They say you really learn through trial and error, so Monday was an important step in the ownership of the Penner Group.
After a 51–14 loss to the Rams Sunday that dropped Denver to 4–11, it fired coach Nathaniel Hackett and publicly declared that general manager George Paton would be brought into the fold to help find his replacement. This was a move so expected, so painfully by the book when it comes to standard NFL operating procedure, that we barely batted an eye. The people closest to power, those who have the ability to shape the narrative, survive. That, of course, is the problem. How long will it take for the Broncos to find out?
Make any worn cliché out of an analogy you want. The Broncos fired the head chef and not the guy who bought the salad with his own entourage and unwillingness to run the offense. The Broncos fired the construction worker and not the architect who drew up plans for a modern building made of crumbling sandstone. The Broncos fired the astronaut and not the guy in mission control who built the rocket and pointed it straight at the sun instead of the distant planet they were supposed to explore.
There was a lot of blame to go around for this wildly disappointing Broncos season. Hackett was not flawless. But having a person wear it on their heart like a scarlet letter is a symbol of why bad teams stay bad and mediocre teams stay mediocre.
This is the really amazing part of the Hackett news on Monday, not that Hackett was fired, but that there was a complete lack of accountability for the one GM in the NFL who went out and traded the franchise’s future for an aging quarterback that very few smart offensive heads would have signed up as a coach. To say there is an excess of information, or at least reported speculation, about what Russell Wilson might do to a franchise is putting it mildly.
But the Penner group didn’t even need Google. It needed to open its eyes once or twice during the season and see open wide receivers jumping up and down, throwing tantrums like toddlers during a Christmas present fake, when Wilson decided to continue to freelance in the backfield and finally throw a directionless deep ball into the outer portion of Denver’s thin atmosphere.
What was the difference between what Russell Wilson did this year and what Zach Wilson did in New York? Play the film side-by-side and see two quarterbacks who don’t want or can’t play in rhythm and route. A franchise is almost certain to cut ties with the player. Another blames the person who tried to fix it without success.
As we wrote recently, who will take this job now? Who’s going to take what could be their only shot at an NFL head coaching job with a legacy general manager and a quarterback who only wants to dance to one song? In the coming weeks, we’ll likely hear some real pie-in-the-sky scenarios, but only the truly naive, or the truly confident that they can cut Wilson and force ownership to swallow a Thanksgiving-sized load of dead -cap space, will go into this situation confident they can fix it. As a reminder, Wilson signed a $245 million extension before the season that included $124 million guaranteed. The dead cap amount could be as high as $107 million, depending on the timing of any move by Wilson.
Seriously, how hard is it for someone to pull up 22 footage and watch an offense? (My typical gripes about the usability of the NFL’s Game Pass product aside.) Sure, there were some design flaws in what Hackett put on the field, but how much of that was in a big effort to put forward something sensible so that Wilson would hit the intended goals? How many game plans were nuked before they even had a chance to get off the ground? How many receivers, God bless them, may have just thrown up their hands on a few routes because they knew the ball wasn’t coming to them in the middle of the field?
Are we really willing to bet that Vic Fangio, the godfather of the modern NFL defense, who was also let go under Paton’s watch, and Hackett, who got Blake Bortles, of all people, to a conference championship game, are complete hacks and Paton, who is in his first turn at this general manager gig, have all the answers? We’re not saying Paton should be fired, but good practice would include total and complete accountability, and not the same old message from NFL owners that the most vulnerable will be fired, anonymously smeared and forced to take the guts all alone.
So this is Day 1 of a hard lesson, one that the team’s new ownership group will really start to feel sometime in mid-October 2023, when the Wilson contract, along with some of the other mega deals thrown at aging Band-Aid talent on this roster, is starting to really let out air. We are what we choose to believe. And today, the Broncos professed their faith in Wilson, or at least the thought processes that brought him here in the first place.