Restoring Russell Wilson: Broncos need 28-year-old quarterback-turned-coach Davis Webb to fulfill duty

By James Palmer

DENVER — Could five PowerPoint slides really determine how to fix Russell Wilson?

Actually, from the moment the Denver Broncos hired Sean Payton this past winter, a different question has dominated NFL discussion about the team from the Mile High City: Can the Super Bowl-winning coach salvage the Super Bowl-winning quarterback?

Fresh off the worst season of his professional career, Wilson heads into the 2023 campaign flanked by one of the top offensive minds in football over the last couple decades. In a vacuum, that’s the conclusive factor in Russ’ road to redemption. But as head coach, Payton doesn’t have the luxury to live in a vacuum. He’s in charge of overseeing the entire team. And in the wake of Denver’s shocking 5-12 flop in 2022, Wilson isn’t the only Bronco in need of care.

Payton faces the tall task of bringing back a winning culture within the building that’s been absent since Peyton Manning rode off into the sunset in March of 2016 after helping to deliver the franchise’s third Lombardi Trophy. Not that the 59-year-old coach isn’t equipped for the challenge — remember the turnaround he orchestrated in New Orleans? — but Payton just has a lot on his plate. That’s what made the formation of his staff so crucial — and the hiring of his quarterbacks coach so interesting.

Back in January, Davis Webb was a sixth-year quarterback in his second stint for the New York Giants, having yet to throw a regular-season pass in the NFL. With Big Blue locked into the No. 6 seed prior to the Week 18 finale at Philadelphia, Brian Daboll decided to rest QB Daniel Jones and give the journeyman his first professional start. While the Giants lost to the Eagles, 22-16, Webb acquitted himself pretty well, throwing for 168 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 41 yards and an additional score. Two weeks later, following New York’s Divisional Round loss in Philly, Webb’s contract expired. The next month, Webb was in Denver interviewing for a job as the Broncos’ quarterbacks coach.

Webb had no coaching experience at any level, though the Bills had reportedly wanted to make him their QB coach after his playing contract with Buffalo expired following the 2021 season. Still, Payton had no previous relationship with the 28-year-old. But after Payton called Eli Manning — Webb was Manning’s third-round rookie backup with the Giants in 2017 — the two-time Super Bowl champion vouched for his former teammate and good friend, and the interview was set up. With a few days to prepare, Webb — who describes himself as “a big PowerPoint guy” — put together a 30-page presentation for Payton, the offensive coaching staff and Broncos general manager George Paton.

“I did a ton of film watching of Russ, but I had also done it last year, so I kind of just looked at my notes, too. I just watch QBs around the league to stay up to date,” Webb told me while the two of us sat on a bench outside the Broncos’ practice facility near the end of training camp. “I ended up calling a couple of buddies that were also mutual friends with Russ to try and gather as much information as I could about him to walk in there and be prepared. Those first five slides were dedicated just for Russ because I saw a lot of great things from last year that nobody is talking about. And the way that he finished, in particular.”

Webb left the interview and headed to the airport. But Payton was so inspired by Webb’s plan for Wilson — and how he’d coach the quarterback room as a whole — that the head coach called the driver who was taking Webb to the airport and told him to turn around. Webb walked back into the Broncos’ facility and Payton hired him on the spot. That same day, Webb dove in headfirst on building a relationship with Wilson. The two FaceTimed as Webb’s plane was about to take off, with flight attendants eventually forcing an end to the call. But during their conversation, Webb delivered a message built on honesty and truth, a message that he rehashed to me:

“I retired to come and hang out and coach you. Because I believe in you. If I didn’t, I’d be a free agent, and God knows where I’d be. You came here for a reason, and we have a new common goal. We’re here together and this is a brand new year for all of us. Because I don’t know what happened last year — and frankly, I don’t care.”

Payton, for his part, hasn’t been too bashful when it comes to discussing the Broncos’ disastrous season under Nathaniel Hackett, who was relieved of his head-coaching duties just 15 games (and a 4-11 record) into his tenure. At his introductory press conference in Denver, Payton was asked about the special perks Wilson apparently received in 2022, including reportedly having his own office in the facility and receiving building access for his own personal performance team.

“That’s foreign to me,” Payton said at the February presser. “That’s not going to take place here. I’m not familiar with it, but our staff will be here, our players will be here and that’ll be it.”

In July, Payton’s candid interview with USA Today’s Jarrett Bell made waves across the league, with the coach taking shots at Hackett while defending Wilson. Payton swiftly called the comments “a mistake” after the article’s publication, but the ordeal ultimately increased the spotlight on Wilson.

Despite all that drama, though, the quarterback’s backfield mate likes what he sees from Wilson as the 34-year-old enters his second season with the Broncos.

“I feel his authority and leadership. He had that last year, but you can just feel it now,” Broncos running back Javonte Williams told me during camp. “I feel like he’s more comfortable with the playbook this year and just the way he carries himself around the building. He’s more with the team and things like that.”

Wilson already gives a lot of credit to Webb.

“He believes in me,” Wilson told me in the Broncos’ locker room after their preseason finale against the Rams last Saturday night. “He’s spoken a lot of life into me. I believe in him. I think we both know who I can be and who I am and who I’ve been and where I’m going. It’s all about the work and we’re all in it together.”

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