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Payton impressed with Jarrett Stidham’s play despite lack of ‘spark’ to offense

The season finale game for the Broncos against the Raiders will be another important audition for the QB aiming to possibly replace Wilson next season.

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Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Good morning, Broncos Country and happy 2024!

The Jarrett Stidham Era begins at 1-0, but it was hardly a spectacular outing.

The numbers were solid - completing 20 of 32 passes for 224 yards, 1 TD and no turnovers - but not inspiring.

Still, a win is a win - always.

The backup QB until a week ago seemed relatively comfortable running the offense but certainly didn’t add the offensive “spark” Sean Payton pretended was the reason for taking Stidham over Russell Wilson for the final two games of the season.

Given information that the Broncos first approached Wilson after his win over the Chiefs, threatening to bench him for the remaining seven weeks if he didn’t remove the injury guarantees from his contract, it’s clear Payton was setting up this outcome, even foreshadowing it with an outburst toward Wilson on the sideline against the Lions.

And Payton’s clear move away from Wilson was reemphasized in his post-game comments.

Whether Payton’s choice was the right move for the club down the road is yet to be determined, but for this week it was a W - and that is always welcomed.

In his Monday presser, Payton noted at the outset Stidham remains the starter for the season finale against the Raiders before outlining a few improvements needed.

“No. 1, our job is to score,” Payton said, referring to chances at the goal line that did not end in touchdowns. “That’s the first thing. I thought Jarrett did a good job—after seeing the tape—with his decisions, the ball security, and all those things you want to see from that position.”

The head coach added correctly that the Broncos’ lone touchdown was largely a great play by Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who broke multiple tackles to fight his way to the end zone after a short pass across the middle.

“The big play to ‘LJ’ was a heck of a play by LJ and the protection was good,” Payton said. “There were a lot of positives to build off.”

Anticipating questions about whether this was the offensive spark he wanted, Payton seemed to acknowledge that scoring under 20 points against a woeful Chargers team wasn’t impressive, but he still has hope for that.

“I made the decision with the hope that it will help bring change,” he said. “There’s no guarantee that it does, but in the meantime, it’s something that I felt was necessary.”

Acknowledging the somewhat awkward QB situation with Wilson, Payton said the team handled the noise well and responded accordingly.

“Everyone responded well. It’s our job. It’s the NFL. Sometimes when you’re in this position, those are tough decisions,” he said, hinting that this decision wasn’t as tough as previous ones in his career where he was letting go of a player who had been with him for a long time - more evidence of his distance to Wilson. “This team has been resilient. They’ve been tough. We’ve battled through adversity, and I liked how the response was last week.”

That bodes well as the Broncos will try to get a ninth win next week in Vegas and aim for their first winning season since 2016.

Payton, who was oblivious to the seven-game losing streak the Broncos have to their AFC West rival, believes the winning season record is the most important goal.

“I don’t even know that I was aware that we had lost that many games to Las Vegas/Oakland,” he said Monday. “I think what would be important for us is to get to our ninth win. I’m sure that’s important for them as well. This is a little bit more focused on us inward. That element is really important.”

But no doubt for Payton the biggest issue is a second audition for Stidham to see if he can be a legit QB option for the Broncos next year.

Stidham will count $7 million against the cap next season - a very palatable number while the Broncos will still be paying Wilson’s 2024 dead-money charge - which could be as much as $85 million (or spread out between 2024 and 2025 with a post-June 1 designation).

The question is whether Payton believes Stidham can improve an offense that ranks 20th or worse in yards per play (5.0), red zone efficiency (50.9 percent) and third-down conversions (36.6 percent) this year.

Another game will offer more info, but Payton liked the confidence he saw from the fifth-year pro.

“You didn’t feel like you were working with somebody who was a younger player,” the head coach said. “You felt like you were working with somebody that had experience and was very confident.”

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