Sean Payton’s innovation, experience should help fix Russell Wilson

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After an extensive search, Denver Broncos CEO Greg Penner landed perhaps the first person he targeted to lead his franchise out of the doldrums in Sean Payton.

The veteran NFL head coach who won a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints spent the past season working as an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. Payton’s biggest challenge ahead with the fledgling Broncos will be fixing what ails Russell Wilson.

After acquiring Wilson in a blockbuster trade with the Seattle Seahawks last offseason, the Broncos were expected to compete for an AFC West crown and possibly the Super Bowl. Instead, Denver finished at the bottom of the division at 5-12.

Wilson was the primary culprit for the team’s 2022 struggles, which prompted the new ownership group to dismiss head coach Nathaniel Hackett before the end of his first season. The nine-time Pro Bowler finished with career lows in completion percentage (60.5), passing touchdowns (16) and passer rating (84.4) and was sacked a career-high 55 times. The Broncos finished last in the NFL in points scored (16.9) and third-down conversions (29.1).


Enter Payton, who proved to be one of the league’s brightest offensive minds over 15 seasons with the Saints. It’s why New Orleans was one of Wilson’s preferred trade destinations following the 2020 season. For years, Wilson has compared himself to longtime Payton protégé Drew Brees given the quarterbacks’ similar size and stature. According to reports, Payton and Wilson connected before the Broncos consummated this latest deal

Retired defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, once a teammate of Wilson’s in Seattle, believed Payton would be a good fit with his former quarterback.

“Pete [Carroll] knows how to communicate,” Mebane said. “He knows how to make you run through a wall, and you didn’t even know you ran through that wall. 

“I feel like the closest coach that can run a system and adjust to Russ is Sean Payton. I think he would be the best fit for Russ. Russ and Drew Brees are the same height. Russ might have a better arm.”

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Wilson and Brees, of course, are different quarterbacks and different athletes. But Payton’s track record suggests he’ll not only hold Wilson accountable but find the bread-and-butter plays that the aging star has executed for so long. 

“I’d want a cut-up of all Russell’s past plays of 30 or more yards from the field, and I would want to see if there are some schemes that he felt comfortable with,” Payton said during an October appearance on “The Herd” with Colin Cowherd. “I know they did a great job in Seattle of bringing him off a naked boot and then pulling up. We all saw that throwback to [Tyler] Lockett across the field where the ball traveled 60 yards in the air.

“Then, I’d want to look at another film of his red-zone touchdown passes. What I’m asking for from assistants is some of his greatest hits, and then make sure that we have some of those song lyrics available. And if not, let’s put them in.” 

During Payton’s last five seasons with the Saints, his offenses finished in the top five in scoring four times. That included extended stretches with Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill starting at quarterback. So, Payton knows and understands how to coach offense and design schemes to get the best out of his players and a variety of signal-callers. 

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The Broncos already have one of the best defenses in the NFL. They don’t have much draft capital because of the trade for Wilson and now Payton, but they do have about $9.5 million in salary cap space, according to Over the Cap.

Following a nightmarish season under the guidance of Hackett, the new ownership group wisely invested in an experienced head coach to guide this once-proud franchise back to its winning ways. Their playoff drought, which dates back to their victory in Super Bowl 50, is the second-longest in the entire league.

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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