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The Broncos Have A Russell Wilson Problem

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 25: Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3) takes the filed on December 25, 2022 in Inglewood, Colorado. The Los Angeles Rams take on the Denver Broncos during a Christmas Day game at SoFi Stadium. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

There was a moment in the first half of what would turn out to be the Broncos' ugliest loss in a season filled with ugly losses when the CBS booth got around to discussing Denver's woes. Much was credited to the Broncos' many injuries, and no specific blame was apportioned. This was a function of the personalities running the struggle session: Tony Romo—relentlessly chipper; unable to violate the QB code—and Jim Nantz—smarmy; forever genuflecting at the altar of celebrity—were not going to sit there and say, in so many words, that this team stinks, or that its quarterback stinks, or that's it's poorly coached. They are unwilling, or possibly unable, to make declarative statements like that. So it made for a weird stretch of commentary, with the two talking around the team's flaws without naming them. This was polite; we all know what's wrong with this team (mostly everything, but especially Russell Wilson and Nathaniel Hackett) and maybe it would have been superfluous, at best, to litigate on a national broadcast.

Which made it particularly funny, and even a little refreshing, to see a particularly bad Wilson pick get roasted by a cartoon starfish over on the alternate Nickelodeon broadcast.

Patrick's rudeness was the most entertaining part of a 51-14 Christmas Day blowout at the hands of the Rams. Wilson, returning from a concussion, threw three picks, two of them in such rough field position to give L.A. a pair of touchdown drives totaling five plays before the first quarter was out. The Denver defense, its lone bright spot this year, made Baker Mayfield look like Kurt Warner, and couldn't keep Cam Akers (three TDs) or Tyler Higbee (two) out of the end zone. This one was 17-0 after 10 minutes and 31-6 at the half and you couldn't have scripted it any better if you were ABC and wanted people to flip over to the Mavs-Lakers game.

“A bad game," said Hackett, who in his short (and not likely to be much longer) career as a head coach has seen a lot of those. "Embarrassing game."

“It’s not acceptable, it’s not what we’re about,” Hackett said. “We went in with a mindset that we were going to be able to win this game but in the end we weren’t ready. We didn’t do the things we were looking to do. It wasn’t good enough and those guys know that, they know it’s all of us.”

Frustrations boiled over. Backup QB Brett Rypien got into it with guard Dalton Risner after the O-line gave up back-to-back sacks of Wilson, two of six on the afternoon. LB Randy Gregory threw a punch at a Rams player in the post-game mixer. If you're looking on the bright side, these were the only two signs the Broncos haven't totally given up.

Another silver lining: There are no more national broadcasts for this midden of a team. The networks booked them for a whole bunch last offseason, when they traded for Wilson, thinking—understandably—that the addition of a Hall of Fame quarterback to an elite defense could transform a squad that's missed the playoffs for six years running into one of the NFL's best. It obviously hasn't worked out that way: The Broncos, constitutionally unable to score, are The Official Team Of Thursday Night Football even when they play on Sunday.

How much of that falls on Wilson? Not all—it's never all—but plenty. He's 29th among qualified passers in QBR, sandwiched right between Zach Wilson and Davis Mills. He's 31st in completion percentage. He's tossed nine picks in 13 games. And it took him until yesterday for his passing TD total—12— to equal the number of bathrooms in his house.

“I let us down,” Wilson said. “Nobody wants to put out what we put out today. That was terrible.”

Wilson's also the thing about the Broncos that's least likely to change in the short term, thanks to his contract with $124 million fully guaranteed. New ownership can spend its Walmart money to eat Hackett's deal and to throw enough cash at Peyton Manning to run football operations, and I suspect they will do or at least try both, but it's basically impossible for Denver to cut bait on Wilson this offseason without crippling its cap. The NFL record for most dead cap for a single player belongs to the Falcons, who took a $40 million hit to move on from Matt Ryan. The Broncos can't get out from under Wilson for any cheaper than that until 2026. Let's ride.

UPDATE (12:50 p.m. ET): Hackett couldn't hack it.

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