Can Russell Wilson rediscover his elite form with the Denver Broncos?
"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," John F. Kennedy proclaimed at his inaugural presidential address on January 20, 1961. Should the question being asked about quarterback Russell Wilson joining the Denver Broncos this season after a stellar first decade in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks not be something about what the Broncos' Super Bowl chances are and more along the lines of, "Which Russell Wilson are the Broncos getting?"
Since entering the NFL in 2012, Wilson has been a top-shelf quarterback. Only Russell Wilson and Tom Brady have quarterbacked their teams to 100 or more wins in that time. Only Brady (324) and back-to-back NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers (317) have thrown more passing touchdowns than Wilson (292) since 2012, and only Brady (19) has more playoff wins than Wilson (9) since 2012. Wilson's ability to produce while taking care of the football and limiting turnovers has been historically great as well: Wilson's 292 career passing touchdowns to only 87 career interceptions equate to a TD-INT ratio of 3.4, third-highest in NFL history.
Naturally, the Broncos' new head coach and former Packers offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett couldn't contain himself at his introductory press conference when talking about his luck of walking into his first NFL head coaching gig with the newly acquired Wilson.
However, each of Wilson's last two seasons have been rollercoasters with dazzling first halves and a significant step back in the latter parts. In the 2020 season, it seemed as though Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll had finally given into the "Let Russ Cook" movement, allowing for Seattle's offense to be more pass-centric as the team ran the football on only 40.2 percent of their plays, 19th in the NFL, their first time outside the top 15 since 2017 and just the fourth time in Carroll's 12-year run as head coach. Wilson led the NFL with 28 passing touchdowns in the first half of the season, but his production dipped significantly in his last eight games across the board as teams adjusted to Seattle's Wilson-centered attack.
Last season, a fractured middle finger on his throwing hand after a hit from Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald derailed another hot start in 2021 in which Wilson led the NFL passing yards per attempt (9.6), touchdown-interception ratio (10-1), and passer rating (125.3) through the first five weeks of 2021.
The 2021 season drop-off, caused by an injury, sets up the big question: How will Russell Wilson play as he ages with all the wear-and-tear his body has taken over the last decade? The 5-foot-11, 215-pound quarterback who turns 34 in late November is the NFL's most sacked passer since he entered the NFL in 2012 with 427 career sacks taken. That's the most in a player's first 10 seasons since at least the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. New Colts quarterback Matt Ryan has the second-most in that time frame with 365, 62 fewer than Wilson.
Those sacks can be attributed to Wilson's heavy utilization of his legs to leave the pocket in an attempt to create additional throwing lanes and big plays. His scrambling wizardry also contributed to the Seahawks not investing as much of their salary cap space into offensive linemen over the last decade.
Randall Cunningham, 409 career sacks in his first 10 seasons, is the only other quarterback with over 400 sacks taken in his first 10 seasons since at least the 1970 merger when sacks taken began being tracked. After his 10th season, Cunningham only had one season (1998) in his final six years in which he started more than six games.
Fortunately for Wilson, the Broncos have the personnel on both sides of the ball to potentially ease his burden as he ages. The running back tandem of promising second-year back Javonte Williams and Wilson's Wisconsin teammate, two-time Pro Bowler Melvin Gordon will return in 2022 as the only duo in the NFL last season to each have over 900 rushing yards. Each of Wilson's top four wide receivers Courtland Sutton (26), Tim Patrick (28), Jerry Jeudy (23), and KJ Hamler (23) are all on the south side of 30 years old.
The Matt LaFleur-offense Hackett brings with him from Green Bay, features zone-blocking and play-action passing that is also used by the Super Bowl Champion Rams and the NFC runner-up 49ers, and led to consecutive NFL MVPs for Aaron Rodgers. Those signature elements of that offensive structure were first popularized by former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan when working alongside Hall of Famer John Elway in the 1990s. The point: to take some pressure off a quarterback with more schemed-up route concepts in the passing game plus pre-snap motion and shifts to aid a quarterback in reading the defense before the play begins.
"I think it's all about just the command of the system," Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett said about Wilson in the offense at the team's minicamp in May. "We want to build this thing completely around him and make sure he's comfortable, and watch him come alive. I think he did some awesome things today, utilizing his athleticism. At the same time, being able to just be a pure drop-back passer."'
So far, Wilson has been gushing about Hackett's offense, like when he was asked about it last week.
"I can't say too much [but] there were touchdowns all over the field," Wilson said last week, via ESPN, when asked about how their offense is running on the field.
Tim Patrick, one of the team's longest-tenured wide receivers along with Courtland Sutton, said their offense now is different from anything the Broncos have run since he arrived in 2018.
"It's just something different that we haven't done yet," Broncos wide receiver Tim Patrick said. "Then you have to think -- we have Russ [Wilson] and we have Coach [Nathaniel] Hackett. They put in both of their systems together, so it's kind of a one-of-one offense. It's not something that's really been taught [here] before."
On the other side of the ball, Wilson has a defense that put up the kinds of numbers he was used to in Seattle when the Seahawks regularly made deep playoff runs at the beginning of his career: 18.9 points per game allowed (3rd in the NFL), 326.1 total yards per game allowed (8th in the NFL), 50 percent red zone efficiency allowed (3rd in the NFL).
Trading two first round picks, two second round picks, a fifth round pick, quarterback Drew Lock and defensive lineman Shelby Harris to the Seahawks for a franchise quarterback like Wilson was something the Broncos needed to do regardless of the potential of Wilson to age like Cunningham or a contemporary quarterback like Cam Newton after years of wear and tear. Denver has started the highest number of different quarterbacks in the NFL since Peyton Manning's last season in 2015 (11), and has yet to reach the playoffs since Manning walked off the field for good following their Super Bowl 50 victory.
Missing the playoffs in each of the last six seasons since 2016 gives the Broncos the longest playoff drought by a team in NFL history following a Super Bowl win as well as the second-longest active streak in the NFL behind the Jets' 11-season drought.
If Wilson plays similarly to the level he's been accustomed to for the majority of his career, he could lead the Broncos back to the playoffs and continue their team's long-standing tradition of getting their best quarterback play from passers they acquired via trade (Hall of Famer John Elway) or free agency (Hall of Famer Peyton Manning). All of their Super Bowl wins and all but one of their all-time playoff wins have come when starting quarterbacks they didn't draft.
"We've got a championship-caliber football team," Wilson said Thursday. "Now it's time to just show up and prove it, go out and do it."
Wilson won't have to wait long to observe the dichotomy in the way he plays in his new offense versus how he played in his former offense as his first game is against those same Seahawks in Seattle to conclude the first week of the season on Monday Night Football. With Wilson having +1600 odds to capture his first NFL MVP (T-7th-best in NFL) in Year 1 in Denver, the Broncos are setting their hopes a mile high that Wilson can prove it, by going out and ending their six-year dry spell in a playoff-less wilderness. Read More