Even under Sean Payton, the Denver Broncos were a drama-filled team that missed out on the playoffs

Mon, Jan 8, 2024
NFL News (AP)

Even under Sean Payton, the Denver Broncos were a drama-filled team that missed out on the playoffs

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) - Sean Payton was hired to clean up the mess Nathaniel Hackett left behind, put the Denver Broncos back on the path to the playoffs and salvage the $242.6 million investment the team made in Russell Wilson just five months earlier.

Payton provided just as much drama as Hackett did, however, making curious calls, burning timeouts, losing track of downs, chewing out his quarterback and his coaches on the sideline and even calling out his predecessor back in July.

The Broncos (8-9) posted their seventh straight losing record, missed the playoffs for an eighth consecutive year and extended an embarrassing skid in the AFC West.

While they beat the Chiefs for the first time since 2016 and swept the Chargers for the first time since 2019, they bookended a roller coaster of a season with losses to Las Vegas that stretched their skid against the Raiders to eight games.

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Wilson dialed down his social media presence as Payton instructed and rebounded from the worst statistical season of his career to throw for 26 touchdowns with eight interceptions. But he was benched after Christmas and ended the season as Jarrett Stidham's backup, with a nasty divorce all but certain when the league's new year begins in March.

The Broncos will pay a hefty price for moving on from Wilson.

They'll owe him $39 million in 2024 even if he's slinging it in Pittsburgh or Atlanta or some other NFL city, and they'll be saddled with a record $89 million in dead money charges over the next two seasons, a financial fallout that will hamper their rebuilding efforts.

Wilson, who went 11-19 in orange and navy, revealed after he was benched that management had approached him in the aftermath of Denver's biggest win in years - a 24-9 thrashing of the Chiefs in Week 8 that snapped the Broncos' 16-game losing streak to Kansas City - and said they'd sit him if he didn't adjust his $37 million injury guarantee for 2024.

He called their bluff, the players' union got involved and Wilson went on to start nine more games before Payton switched quarterbacks following a 26-23 loss at home to the lowly Patriots on Christmas Eve.

The silver lining in their latest loss to the silver and black is that it bumped the Broncos to the 12th pick in the upcoming NFL draft, giving them a better chance at landing a college quarterback should they go that route.

Stidham said Monday that he hopes he's not only in the mix but the incumbent: "I'm really confident I could be the guy for us next year."

Stidham didn't wow anyone during his two-game audition, however, going 1-1 with two TD throws, both of which necessitated some nifty after-the-catch yardage, an interception and seven sacks.

So, nobody on the roster - and maybe not anyone at team headquarters - knows who will be the Broncos' starting quarterback in 2024.

Therefore, does any progress the team made in Payton's first season in Denver really matter with such uncertainty clouding the game's most important position?

Right tackle Mike McGlinchey thinks so.

"With respect to the quarterback position - it's a big-time position - but it's just one position," McGlinchey said. "There are other facets to our football team and other things that are going on that we need to improve on first to make sure that guy's job is a lot easier. It's not my job to speak on who that's going to be. Sean and the team upstairs will get this right ...

"Like I said, it is just one position. There are 21 other guys - 32, I guess, if you count special teams - to get better. It's our job to get better at every position and you have to look inside first before you start worrying about everything else."

WHAT'S WORKING

Denver's defense was its calling card despite that 70-20 meltdown at Miami in Week 3, something coordinator Vance Joseph referenced throughout the season as the Broncos bounced back to become one of the better units in the NFL over the last three months.

WHAT NEEDS WORK

It's up to Payton and general manager George Paton to fix an offense that sorely missed WR Tim Patrick (Achilles) and TE Greg Dulcich (hamstring, foot). They have a foundation to build around as the starting five offensive linemen were together for all but the finale because of McGlinchey's bruised ribs. But do Garrett Bolles and his $16 million salary return?

STOCK UP

CB Patrick Surtain II and S Justin Simmons are Pro Bowl starters along with KR/PR Marvin Mims Jr. And S PJ Locke played well after S Caden Sterns (knee) got hurt in the opener and S Kareem Jackson got suspended for six games and eventually was waived.

STOCK DOWN

WR Jerry Jeudy, one of just three first-rounders on the roster (Bolles, Surtain), had another so-so season with two touchdown catches.

KEY NUMBERS

13 - Starting quarterbacks for the Broncos since Peyton Manning's retirement after Super Bowl 50.

52-79 - Those 13 QBs' combined record for the Broncos, a .393 winning percentage.

NEXT STEPS

The Broncos' top priority is finding a starting quarterback Payton can work with, whether that's another team's castoff or a draft pick.

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AP freelancer Ashlyn Stapleton contributed to this report.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl

ARNIE MELENDREZ STAPLETON Arnie is an NFL writer based in Denver twitter mailto "
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