National Football League
Broncos bench Russell Wilson; QB is 'looking forward to what's next'
National Football League

Broncos bench Russell Wilson; QB is 'looking forward to what's next'

Updated Dec. 30, 2023 12:46 p.m. ET

The Denver Broncos are benching quarterback Russell Wilson in a move that could have major ramifications for both his future and theirs.

Although the move keeps open the team’s options next year and could ultimately save the Broncos $37 million, coach Sean Payton on Wednesday called the switch to journeyman Jarrett Stidham more of a football decision than a financial one.

"I understand all the speculation and everything that surrounds a move like that, and I can tell you we’re desperately trying to win," Payton said. "Sure, in our game today there are economics and all those other things, but the No. 1 push behind this ... is to get a spark offensively."

Wilson seemed to acknowledge that his time in Denver is likely over at season's end in a social media post late Wednesday night.


"God’s got me. Looking forward to what’s next," Wilson wrote.

The Broncos (7-8) have a narrow path to the playoffs. They’d have to win out and Kansas City (9-5) would have to lose out for Denver to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2015 season.

Payton said the entire offensive operation, himself included, has been deficient and this move isn’t meant as an indictment of Wilson alone.

"I can’t replace the entire offensive line, I can’t bring in five new receivers," Payton said, "and if it continues over a period of time, then there’ll be another guy here talking to you, as well."

Payton and Wilson have always been a clash of styles and two weeks ago Payton berated his QB on the sideline while Wilson patiently listened without response.

Going with a journeyman with two NFL starts in his five-year career over a Super Bowl champion who was the fastest QB in league history to 100 wins could backfire on Payton.

"There’s always risk, but as a head coach you’ve got to make some tough decisions and they’re not always going to be right," Payton said. "So, you trust your instincts and you go by what you feel and those have been good for me over the years."

Stidham will start Sunday when the Broncos host the Los Angeles Chargers (5-10) and in all likelihood start at Las Vegas in the season finale, too.

It’s a remarkably similar situation to last year when Stidham started the Raiders’ final two games after the team benched Derek Carr in a business decision and sent him home.

This circumstance in Denver differs from the Raiders’ situation a year ago because the Broncos will dress Wilson, who could theoretically get into the game Sunday.

Read more on the Russell Wilson saga:

If Wilson doesn’t play another down this season, however, the Broncos will have kept open their options in 2024 — although his five-year, $242.6 million contract extension that kicks in next season carries massive dead money charges over the next two years if Denver decides to part ways with Wilson. (The Athletic reported that Wilson expects to be cut in the spring).

Wilson’s $39 million salary for next season is already guaranteed, but if he’s on the roster March 17, his 2025 salary of $37 million also becomes guaranteed. Because injured players cannot be cut, the Broncos would be on the hook for that 2025 salary if Wilson gets hurt and can’t pass his spring physical.

Payton insisted no determination has been made about Wilson’s future in Denver, although it will be hard to move on from him because of the salary cap hit the Broncos would absorb.

If the Broncos release Wilson after June 1, they’d owe him his $39 million salary for next season and they’d owe $85 million in dead money spread over two years, which would seriously handicap their roster building and force Payton to find a bargain solution at quarterback, something that could be difficult with a middling group of free agent QBs in 2024.

Trading Wilson before June 1 would leave the Broncos with $68 million in dead money next season unless the acquiring team would pay his $22 million option bonus.

The Broncos, who have traded away three first- and three second-round picks to acquire Wilson and Payton, have just six selections in next April’s draft and no second-rounders.

They’ll likely be picking in the teens, too, when the four QBs projected as first-rounders — USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye, LSU’s Jayden Daniels and J.J. McCarthy, should he leave Michigan — figure to be long gone by the time the Broncos are on the clock.

Wilson made a brief appearance at his locker Wednesday, but the team said he won’t address his benching until Friday.

After the Broncos lost to the Patriots on Christmas Eve, Wilson was asked about his future in Denver and said, "I came here to win a championship for us and to find a way to do that. I obviously love being here with these guys, these teammates. I’m excited to keep playing ball and playing hard for us."

Wilson has rebounded from an awful 2023 season when he threw a career-low 16 touchdown passes to go with 11 interceptions. This year, his 26 TD throws rank sixth in the league and he has eight interceptions.

Wilson is just 11-19 as Denver’s starter since the blockbuster trade brought him over from Seattle last year. The Seahawks are 17-16 since then and reached the NFC playoffs last season behind Wilson’s former backup, Geno Smith.

Payton called each QB into his office Wednesday to notify them of the switch. He said Wilson was disappointed but had responded like a true pro.

Stidham, who signed a two-year, $10 million deal with Denver last offseason, worked with the starters Wednesday for the first time save for a handful of snaps he took at Detroit two weeks ago.

"To get a true evaluation and see what he can do, I mean, he needs to play," Payton said. "But I’m hopeful he gives us a spark."

Moments after the news broke Wednesday morning, "The Herd" host Colin Cowherd pointed to the two-year, $10 million contract the Broncos gave Stidham in the offseason as evidence that Payton was keeping his options open in case he felt like things would not work with Wilson in the long run.

"Sean Payton knew very early this was a weird fit," Cowherd said. "It's a personality clash. One guy [Payton] is intense, confrontational, outspoken. Another [Wilson] is highly uber-optimistic, which has turned lots of teammates off through the years. They think it's phony and cringy. I'm not making those judgments. I know the coach really well. He's an authentic straight shooter, lots of opinions. He's going to tell you what he thinks. Russell tends to be more laid back in that space.

Broncos bench Russell Wilson for final two games of the season

"The second thing is … Russell Wilson's career is highlighted by rainbow throws up the sideline and moving around a lot, making plays out of the pocket. But if you watch Russell Wilson in the pocket, I would argue he struggles to see downfield between the hash marks. I saw it again this weekend — Denver's got very few 20-yard, 25-yard completions. And they have Cortland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy — those are fast guys that can get open. They have very few middle-of-the-field completions. … There are open plays down the middle of the field and I just don't think [Wilson] sees them."

FOX Sports NFL analyst James Jones, however, believes Payton took the Denver job intending to do everything he could to help Wilson after a disastrous 2022.

"I truly believe Payton took this job knowing that Russell Wilson was there," Jones said. "Knowing that, ‘With what I do, with how I develop quarterbacks, I can get Russell Wilson playing at a high level in my system.’ … I think he took this job for Russell Wilson and to get Russell Wilson right."

What does Russell Wilson's benching mean for the Broncos?

The Broncos sit at 7-8 and are a long shot for a wild-card spot in the AFC. Their path to the playoffs became much murkier when they lost to the New England Patriots on Christmas Eve. The move to bench Wilson could spell the end of the nine-time Pro Bowler's time in Denver and pave the way for Payton to bring in his own quarterback during the offseason.

If Denver does in fact move on from Wilson, both Cowherd and Jones believe he will generate interest from some teams, such as the Washington Commanders and Tennessee Titans, given his résumé.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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