plays in the fourth quarter were there, but finding the open guy in rhythm was an issue. Players saw it, and privately discussed it among themselves, sources say. Some have wondered the last few weeks if Stidham, who Payton signed early in free agency, would be better.
  • Payton hasn’t been happy with how his offense has been running, sources say. He’s seen it at a high-level with Drew Brees, and this wasn’t it. They kept needing to simplify and pare it down, they struggled to get plays in and it rarely was run to the speed he wanted. Wilson made the plays off-schedule in the fourth quarter. But Payton fumed at the lack of efficiency on a regular basis. Over the past few weeks, he’s weighed a decision. This week, it seems Stidham has run the offense well in practice, with optimism rising.
  • Last summer, and again in October during the team’s bye week, Broncos general manager George Paton discussed with the QB’s longtime agent, Mark Rodgers, potentially altering Wilson’s contract, pushing back the early vesting date of his 2025 injury guarantees. As it stands now, the $37 million injury guarantee in 2025 would become fully guaranteed in March of 2024. Paton figured that moving the date back to the start of the league year in 2025 would increase the viability of Wilson both short- and long-term, since it would eliminate the need for the Broncos to make a two-year decision on him within the next couple months, drastically raising the chances of him being a Bronco in 2024. Wilson viewed it as a threat to be benched, as he said this week. Ultimately, he was not benched until seven weeks later, with the Broncos ranking 25th in offense and their playoff hopes shrinking after a 42-17 loss to the Lions followed by a 26-23 defeat at home to the lowly Patriots on national TV on Christmas Eve.
  • As many agents do amid negotiations, Rodgers took the Broncos’ proposal to the NFLPA, which often consults with agents on big-money player contracts. The union did not view any “threat” of benching as a real threat, and Wilson turned down the Broncos’ offer, which is his right. No grievance was filed, and it’s unlikely one will be. One source called such negotiations “commonplace.”
  • Wilson, for his part, plans to play in 2024. And if the Broncos cut him, he’ll be available for a team in need of a bridge starter for likely the lowest possible price of the minimum.

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