Russell Wilson made history in Denver – it was just the wrong kind

You could feel bad for Russell Wilson if the mess he found himself in wasn’t so predictable.

He rocked up in Denver in 2022 determined to make a mark. To plot his own course away from the pesky Seattle Seahawks and Pete Carroll. To overthrow Patrick Mahomes at the top of the AFC West. To take multiple Super Bowl titles. To win on his own terms and cement himself as a future Hall of Famer. He pushed through a trade to the Broncos so that he could get more of everything. More control of an offense. More control over the building, including a sparkling new office and his own training staff. More money. And, most importantly, more credit.

The Broncos obliged, handing Wilson a $243m contract before he had played a down for the team. Two years on, the Broncos are ejecting on the experience before the contract extension even kicks in. They will release Wilson to the tune of $85m in dead-cap money – the highest figure in league history. Put it this way: the Broncos are paying Wilson more money than any team in NFL history to go away.

Related: Broncos take $85m hit to bring Russell Wilson’s Denver career to an early end

By any measure, it’s one of the worst trades the league has seen. At every step, Denver’s quarterback, coaches and ownership have been like Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes. The final accounting is brutal:

  • $124m guaranteed

  • 11 wins in 30 starts

  • 13 defeats by 10 or more points

  • Zero playoff appearances

  • Two first-round picks, two second-round picks and three players traded away

  • Innumerable shots of frustrated coaches and teammates

  • Wilson’s flaws exposed

  • An organization further away from contending today than when Wilson walked through the door

The damage isn’t finished. The NFLPA is continuing to investigate the Broncos’ handling of Wilson’s benching last season.

Being the signature player in one of the ‘worst’ trades of all time isn’t just about one player. It’s about the opportunity cost of sinking so many resources into what has been a colossal failure. The Broncos are capped out and lacking draft picks. They threw cash at last year’s free-agent pool to try to compete in 2023. They’re now stuck in the mud, trying to challenge in a division featuring Patrick Mahomes’s Kansas City Chiefs, a spirited Las Vegas Raiders and a rejuvenated Los Angeles Chargers, without a full cache of draft picks, cap room, or a replacement at quarterback. By releasing Wilson with such a high cap hold, the Broncos have painted themselves into the NFL’s dead zone of mediocrity.

It’s an ignominious end for one of the best quarterbacks of the mid-2010s.

You didn’t need to be Columbo to figure out the Sean Payton-Wilson partnership was going to end this way, either. Payton is a firebrand – an exacting, commanding coach. As the orchestrator of some of the league’s best offenses, Payton is a doctrinaire. You lineup and run the damn plays, just as Payton has designed and called them. Wilson has been at his best as a freelancer, despite visions of morphing into a kind of Drew Brees-lite. He’s a free spirit at quarterback, betting on himself to erase any structural concerns once the ball is snapped. As his athleticism has waned, his ability to turn bad plays into good ones has vanished. Under “incompetent” Nathaniel Hackett and then Payton, he was unable or unwilling to evolve his style.

By the mid-point of his first season, the Hackett-Wilson era was more of a comedy skit than a functional football team. The Broncos handed Payton an eye-watering contract under the pretext he could ‘fix’ Wilson. But there was nothing to fix; Wilson is a shadow of his former self.

Still, few things have been more dispiriting over the past few years than watching Wilson drift through games, berated by coaches and teammates alike, the blame for organizational malpractice was laid at the feet of the quarterback by his critics. It’s been open season for those who think the Seahawks’ near-dynastic run was built off the back of their smothering defense.

The reality is that those Seahawks teams were a collective effort, the ideal marriage of a high-level coach, defense and quarterback. In Denver, Wilson was left to his own devices: he was given everything he asked for but ultimately was unable play the part in which he cast himself. He isn’t a conductor in the mold of Tom Brady, Mahomes or Brees. He was – and is – a cog in an offensive machine, not its focal point.

Payton spent much of last season trying to hide his quarterback. It was, in some ways, effective. Wilson finished 13th among eligible quarterbacks in the RBSDM composite last season, which measures the value of a play and how much the quarterback can be deemed responsible for the value. That was one spot below rookie sensation CJ Stroud and comfortably ahead of the likes of Matthew Stafford, Justin Herbert and Kyler Murray. Wilson jumped to eighth in RBSDM on third downs.

The going rate for the league’s 13th-best quarterback is $45m a year. A team will be able to snag Wilson for a fraction of that next season on a one-year rental. A team can sign Wilson to a one-year, $1.2m deal, with the Broncos already on the hook for $38m next season. And Wilson has no incentive to sign a deal that would help offset the contract he signed with Denver. His reputation has taken a beating, but bringing in Wilson on a cheap deal will be a win for someone in 2024.

Releasing Wilson brings to an end one of the oddest chapters in recent league history. The trade will now take its place on the top shelf of worst transactions.

Other terrible trades in modern NFL history

Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns

Edging out Wilson and the Broncos for the worst trade of recent times. The Browns traded more picks for Watson and handed him more guaranteed money. And, somehow, Watson has been worse on the field than Wilson over that span. Unlike Wilson, he has a very good team around him and there is time to turn things around, but factor in the Browns selling their soul to land Watson and this deal lives in a tier of its own

Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings

In 1989, Jimmy Johnson traded Walker to the Vikings for a bevy of picks and players that would wind up forming the foundation of the Cowboys’ dynasty. It became known as the Great Trade Robbery. Dallas nabbed three first-round picks, three second-round picks, a third-rounder and a sixth-rounder from Minnesota. Walker lasted just two full seasons with the Vikings, falling short of 1,000 yards in each season.

The Chicago Bears trading up for Mitch Trubisky

We’re in opportunity-cost territory again. In 2017, the Bears dealt a first, third and fourth-round pick to leap up one spot in the draft to select Mitch Trubisky out of North Carolina at No 2 overall. A few spots behind Trubisky? Some guy called Patrick Mahomes.

Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts

The Browns selected Richardson with the No 3 overall pick out of Alabama. Eighteen months later, they dealt him for a first-rounder to the Colts. Richardson lacked the speed and vision to thrive in the NFL. He wound up playing a season and a half in Indy before the Colts moved on. He wouldn’t play another down in the league.

Ricky Williams to the New Orleans Saints

Back when running backs were still the faces of NFL franchises, the lowly New Orleans Saints were eager to land a top-tier back of their own. Mike Ditka traded eight picks to Washington in 1999, including two first-rounders, to jump up in the draft to select Ricky Williams. The only problem: by dealing so many assets Ditka stripped his team of any supporting talent. Williams played only three seasons in New Orleans before catching fire with the Dolphins, rushing for 1,853 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first season in Miami.

Wes Welker to the New England Patriots

After playing three seasons in Miami as a special teams whiz, the Dolphins traded Welker to the AFC East rivals Patriots for just a second and seventh-round pick. It came back to haunt the Dolphins: Welker went on to strike up an immediate wink-wink connection with Tom Brady, becoming the prototype for a kind of modern slot receiver. He made five Pro Bowls and became a fringe Hall of Famer.

Randy Moss to the New England Patriots

The Patriots weren’t finished with the Welker deal. They also grabbed Randy Moss from the Raiders for a fourth-round pick in 2007. Moss was on an expensive deal in Oakland and failed to live up to his early career promise in Minnesota. They shipped him to New England where he went on to put together one of the most dominant runs in league history, including as the chief architect of the Patriots’ record-shattering 2007 offense.

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