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Russell Wilson vs. the narrative: bad start or bad fit for the Broncos?

The new Broncos’ QB has the NFL world talking, but not in the way he had hoped.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Russell Wilson-era of the Denver Broncos has started off so disappointing that a Manny Ramirez snap over the head of Peyton Manning in Super Bowl 48 seems salvageable by comparison.

After building a Hall-of-Fame level career in Seattle for 10 years, Wilson has made his new start in Denver statistically the worst of his career.

He has completed fewer than 60% of his passes, has just 4 touchdowns in 5 games to 3 interceptions, and he can’t seem to find a way to score in the red zone even if he had Marshawn Lynch circa-2014 in the backfield.

Broncos Country has noticed, and given the abrupt exodus of fans during the 4th quarter of week 5’s Colts game, patience is running on empty. An offseason built on hope on optimism has yielded “same movie, different cast”, and fans are tired of it. Yet, it’s not just the fans who are noticing and critiquing anymore. Members of the national media are now joining in on the pile on as well.

Wilson has been sacked 16 times in 5 games this season, but the blow certain media heads have delivered may sting even more.

Something is clearly off with Russell Wilson and the Broncos offense. Let’s get that out of the way. There is no way a team with the talented skill players featured in the Denver offense should be so incompetent at putting points on the board, regardless of who is calling the plays. Yet, that is the perception the Wilson-led Broncos have built for themselves.

It has been entirely inept, ineffective, and a slap in the face to fans who are forced to tune in to nationally televised prime time games this season. One member of the media, NBC’s Peter King, chose his scapegoat to be Wilson, as he eviscerated the veteran QB in an article posted this week.

King pointed to the final offensive play of the game vs. the Colts in which Wilson missed a wide open KJ Hamler in the end zone and ended up forcing the ball to a covered Courtland Sutton. Incomplete. Game over. Hamler was visibly irate, slamming his helmet to the ground, staying back to decompress for a few moments away from the team, and telling the media he “could have walked in.”

“What level of respect must an unproven young receiver have for Russell Wilson to do that?” King asked readers in his article for NBC. “Which is one of the major takeaways for me one month into the new era of the Denver Broncos: Wilson, by his awful play through five games, appears week after week to be eroding the trust the rest of his team has in him and causing teammates to think: This is the great Russell Wilson?”

While King was perhaps a bit hyperbolic in his assessment of Wilson being “awful” in all 5 games (outside of the Colts game, he has at least made some big plays), he clearly sees the issues the Broncos have faced all tracing back to #3.

Head coach Nathaniel Hackett would not be absolved either, though, as King would later admit the combination of Wilson with head coach Nathaniel Hackett may not be a match made in heaven, going as far as wondering if it is an “oil and water” situation. He referred to an interview former New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton did with ESPN’s Colin Cowherd in which he gave his opinion on what he would do to get Wilson going.

“What I’d ask for,” Payton said, “is some of his greatest hits in Seattle, and to make sure we’ve got those song lyrics available and if not, let’s put ‘em in.”

There is certainly substance in what Payton suggests (and hearing this from the guy many Broncos fans are already pining for to be on the sideline next season probably stings), and the statistical breakdown substack site Davis Breakdowns points this out in a series of play analyses.

“This issue isn’t a talent issue, as Denver has the guys to win early and find open space, and quick game passing isn’t reliant on talent in my opinion,” Davis wrote. “The reason Nathaniel Hackett’s offense looks drastically different than what we thought he would be running is Russell Wilson. Wilson has never been a good quick thrower, that isn’t his game.”

Davis goes on to break down multiple plays which support his statement, and indeed there are some glaring issues with Wilson on quick play designs.

Essentially, Hackett is asking Wilson to do more of something he has not been known to do (or do well) in his decade of experience. That being the case, is that more on Hackett or Wilson?

In Hackett’s defense, it isn’t like he is asking Peyton Manning to run the triple option or even pulling a Gary Kubiak and forcing Manning under center, but at the same time, a game plan is only as good as the players responsible for executing it. If the QB is out of his comfort zone with a certain scheme, it shouldn’t take a genius to take Payton’s words to heart.

Scheme changes and alterations to game plans are done all the time, though, and a few fixes here and there could finally kickstart the offense. But what if it’s more than that? What if it goes beyond what is happening on the field and goes deeper into the locker room? NFL Network’s Kyle Brandt held nothing back in pushing this theory earlier in the week.

Brandt, appearing on Good Morning Football, started out similarly to King by harshly criticizing Wilson’s on-field performance, likening him to Mitch Trubisky, but then he got a little personal.

“I think Russell Wilson is one of the least authentic personalities we have in this league,” Brandt said. “I think Russell Wilson is a poser. And that doesn’t mean he’s a bad person. I actually think he’s a good person, but I think he tries to be something that he’s not, and when you make $245 million, you either gotta be a really great guy with the locker room [that] loves you, or you gotta be an amazing player.”

Brandt went on to point out guys like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, who possess both traits, but he may have let his hand slip a little when he mentioned an incident at the NFL Honors red carpet event this past year in which he felt Wilson snubbed him.

