Denver Broncos set new standard for long-term franchise dysfunction

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - NOVEMBER 13: Head coach Nathaniel Hackett of the Denver Broncos talks with Russell Wilson #3 during the game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - NOVEMBER 13: Head coach Nathaniel Hackett of the Denver Broncos talks with Russell Wilson #3 during the game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /
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Are the 2022 Broncos (and the Broncos of the recent past and near future) the gold standard for futility in today’s NFL? 

While the stars seemed to be aligning for all three of the Kansas City Chiefs‘ AFC West rivals over the course of the 2022 off-season, no flame of hope burned brighter than that of the Denver Broncos. The once proud franchise had fallen into an endless loop of pedestrian signal callers, lackluster head coaches, and most importantly to the fanbase a complete absence of playoff appearances since Peyton Manning’s swan song Super Bowl 50 championship in 2015.

To add to the frustration of an already suffering fan base, Denver has fallen 13 consecutive times to the Kansas City Chiefs. The mental handcuffs that have been placed on the once proud franchise and fanbase by its oldest rival are so constricting that they went as far as to admit that a Week 13 matchup up in 2021 was the biggest game the Broncos had played in years. The Broncos were 6-5 at the time, the Chiefs 7-4. Denver had a chance to move into first place in the AFC West with a win.

We all know what happened from there. Denver finished 7-10 on the season with KC finishing 12-5, winning a 6th consecutive AFC West title and hosting a 4th consecutive AFC Championship game. While the future looked bleak, it wasn’t as bleak as it had been in the past. Young players like Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, and Javonte Williams gave Denver confidence in their offense outside of the quarterback position. Patrick Surtain II, Bradley Chubb, and Justin Simmons anchored a defense that seemed to be ascending. The consensus in league circles and certainly in Denver was that the Broncos were just a head coach and a QB away. And they had a target in mind.

The first domino to fall 

A few weeks after the Broncos wrapped up another disappointing regular season – their 6th consecutive without a playoff appearance – another franchise in the NFC experienced a disappointing end to an exceptional season with yet another playoff loss at home. The Green Bay Packers were also in disarray, but for different reasons than the Broncos. The Packers finished the regular season a league-best 13-4 with their future Hall of Fame signal-caller Aaron Rodgers bringing home the NFL’s MVP award for the fourth time overall and his second in as many seasons. Despite their success together, the door was wide open for a change of scenery, at the very least another off-season filled with trade demands, passive-aggressive comments in the media, and a generally divisive feel between QB and franchise based on how personnel decisions had been handled.

A natural landing place for Rodgers?

Why not Denver? Adding the two-time defending NFL MVP to a young roster ready to contend with the Chiefs and the rest of the AFC would push the Broncos over the top right? It wasn’t quite a decade ago that Denver used the same recipe with an aging Peyton Manning after his days with the Indianapolis Colts ended to bring the franchise back to the glory days of the late 1990s. Elway had landed Manning and brought the Broncos back, why couldn’t they do the same thing with Rodgers?

The first move would be getting the guy who could get the guy, Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. On January 27 the Broncos, with a new ownership group led by Rob Walton taking the reins of the franchise over imminently, signed Hackett on as their next head coach. Was it a well-thought-out move? I’m sure there were plenty of pros and cons weighed in the process, and multiple candidates were interviewed. But what was the ultimate end goal? Getting Aaron Rodgers.

Right position, wrong guy

With Hackett in place and the Broncos hype train and photoshop brigade rolling, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Broncos country would ride into the next several seasons as a favorite in the AFC West behind Aaron Rodgers, Nathaniel Hackett, and a high-flying offense. It would just be a matter of time before Rodgers took his standard time off after the end of the regular season to find himself and experiment with whatever he wanted to experiment with. Play some golf, hike in Hawai’i with Miles Teller, maybe try some new teas – who knows, but Rodgers was going to do Rodgers and no one was going to stop him.

Things started to really percolate in early March when Rodgers announced he’d make his decision in the coming days. Denver fans were elated. Soon they could sound the horns and welcome their newly minted old man King to Denver to bring them back to prominence. Except it didn’t happen that way.

Make no mistake about it, the Broncos still got their malcontent quarterback in a trade. They got a guy who had very publicly made it known that he wanted out of his current situation while trying to maintain a squeaky-clean public image to the extent that he seemed fake at times. This wasn’t Aaron Rodgers. The Packers extended Rodgers, and the Broncos had to go with Plan B. What was this plan? Trading away a mountain of draft capital, two starters in Noah Fant and Shelby Harris, and quarterback Drew Lock to the Seattle Seahawks for Russell Wilson.

