ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It was a blistering hot and dry morning in Colorado, and Sean Payton had seen enough. He barked at an offensive lineman for a false start during a training camp practice.
Payton runs volcanic hot at times, and this brief lava spew spoke of his lacking patience for mistakes. He did not return to coaching to fail. Payton did not return for the monstrous contract. He lives to win, to devise the perfect play, to lead a team deep into the playoffs. If Payton reaches the Super Bowl with the Broncos at any point, his Hall of Fame legacy is likely cemented.
The challenge in Denver remains daunting.
This place had many things Payton wanted– stable ownership and a history of winning– but no recent success. The Broncos have become a cautionary tale on what can go wrong without a franchise quarterback and an endless carousel of coaches– five in eight years– and quarterbacks– 12 starters since Peyton Manning retired.
For Payton to end the Broncos’ streak of six straight losing seasons, he must revive Russell Wilson’s career. Wilson, like Payton, arrived with his career on a Hall of Fame arc before he cratered in 2022, posting personal lows in touchdowns (16), completion percentage (60.5) and wins (4). The failure humbled Wilson. He changed his offseason routine, dropping 12 to 15 pounds, while embracing the hard coaching of Payton, the leader he wanted.
It’s fair to argue that no player has more at stake this season than Wilson. Sure, Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott and Jordan Love are under pressure, but Wilson sits with his blinker on at a career crossroads. Does he return to form– or at least rank in the top 15 at his position? Or continue a decline that leads the Broncos to part way after this season- despite the poison pill of two years of salary cap hell?
Given what is at stake, arguably for both men, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of a fast start. The Broncos open with back-to-back home games. They pull the curtain back on Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders. What once was an easy win has become anything but. The Broncos have dropped six straight to the Raiders. It’s part of a common thread of AFC West misery– the Broncos are 6-18 in their last 24 division games.
Reasons for hope exist.
Wilson had a solid training camp. After a clunky first week looking uncomfortable in the pocket, the 34-year-old regained his footing, showing decisiveness, improved accuracy and encouraging mobility. It wasn’t Seattle Russ, but there were shades of that player.
It is a fascinating fit- the biting personality of Payton paired with the Ned Flanders optimism of Wilson.
“It works,” Payton told me last week. “All these guys, I will be sarcastic with them and have fun with them. We try to create as much pressure as we can during the week so when game day comes, you are reacting and playing fast. This guy has been in tons of big spots, championship games, Super Bowls, throughout his career. That’s what puts him in that class where he’s at. Listen, he has certain expectation of himself. He’s looked good.”
Another reason to believe a U-turn is possible? Payton and Wilson have a history of success in season openers when using two barometers Broncos Country cares about: points and wins.
In his last four opening games, Wilson is 3-1 with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He lost the first game last season in what amounted to malpractice by former coach Nathaniel Hackett (46 left hash will forever go down as one of the most forgettable decisions to kick a field goal in team history). Wilson, though, played one of his few good games. He completed 29 of 42 passes for 340 yards and a 67-yard touchdown to Jerry Jeudy. Over his last 11 September games, Wilson owns a 7-4 record with 30 touchdowns and one interception. But he became part of an ugly pattern a year ago. The Broncos have dropped three of their last four season openers and are 4-3 since winning Super Bowl 50, averaging a head-shaking 20.9 points per game.
Payton brings a simmering record and a reminder that he opens the playbook when the season starts, something players have talked about with excitement over the last week. Since 2016, he is 3-3 in his last six season openers (he did not coach last season). However, he has won three straight and his Saints averaged 34 points in those games and 32.5 in the past six openers.
Payton has spent the past seven months changing the Broncos culture, creating accountability and consequences. It has been uncomfortable at times. But it’s easy to see why it was necessary. Now can it all make sense with a change of course on Sunday?
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