“[Travis] Kelce comes by, [Aaron] Rodgers comes by, and Russell Wilson shows up with his sunglasses and his wife, and I think they think they’re Jay-Z and Beyonce,” he said. “They will literally put their hand up and say, ‘No, we’re not talking.’ Why? Because you think you’re that cool and that famous and that amazing and everything is so perfect? That does not work in a locker room.”

Is this criticism out of line and too personal, as many in the NFL voiced via social media, or is there indeed a disconnect between Wilson and, at the very least, the offensive side of the locker room?

Wilson does have a unique, flashy fashion sense much different from the guy in the tee shirt in jeans fans saw get drafted in 2012, and he has certainly embraced his brand as he has both an athletic clothing line (3Brand) and a more formal fashion line (Good Man Brand).

Is his focus on his brand not sitting well with his teammates, who he seems to yet be on the same page with on the field, especially in the case of KJ Hamler’s frustrated response?

At this point, one does have to wonder whether this is a Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn situation from the Major League film series. For those unfamiliar, Vaughn (played by Charlie Sheen) was a bad boy ex-con in the first movie who became a sensation for the (then) Cleveland Indians due to his intimidating fast ball and “to hell with the rules” attitude (including donning a cut off baseball jersey).

In the second film, he arrives at camp completely removed from his bad boy persona and instead wearing an expensive suit, slicked back hair, and being accompanied by a supermodel-looking publicist. It soon became obvious he valued his brand, sponsors, and public image over the game, as his fastball lost its edge, and he had lost the locker room. It wasn’t until manager Jake Taylor (played by Tom Berenson) gave him some tough love that he rediscovered it.

“You’re the problem,” Taylor said in the film. “You used to be the toughest guy on this team. Now you’re trying to prop yourself up with the right woman or the right shrink or God knows what else. You want to be a major league pitcher? You have to find something in yourself that yours and nobody else’s. You had that once, Rick. And if I were you, I’d spend the rest of the night trying to find it again. Without it, you’re no good to me or the team.”

Now, of course Wilson never had the “bad boy” persona, as he has always been a model person on and off the field, but he did have the reputation as an against-the-grain, undersized QB who was able to redefine the position to his advantage. He built himself into an elite, Super Bowl winning QB off of it, but now, 10 years later, is it a step too far to wonder if he’s lost a bit of that edge, and if his celebrity image is rubbing teammates the wrong way?

In all likelihood, it probably doesn’t go that far or deep. While this is an offense who is still getting to know one another far later than anyone had intended, outside of Hamler’s frustration, there have been no reports of locker room schisms or any kind of infighting that could be attributed to a divided locker room.

However, if things are indeed fine in the locker room, and Brandt’s words were more about a personal beef than an honest criticism, something is still amiss, and that takes us back to the field, where it appears maybe, just maybe, it isn’t all on Wilson.

Wilson is the punching bag for the offense primarily because he’s the face of the offense. That side of the ball almost always is associated with the success or failure of the QB. Team wins are now attributed to QB wins when measuring greatness (see Brady, Tom early in his career for reference), so when a team is losing or underperforming, the blame gets directed to the player with the ball in his hands the most.

It is not always the case, though, shocking as it may be, that the QB is the one to blame. As mentioned above, Wilson has been sacked 16 times this season. The team leads the league in offensive holding penalties (9) and offensive false starts (11). Running back Melvin Gordon has already fumbled 4 times, losing 2. His targeted receivers have dropped 15 passes.

Wilson is an easy target and definitely not someone who will lose his cool about it, but putting it all on him is just misguided. He has to be better, but so do his teammates and so does his head coach.

The QB has also exposed himself as an easy target for his sometimes groan-inducing postgame comments to the media, including dropping a “Let’s Ride” as he exited the podium following the loss to the Colts. That is not the time or the place, Russ, and the John Cena-esque “Hustle, Respect, and Loyalty” cliche types aren’t going to win fans over during an ugly stretch of football.

Still, should he resurrect his elite level of play, or even a quality of play that just scores points and wins games, none of that will matter to fans, but he can’t do it alone. If this season can still be salvaged, it will take much from not just Wilson, but the rest of the offense as well.

As the leader of the offense, though, it will still come back to him, though, good or bad. And that’s territory he’s used to, as he said Thursday.

““For me, I can handle [the criticism],’’ Wilson said. “I’m built for it. I’m built for the good times and the tough times. Really, how you get out of it as a team that we continue to keep building and we’re doing and where we’re going is focus on today. Nothing else matters. Today has got to be the best day we’ve had so far.”

As for whether the narrative of this being a poor fit, it’s too early to tell. It’s difficult to believe a QB who has played at such a high level for 10 years could suddenly, in the blink of an eye, do a complete 180 and become a washed-up has-been. Wilson has still shown he has the velocity and the big play ability, but what he has lacked is consistency.

It will likely not be the turnaround from 2-3 Peyton Manning had in 2012, but Wilson still has plenty left in the tank to be a difference maker if not an MVP candidate during his time as a Bronco. To help him get rolling, though, the offense, and the man on the sidelines controlling what the offense does, need to do their parts better as well.

A bad start does not necessarily mean a bad fit, but the narrative will persist and “ride on” each week if the Broncos continue to struggle. It’s up to Hackett, Wilson, and the rest of the Broncos offense to put a rest to it.