ENGLEWOOD — Of all his habits, coach Nathaniel Hackett’s desire to be loved seemed to exert the strongest gravitational pull on his behavior. His personality allowed players to be easily drawn into his orbit. He was fun. So was his meetings. Same goes for many of his workouts during training camp.
What wasn’t fun? Losing.
The Broncos hit rock bottom, delivering the most disappointing season in franchise history by expectations. They posted a 5-11 record and went 1-5 in AFC West, Hackett’s smile is long gone – and so is his business with one game left in the season.
New boss Sean Payton is everything Hackett isn’t. He brings a reputation as an old school coach who is heavy on responsibility and light on compliments. When Broncos ownership caught up with him this offseason, they wanted to know if he still had fire in his stomach after his one-year retirement. That question was answered unequivocally, leading to his hiring and a clear vision for how the franchise could pull itself out of a seven-year gap.
Payton brings a pragmatic approach. His overhaul of the offensive line with right tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Ben Powers, and the addition of brutal running back Samaje Perine, suggest the Broncos will rely on a physical ground attack.
It’s part of a plan to help Russell Wilson bounce back. Can Wilson regain his old form? This question hangs over the franchise like an anvil. Wilson came to Denver as a nine-time Pro Bowler. He represented the 12th different starter since Super Bowl 50, a player who could pull the emergency brake on the carousel of madness. And then reality knocked him on his head.
With Wilson trying to reinvent himself as Drew Brees – looking to work in the shotgun pocket – and Hackett unwilling to rein in the veteran as injuries and inefficiency mounted, the former Seahawks star looked lost. He posted career lows in touchdowns (16), completion percentage (60.5) and made 11 interceptions, while dealing with injuries to the right labrum, hamstrings and concussions .
In his previous six seasons, Wilson threw for 186 touchdowns with 53 interceptions and a 65.2 percent completion rate.
Payton is tasked with relieving Wilson – and it’s fair to wonder if it’s a year-long project without significant improvement. The Super Bowl-winning coach, a Wilson who wanted the job, was asked about Wilson during recent NFL owners’ meetings.
“He’s super competitive. He won at a high level. He’s someone who I think moves well. He’s someone who I think works extremely hard. It’s hard to find guys with all of these traits. Now I watched, with each of you, the season that took place a year ago. I said it a little earlier. There’s probably a little dirt on a lot of people’s hands,” Payton said. “When you win five games, that’s what it is. I don’t think I need to elaborate further. It was not good. It was not good in attack, that’s for sure. It was a tough movie to watch.”
When looking for a bump for Wilson, it’s worth looking at the end of Brees’ career under Payton. Although it is not apples to apples, there are some characteristics that cannot be ignored.
From 2016 to 2020, per ESPN, Brees released the following stats:
Bags per game: 1.3
Pressure rate: 20 percent
Delay before overtaking attempt: 2.52 seconds
Compare that to Wilson’s 2022 season with the Broncos:
Bags per game: 3.7
Pressure rate: 35 percent
Delay before overtaking attempt: 2.98 seconds
The first thing that needs to change is better pass protection. While Wilson can cause sacks by holding the ball too long and shoving around, he too often found defenders on his knees last season. The Broncos allowed a league-worst 63 sacks, including 55 on Wilson. By contrast, Brees has been sacked 89 times in his past five seasons, or 17.8 a year.
The blame lies with McGlinchey, Powers, who didn’t allow a sack last season, left tackle Garett Bolles, who is coming back with a broken leg and ankle, and likely center Lloyd Cushenberry and right guard Quinn Meinerz to improve under new line coach Zach Tristesse. And it’s not just about bags. It’s also about hits. That’s where pressure rate comes in. About 40 percent of Wilson’s passing attempts were under duress last year. Brees’ 20% number should be the goal.
Additionally, Wilson, who appeared slimmer in photos posted to social media this offseason, is scheduled to return to running. In his best games last season, both against the Chiefs, he rushed eight times for 84 yards and two touchdowns. Payton has a history of using quarterback runs, although they were almost exclusively designed for Taysom Hill. From 2017 to 2021, Hill rushed 221 times for 1,183 yards and 16 scores. Wilson isn’t that player, but the idea of Payton implementing run-pass options is realistic, even expected.
In his losses last season, Wilson averaged 33 assists per game. In the four wins, he has delivered 29 per game.
Digest the stats and there seems to be a plan for Wilson to find his way back. It starts with an improved offensive line, better rushing game – Denver averaged 113.8 yards last season, which means 120 should be the goal – vastly improved pass protection and a heavy dose of discipline and creativity of Payton.
Wilson arrived early Tuesday for off-season practices, eager to get started. Hopefully this represents the first steps on the road to redemption.
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