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Penner, Paton say it’s not about the quarterback - but we all know it is

The owner and GM tried their best not to pin the firings on the QB’s poor play, but it’s no secret what has to be much, much better next season.

Denver Broncos vs San Francisco 49ers Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Since head coach Nathaniel Hackett was fired Monday and new Denver Broncos owner/CEO Greg Penner spoke to media Tuesday, there’s been plenty of speculation on the potential new head coach as well as the role of current GM - and now guy sitting on the hottest seat - George Paton.

But in some ways, the guy with the most to answer for is the guy who has seemed the safest.

The quarterback with a contract through 2028.

Because of a contract extension made before any sign that the $245-million man could still be an elite QB, Russell Wilson is tied to Denver for a long time.

An article in Sporting News explained the salary issue quite plainly:

Usually there are ways to move out of big money contracts, but Wilson’s contract is structured in a way that would make it incredibly painful for the Broncos cap to cut bait after the 2022 season. Wilson is set to take an $107 million dead cap hit if the Broncos cut him, and an $82 million dead money charge if he’s traded pre-June 1.

And if Wilson’s poor play turns out to not have been all because of Hackett, it doesn’t get much better for the Broncos the next few years, either, as Sporting News explains. Probably the best financial option for Denver would be to move on from Wilson after the 2025 season, when the dead cap hit is a mere $49.6 million. But if Wilson is still on the roster the fifth day of the 2024 league year, his salary becomes fully guaranteed.

That kind of contract doesn’t make Wilson a good trade option either, but not a lot of teams have true billionaires for owners. And given the deep pockets of the Walton Penner Group, Wilson may not be as safe as he - or many in Broncos Country - think.

Still, no one likes to waste money, and the best the owner - and fans - can hope for is that the new coach is actually able “to fix” Wilson.

Somewhat ironically, Paton noted at the presser that “fixing Russ” was not the primary reason for getting a new head coach - even though everyone in the room knows that even 50 percent better play from Wilson probably would have kept Hackett’s job.

“We saw flashes of Russ this year. Russ even said he didn’t play up to his standard. ...He needs to be better,” Paton said. “That’s not why we’re getting a new coach—to turn around Russ. It’s about the entire organization. It’s about the entire football team. It’s not just one player. It’s not whether Russ is fixable or not, but we do believe he is. We do.”

Paton says the quiet part out loud - Wilson is playing bad football. Bad enough that the head coach was canned and the GM better hope the next guy can change it - as he hinted in another comment.

“It’s really important that whoever we hire has a relationship with the quarterback—‘Russ’ and whoever the backups are—but the entire offense as well as the entire defense,” Paton said. “We need someone to fix the special teams. Really, all three phases are what we want our coach to be an expert in, not just one person.”

Penner’s comment on Wilson was a little more nuanced, obviously putting the decision to sign him all on Paton.

“The decision to have Russell here was a long-term one. This season has not been up to his standards or expectations,” Penner noted. “He knows he can play better. We know he can play better, and we know he will do the right work in the offseason to be ready for next year.”

In answering the question of why he has faith in Paton as well as Wilson, the owner definitely put pressure on his GM to make this right.

“George and I ... talk every day since we purchased the team a number of months ago. He acknowledged right up front that there were a couple of decisions that haven’t worked out as he had expected, but I understand his thought process,” Penner said. “He understands the work that needs to be done in this offseason, and I’m going to rely on him heavily as we go through and make these changes.”

Changes that involve new hires but also a completely new culture of winning.

One of those may be a lot harder than the other.

Paul Klee made an excellent point about the quarterback, noting that while the owner is apologizing to fans, Wilson owes us one too.

And he owes his teammates a new commitment to the Broncos and not just “Team 3.”

“But when it’s obvious the Broncos huddle, sideline and locker room wouldn’t follow Wilson’s lead to the grocery store, much less into a dangerous game against some of the world’s fiercest competitors, isn’t time for the $245 million quarterback to prove he’s on the same team?”

Beyond time.