ENGLEWOOD — Of all his habits, coach Nathaniel Hackett’s desire to be liked seemed to be the strongest attraction to his behavior. His personality made it easy for players to be drawn into his orbit. He was fun. Such were his meetings. The same applies to many of his exercises during the training camp.
What wasn’t fun? Lose.
The Broncos hit rock bottom and delivered the most disappointing season in franchise history, given expectations. Posting a 5-11 record and going 1-5 in the AFC West, Hackett’s smile is long gone – as are his belongings with one game left in the season.
New boss Sean Payton is everything Hackett isn’t. He has a reputation as an old-school coach who values accountability and compliments little. When Broncos owners met with him this offseason, they wanted to know if he still had the fire in his stomach after his year-long retirement. That question was answered unequivocally, leading to his attitude and a clear vision of how the franchise could emerge from a seven-year rift.
Payton brings a no-nonsense approach. His offensive line overhaul with right tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Ben Powers, along with the addition of brutal running back Samaje Perine, suggest the Broncos will lean toward a physical ground attack.
It’s part of a plan to help Russell Wilson recover. Can Wilson return to his old form? That question hangs like an anvil over the franchise. Wilson came to Denver as a nine-time Pro Bowler. He was the 12th other starter since Super Bowl 50, a player able to pull the emergency brake on the merry-go-round of madness. And then reality hit him in the head.
With Wilson trying to reinvent himself as Drew Brees – who wanted to work in the bag from the shotgun – and Hackett unwilling to rein in the veteran as injuries and ineffectiveness mounted, the former Seahawks star looked lost. He posted career lows in touchdowns (16), completion percentage (60.5), and fired 11 interceptions while dealing with right labrum, hamstring, and concussion injuries.
In his last six seasons, Wilson threw for 186 touchdowns with 53 interceptions and a 65.2% completion rate.
Payton is tasked with lifting Wilson back up – and one can wonder if this is a year-long project with no major improvements. The Super Bowl-winning coach, a Wilson who wanted the job, was asked about Wilson at recent NFL owners’ meetings.
“He’s super competitive. He won at a high level. He’s someone who I think moves well. He’s someone who I think works extremely hard. It’s hard to find guys with all these qualities. Now, with each of you, I watched the season that took place a year ago. I said that a little earlier. There’s probably a bit of dirt on a lot of people’s hands,” Payton said. “If you win five games, that’s what it is. I don’t think I need to elaborate on this any further. It was not good. Wasn’t good on offense, that’s for sure. It was difficult to watch the film.”
In finding a bump for Wilson, it helps to examine Brees’ career end under Payton. While not apples to apples, there are some hallmarks that cannot be ignored.
From 2016-20, Brees released the following stats, according to ESPN:
Sacks per game: 1.3
Print rate: 20 percent
Time before pass attempt: 2.52 seconds
Compare that to Wilson’s 2022 season with the Broncos:
Sacks per game: 3.7
Print rate: 35 percent
Time before pass attempt: 2.98 seconds
The first thing that needs to change is better pass protection. While Wilson can cause sacks by holding the ball too long and spinning in scrambles, he found defenders on his lap too often last season. The Broncos allowed a league-worst 63 sacks, 55 to Wilson. In contrast, Brees has been sacked 89 times over his last five seasons, or 17.8 times a year.
The responsibility rests with McGlinchey, Powers, who didn’t allow a sack last season, left-winger Garett Bolles, returning from a broken leg and ankle, and likely center Lloyd Cushenberry and right guard Quinn Meinerz to improve under new line coach Zach Stress. And it’s not just about bags. It’s also about hits. This is where the pressure rate comes into play. About 40 percent of Wilson’s pass attempts last year were under duress. Brees’ 20 percent figure should be the goal.
Wilson, too, who appeared slimmer in pictures posted to social media this off-season, needs to get running back on his feet. In his best games last season, both against the Chiefs, he rushed eight times for 84 yards and two touchdowns. Payton has used quarterback runs in the past, although they were developed almost exclusively for Taysom Hill. From 2017 to 2021, Hill rushed 221 times for 1,183 yards and 16 points. Wilson isn’t that player, but the idea of Payton implementing run pass options is realistic if not expected.
During his losses last season, Wilson averaged 33 passes per game. In the four wins, he delivered 29 per game.
Digest the stats, and there appears to be a blueprint for Wilson to find his way back. It starts with an improved offensive line, better groundplay — Denver averaged 113.8 yards last season, which means 120 should be the goal — dramatically improved pass protection, and a big dose of Payton’s discipline and creativity.
Wilson arrived for off-season practice early Tuesday and was keen to get started. Hopefully it represents the first steps on the path to salvation.
#Russell #Wilsons #Rebound #Broncos
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