Now Denver had Hackett, Wilson, and the young talent that we mentioned earlier and were primed for a run at not just the AFC West, but the Super Bowl. Everyone seemed on board with the move at the time.

Some things age well, like fine wine. Other things age very, very poorly – like this tweet.

Little did we all know that this project would crash and burn in a fantastically unprecedented way. Wilson has done more than struggle in Denver, he has somehow found a way to be worse than the combination of Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater just a year ago. Wilson has found himself in a spotlight that he never knew he didn’t want. Wilson always wanted to be in a bigger market, but what he didn’t want was the lack of insulation he had in Seattle. There is no ferocity to the media in the Pacific Northwest. You can go mostly unnoticed, even if you’re one of the more outwardly overdone personalities in all of sports.

George Paton should’ve seen this one coming, though. Certainly before handing out a 5-year $245 million contract extension to a play who hadn’t even taken a snap with the Broncos. Denver is now stuck with some form of Wilson for the next 7 seasons including this one, with cap hits of $55.4, $58.4, $53.4, and $54 million from 2025 to 2028. For those mathing along at home, that’s $221.2 million on the new contract when Wilson is between the ages of 37 and 40.

Add to that the $57 million that Wilson will earn in 2022 with the Broncos averaging 14.3 points per game. Russ is bringing in over $230K per point scored. If his declining play in Seattle in 2020 and 2021 wasn’t enough of a red flag for Paton to trade for Wilson, it certainly should have been some kind of signal for him to at least hold the bag before handing it over to Russ prior to even seeing him on the field in Denver.

Where do they go from here? 

We’ve established that as of right now the Russell Wilson deal is one of the worst in the history of the NFL. Even if Wilson comes back into form at some point as a Pro Bowl quarterback, Seattle clearly hasn’t experienced much of a setback losing him, even further negating the tremendous value that Denver ponied up in the extension. The thought of Denver ever recouping the assets spent to acquire Wilson in the first place is laughable.

Can the Broncos turn things around? Sure. It’s going to start with looking at the head coaching position, though. Hackett was an attractive hire if they land Rodgers, but without his guy, it’s clear that he’s a fish out of water. This should not have come as a surprise to Paton or the Broncos brass, either. In 4 years as an offensive coordinator prior to his stint in Green Bay, Hackett only had 1 offensive rank in the top half of the league in scoring – the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars. The 2018 Jaguars actually fired him because of how bad the offense was just a year later.

Hackett has spent much of the season looking lost on the sideline, most recently looking plain apathetic. This past Sunday, when Mike Purcell dressed down Wilson running off to the sideline, Hackett didn’t bat an eye. Wilson appears to be losing the locker room, Hackett sees the ship sinking and likely is counting down the days until he can just coordinate an offense again. The Russell Wilson issue is the biggest one facing the Broncos at the moment, however.

The most logical out for the Broncos on the Wilson deal would be in 2027 when they would only have to eat $12.8 million in dead cap money if they were to cut him. The numbers prior to that?

  • 2023: $107,000,000
  • 2024: $85,000,000
  • 2025: $49,600,000
  • 2026: $31,200,000

Ouch. Add to that the fact that Denver doesn’t have a first or second-round pick in May’s draft and it makes the pill even harder to swallow for a rebuild. The Broncos were already sellers at this year’s trade deadline after unloading Bradley Chubb to the Dolphins. If they want to get some of the draft capital back that they lost in the Wilson deal, they’re going to have to look at unloading some additional young players in the off-season.

The Broncos are far from flirting with the deepest and darkest streaks of futility in league history. Multiple teams have gone a decade plus without making a postseason appearance, and the New Orleans Saints actually went 20 full seasons from 1967 to 1987 between playoff appearances. But the Broncos are currently the second longest active non-playoff streak in the league behind just the New York Jets, who looked like they have turned a corner and could be in as early as this year with a 7-4 record currently. They’re certainly in a better spot roster-wise moving into the future than the Broncos.

As it stands today the Broncos are 3-8, last place in a division that they had sights on winning in 2022, and with little to no hope of salvaging anything for the 2022 season. 2023 could be a different story, but the mistakes made in the off-season leading up to the 2022 season will serve as painful lessons learned as the franchise continues to try to navigate a salary cap nightmare and horrendous contract stemming from one of the worst trades of all time.

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