Russell Wilson is No. 1 concern facing Broncos' coaching candidates and eyes are on lookout for 'a big red flag'

Seahawks' whispers of QB freelancing also at play in Denver

Late Monday afternoon, after news of head coach Nathaniel Hackett’s firing had begun to sink in across the NFL and the dot-connecting to Sean Payton began in earnest, a source close to the former New Orleans Saints head coach posed what appears to be the most pressing question surrounding the Denver Broncos' opening.

“Does Sean want to work with the quarterback?” the source asked rhetorically, referring to Denver centerpiece Russell Wilson. “I don’t know if he would want to go there and then spend all his time fixing someone else’s mistake.”

Four months ago, framing Wilson as an impediment to a head coaching job would have been questionable at best. But labeling him as a mistake? It would have been downright unfathomable. Yet that’s the primary challenge that lies ahead for the Broncos and their new ownership. They must not only find an ideal head coach who believes the 2022 edition of Wilson is fixable, but also sell that same candidate on doing the heavy lifting required to make it happen.

It was already taking shape late Monday, when I spoke to two potential head coaching candidates expected to field calls in the next cycle. Both tout offensive résumés. Both said questions about Wilson would be near the top of their list of concerns, if not at the very top.

“I think the first thing is just, you know, what was happening over the course of this whole thing?” one of the coaches said. “Just kind of start with things between Russ [and Hackett] and tell me what didn’t fit there. … If you’re getting honest answers that make sense when you watch the tape, then OK, you can start working on resetting it. But if there’s some kind of explanation that doesn’t match up with what you’re seeing with your eyes, then I just think it’s a big red flag. You don’t want to go in believing it’s one thing and then finding out something completely different when you get onto the field.”

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 12: Head coach Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks and Russell Wilson #3 of the Denver Broncos shake hands after their game at Lumen Field on September 12, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

This is a real concern for coaching candidates looking at Denver. There are clearly some questions among some potential candidates about what Wilson is at this point. Some of that is undoubtedly coming from the Seattle Seahawks, who have leaked out a steady drip of suggestion that Wilson freelanced more late in his career than anyone knew outside of the franchise. The motivation of that information flow has always been clear — aiming to absolve head coach Pete Carroll of responsibility for what Wilson became inside Seattle’s offensive scheme, while supporting a we-knew-this-would-happen suggestion about his downfall in Denver.

Filtering out the truth inside the hurt feelings, score-settling and plenty of bad film in 2022 will undoubtedly be a part of the process for the Broncos' job candidates. That said, here is the best read on what I can gather are the concerns around the Denver job as the interview process starts in the coming weeks. Let's begin with Wilson.

Who is the real Russell Wilson?

First and foremost, there’s a disconnect between what Wilson has been in 2022 and what he was in Seattle. Even in his lowest moments with the Seahawks — and there weren’t many — he wasn’t this.

Some sources who have looked at film on him say a monumentally physical issue isn't apparent in Wilson's highlights. His arm talent still looks good. And while he’s not quite the athlete he was earlier in his career, it’s not as if he has become an immobile liability.

Those assessments suggest something is going on mentally with Wilson rather than physically. Either Hackett’s offense didn’t fit Wilson or Wilson refused to run Hackett’s offense the way it was designed. Maybe it was some of both. That could lean into the things you hear about Wilson freelancing down the stretch in Seattle, then being expected to stick to what is schemed when he changed teams. Add in the learning curve when it came to the skills and reliability of his offensive line and wideouts, and the result could be a mixture of multiple bad things colliding at once.

In Denver’s favor here is that Wilson never really had a full deck this season, with injuries plaguing the offensive line and also impacting the skill positions players. It’s hard enough when the quarterback and head coach are learning each other on the fly. It’s exponentially worse when the talent working with those two men is constantly in flux and certainly not operating at a peak level.

Even when that’s the case, it still doesn’t provide the answer of what Wilson is at this stage. And that’s a significant hurdle for an incoming candidate who is staring at Wilson being the center cog in making everything work.

There is no ownership track record

For young candidates who haven’t been around the block, this might not be a massive impediment. But for someone like Sean Payton, it’s going to be a big deal. Maybe even for Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who has experience working with Wilson when the two were in Seattle together. The Broncos loved Quinn one year ago and that likely hasn’t changed. But ownership has changed — and that could be a problem.

This much is clear: Payton isn’t going to be big on rolling the dice on the whole Russell Wilson project if he thinks he’s going to have to look over his shoulder in Denver and explain himself to various voices in the Walton-Penner ownership group. That’s a prevalent curiosity about the Broncos from people in the NFL who are on the outside looking in. It looks like CEO Greg Penner is running the show, with general manager George Paton as his top guy, but the next head coach is also going to report directly to Penner.

That sets up two silos in the organization right up front. The Penner/coach silo, and the George Paton/Penner silo. That’s already complicated, and that’s before you factor in that co-owner Rob Walton has also been a strong voice in the organization since buying the team. Then you have a coaching search that is going to be led by Penner, but also include some sizable input from Rob and Carrie Walton, Paton and Condoleezza Rice. That’s still more of a town hall meeting approach than a singular owner and general manager unifying into one focused vision. And it invites veteran candidates to wonder what it means when it comes to how the team functions.

This will matter with Payton. It might matter with Quinn, who witnessed the dysfunction of a hands-on Arthur Blank in Atlanta versus a hands-off Paul Allen in Seattle. And if the search eventually trickles down to someone like Frank Reich, he’s coming off of an absolute circus of ownership decisions in Indianapolis, many of which appear to have been bad.

If the right head coach is young and hasn’t been through these kinds of battles, it might not matter. But it’s definitely on the mind of some seasoned guys.

Having a relationship with George Paton

Here’s the thing about Paton: Even among those who don’t have a relationship with him, he has a good reputation.

In a league that is basically a massive sewing circle where everyone has a knife hidden behind their back, Paton is not someone who gets run down almost anywhere. He’s known as a smart, thoughtful and patient guy who also has a requisite competitive streak and speaks plainly. As much as he might be banged up among the Denver fan base right now, the vast majority of his reputation remains intact.

There is now a “but” attached to him. As in, “but his two biggest decisions give reason for pause.”

This is a fair assessment for coaching candidates to chew on, especially if they are under the impression that Paton is going to be their working partner. Given the statements of ownership and Paton being a part of the job search committee, that appears to be the case. But he carries two lines on his résumé that will lead to some conversation. First, he chose Hackett and it was the wrong choice. Despite being a remarkably nice guy who connected with players, there is plenty of evidence that Hackett was overwhelmed by his responsibilities while also needing to find a rhythm with a new quarterback. It was a mistake, regardless of what might have made it work.

The other major decision was, of course, trading for Wilson and then pairing him with Hackett, which wasn’t the fit Paton envisioned. The Wilson-Hackett partnership was not fixable, but Wilson’s future might be, and that keeps this from going into the “loss” column for Paton. It’s an unfinished story, with the most important development for Paton being the next one — which is who ultimately gets paired with Wilson next.

Right here and now is really the entire deal for Paton and the Broncos. Getting the head coaching hire right, and that head coach getting Russell Wilson right. That’s everything. If Paton and the Broncos can nail that and make good on the gargantuan expectations of 2022, this season of tumult will be remembered as a shocking period of turbulence that everyone is happy to put behind them.

Not every mistake has to be lasting or defining. Some can be chalked up to the learning process and overwritten with time. Others compound and border on acts of arrogance or malpractice that fester and ruin careers. Russell Wilson’s future could lead down either path. It's exactly why he’s going to be the first thing on the mind of every candidate who picks up the phone in the coming weeks.