Can Sean Payton Fix Russell Wilson?

Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos
Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos / Matthew Stockman/GettyImages

The Denver Broncos are reportedly a step away from hiring Sean Payton as their next head coach. After missing the playoffs in seven straight seasons, a great organization with a seriously deep-pocketed owner is going to land one of the NFL's best head coaches in hopes of turning things around. But the only way that happens is if Payton can figure out how to get the best out of quarterback Russell Wilson.

The Broncos sent a king's ransom to the Seattle Seahawks to land Wilson back in March of last year. In exchange for the nine-time Pro Bowler and a fourth-round pick, the Broncos sent Seattle first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, second-round picks in 2022 and 2023, a fifth-rounder in 2022, plus tight end Noah Fant, quarterback Drew Lock and defensive end Shelby Harris. Then Denver handed the man it believed to be its franchise quarterback a five-year, $245 million contract with a $50 million signing bonus and $161 million in total guarantees. The Broncos essentially mortgaged their entire future to bring him in.

We've been over this before, but Wilson was absolutely awful in 2022. In 15 games, he notched career-lows in completion percentage (60.5), touchdown passes (16), quarterback rating (84.4) and QBR (36.9). In fact, his QBR and passer rating ranked 27th among quarterbacks who qualified and he was 31st in completion percentage. The Broncos finished 5-12 and it was ugly.

Can Wilson be fixed? Well, he is 34 and on the downside of his career, but that's not really old for a quarterback these days. He's two seasons removed from completing 68.8 percent of his passes, throwing 40 touchdowns and posting a passer rating of 105.1 and a QBR of 67.1. Heck, in 2021 his passer rating was 103.1 and his QBR was 60.6. He was terrible in 2022 but he'd been really good in the four previous seasons.

There's a chance Wilson struggled with his new surroundings, new teammates and Nathaniel Hackett's offense. Payton knows how to maximize the players under his watch, as evidenced by Jameis Winston's performance in 2021 and, well, Drew Brees' entire career. The Broncos have weapons on the perimeter as Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton are solid receivers. They seem to always have a solid running back and they boast one of the NFL's best defenses. There are a lot of building blocks in place.

Payton needs to figure out the Wilson riddle to have success in Denver. Russ's contract is structured to ensure he'll be on the roster through at least the 2025 season and likely through 2026. Like it or not, Payton and Wilson are married to each other now. They have no option but to make it work.