Russell Wilson’s Broncos career is dangerously close to a comedy skit
The quarterback’s performances with Denver should improve as he settles in. But his game is not aging well and he needs to adapt
Are we confident that this Russell Wilson-Nathaniel Hackett marriage isn’t some kind of Nathan Fielder bit?
The plan: to hire a coach who cannot count; to trade a boatload of draft picks and players for an aging, “mobile” quarterback who looks increasingly immobile; to hand that quarterback a five-year, $245m contract with $165m guaranteed at signing; to hire a series of coordinators who’ve never coordinated units or called plays before; to sell one of the league’s most prestigious franchises to an owner who doesn’t know the name of the commissioner.
The aim: To tip the credit for the Seahawks almost-dynasty further towards Peter Carroll and the Legion of Boom.
So far, the scheme is working. It’s been a rough start to life in Denver for Wilson. The Broncos’ offense has been sluggish, the whole gameday operation poorly managed. Hearing Broncos fans counting down the game clock in order to give their quarterback a heads up that a penalty was on its way was (hopefully) the nadir. But wrapped around the host of procedural penalties has been a general feeling of malaise – a sense that these guys might not know what they’re doing.
Sometimes you can tell that a coach is in over their head. It can be the look in their eye on the sideline, or a loss of temper at a press conference. Let’s call it the Freddie Kitchens zone, who was one-and-done in Cleveland and would have been shipped out within a fortnight if the Browns (of all franchises) could have stomached the embarrassment. After two weeks, Hackett is on his way to giving that particular zone a quick rebrand.
This was always going to be a difficult coach-quarterback marriage early on, particularly if Hackett and company opted to roll with the traditional Wilson offense. They have, and the results have been grim: The Broncos are 1-1, having scored 33 total points across two weeks from games against the hapless Seahawks and a very average Texans side.
Hackett’s credentials for the Broncos head coaching job were questionable to begin with. Prior to taking the job in Denver, he had only called plays in one spot – as offensive coordinator at the Jaguars in 2018 – and was fired midseason. Over the totality of his career, he has overseen more awful offenses than decent ones. His chief credential was that he was close with Aaron Rodgers, who, it was assumed, was about to detonate his way out of Green Bay. By having Hackett on staff, the thinking went, the Broncos might have had a leg up in the race to acquire the back-to-back MVP.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the Broncos sent a gaggle of picks and players to the Seahawks to acquire Wilson, with little thought, seemingly, given to how the partnership would gel. In Green Bay, where Hackett spent three years working with Rodgers, the coach helped build an idiosyncratic passing game that channeled some of the quarterback’s freelancing excellence into more of a structured set-up.
The idea of slotting Wilson into what the dorks call a ‘multi-progression’ passing game is enough to make even the strongest Wilson cynic purr. But that’s not what has happened so far. Throughout the roars of the ‘Let Russ Cook’ years, an online movement determined to push Seattle away from a run-dominated attack into one that let Wilson air it out, was a forgotten truth: The Seahawks always ran the Russell Wilson offense. It didn’t matter who Pete Carroll cycled in as the play-caller, they all wind up defaulting to the same style as their predecessor. Whenever a coordinator tried to install something fresh, they quickly learned they were wasting their time.
That’s fine! Wilson is one of the top quarterbacks in the sport. He’s torched fools through his career by doing things his way. But the Russell Wilson of 2022 is not the Russell Wilson of 2019 or 2020. He doesn’t move quite the same way, he isn’t quite the same off-script playmaker – both of which were fundamental parts of his ability to drive an offense downfield.
Moving to Denver, with a new franchise and a new staff, represented an opportunity for Wilson to redefine his game as he ages. Instead, the Broncos have doubled down on what Wilson likes to do, constipating the entire offense. The core issue: Wilson’s unwillingness to attack the middle of the field.
A ton of Hackett’s best work with Rodgers was designing so-called pay-off plays that hit between the numbers. Under the Matt LaFleur-Rodgers-Hackett axis, the Packers attacked the middle of the field less than the average team. But it was in that spot that they looked to hit their big plays. It’s a simple footballing philosophy: Middle-of-the-field throws are supposed to be the safest throws, so why not save them for when an offense is trying to hit an explosive play?
Wilson has long chosen to do the reverse, targeting the perimeter and vacating the most valuable real estate on the field. The wonder of Wilson is that he hits the lowest percentage throws at the highest clip in the league; there hasn’t been a better deep-ball thrower in the NFL since he entered the league. But that approach started to catch up to him in his final year with the Seahawks and has continued into this season. Defenses can shield the sidelines in the full knowledge RussBall means he won’t target the area between the numbers.
Through two games this season, Wilson has targeted the middle of the field with throws of more than 10 yards just twice, resulting in an incompletion and interception. In his final season in Seattle, he averaged just 2.3 such throws per game. The year before that he was a smidge under the three-per-game mark.
It isn’t a height issue, either. It’s a common refrain that Wilson doesn’t throw to the middle of the field because he can’t see over his linemen. But compare Wilson’s middle-of-the-field numbers to Drew Brees, a future Hall of Famer and a charter member of the 5ft 10in quarterback club (don’t let them fool you into believing they’re 6ft). In his final five seasons in the league, Brees averaged eight throws a game of 10 yards or more between the numbers. Over his entire Saints career, he averaged 118 (!) throws per season into the linebacker-safety corridor, three and a half times more than Wilson. Kyler Murray, another short, mobile quarterback, is closer to Brees on the middle-of-the-field spectrum than Wilson.
As his athleticism starts to wane, Wilson can no longer get away with closing off a chunk of the field. It’s too constrictive – and defenses have caught up.
Hackett and Wilson will probably figure this out. They have an easy early-season schedule to continue to work out the teething issues before a brutal six-game stretch to close the season. They currently lead the league in pre-snap penalties and are the only team since 2000 to have at least five goal-to-go situations and score zero touchdowns, per Sharp Football Stats. Those figures should drift towards the mean as the season winds on. Hackett is a savvy offensive mind, even if his general head coaching skills leave him looking like the lost brother of Curly, Larry and Moe. And Wilson remains one of the best quarterbacks in the game, even when defenses know what’s coming. That alone will make the Broncos competitive.
But competitive isn’t good enough when you mortgage your future for a quarterback who’s supposed to microwave instant, championship success. And the opening weeks of the season should serve as a neon warning sign for a franchise that just inked its star quarterback to a five-year mega-money deal: Wilson’s game is not aging well, and he needs to adapt.