A nine-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl-winning quarterback benched by a team still in playoff contention?
The Denver Broncos’ decision to bench Russell Wilson rocked the NFL world Wednesday, but the move is a complex one with multiple layers that go beyond just how the 35-year-old quarterback has performed in his second season in Denver.
Let’s sort through it all:
How well was Wilson playing?
The 12-year veteran has posted much better numbers in 2023 than in his debut season with the Broncos, throwing for 3,070 yards with 26 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions. That statistical line is on par with Wilson’s numbers from his Seattle days and the TD-to-INT ratio is better than two-time MVP Patrick Mahomes has posted this year (26 TDs, 14 picks).
But the numbers don’t tell the full story about Wilson’s effectiveness.
Denver’s offense has been stagnant, ranking 25th in the league overall and averaging less than 300 yards per game. The passing attack also ranks in the bottom seven of the league, posting less than 200 yards per game (198.5), despite the presence of big-play receivers Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy.
Those aren’t the type of numbers that offensive guru Sean Payton envisioned for his first season on the sideline in Denver.
And the Broncos are trending down over the last month, having lost three of four, with Wilson throwing six TDs and four picks.
But Denver is still in the hunt, right?
Technically, yes. But the Broncos (7-8) currently sit 12th in the AFC and have just a 1.4 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to one probability model.
Denver, which is coming off an embarrassing Christmas Eve loss to the Patriots (4-11), would need to win out and have the Chiefs lose both of their remaining games to even have a shot.
So, what else is behind the decision?
This is where things get complicated, and it all starts with the massive contract extension that Wilson signed with the Broncos right after he was dealt from Seattle — and before he’d played even one game in the Mile-High City.
That massive five-year, $245 million contract included $165 million guaranteed, which will complicate Denver’s salary-cap situation for years to come.
Wilson already has a $39 million guarantee in place for 2024, and he stands to gain $37 million in additional guarantees if he’s on Denver’s roster on the fifth day of the league year in 2024.
That $37 million also would become guaranteed if Wilson failed to pass a physical with the Broncos, so a potential injury in the final two games would lock in Wilson’s money and greatly limit Denver’s flexibility with the QB.
Thus, putting Wilson on the bench eliminates the possibility of an injury forcing Denver’s hand.
Is Wilson done in Denver?
It sure looks like it.
Reports emerged later Wednesday that Wilson expects to be released next spring, and the quarterback posted on social media that he’s already thinking about the next chapter of his career.
Was this divorce unavoidable?
This saga has been unfolding throughout the season, as the Broncos reportedly asked Wilson earlier in 2023 to restructure his deal to change the guaranteed money, and the team threatened to bench him as far back as October.
When the QB and his camp refused to alter a contract that is just 15 months old, that led to Wednesday’s developments.
So, what’s next for Wilson and the Broncos?
FOX NFL Insider Peter Schrager joined the “NFL on FOX” podcast and said he sees a limited market for Wilson, likely consisting of just a handful of teams.
OK, so which teams could be in the market for Wilson?
On Thursday’s edition of “The Herd,” Colin Cowherd went through a full list of QB-needy teams to evaluate the field.
NFL Insider Albert Breer also joined “The Herd” on Thursday and said Wilson is in a similar situation to Cam Newton and Tim Tebow in that it might be difficult for a team to bring him in as a backup.
So, will Russ find a starting job in 2024? Will he accept a No. 2 job? Will he be willing to be a “bridge QB” for a team that has drafted a rookie?
This soap opera certainly has a few chapters left.