ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In the time since quarterbacks John Elway and Peyton Manning roamed the football earth, big passing plays for the Denver Broncos have become nearly extinct.
The Broncos hope quarterback Russell Wilson can bring them back to the offense.
“Phew, we’ll be throwing that thing down the field,” Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said when Wilson was formally introduced after the blockbuster trade with the Seattle Seahawks. “That’s so exciting.”
The Broncos have finished 21st or worse in the league in passing touchdowns in each of the past six seasons, including last in the league in 2019. They’ve finished 21st or worse in pass plays of at least 20 yards three times over the past six years, 15th or worse five times, including last in the league in 2016.
It’s somewhat understandable considering the team’s constant change at quarterback — Wilson will be the 11th different quarterback to start a game (not counting running back Phillip Lindsay‘s COVID-19 necessitated start) since Manning retired following the 2015 season.
The team has seen near-constant change at offensive coordinator and head coach. Justen Outten is the fifth different offensive coordinator since the start of the 2017 season and Hackett is the fourth different head coach since 2016.
The result has been muddled work, something the Broncos expect to change with Wilson.
“First and foremost, every single thing in this game is based on how the quarterback plays,” Hackett said. “So I think, when we get that opportunity to be able to sit down and talk and kind of start building this thing, it’s about what Russell does well. And one thing he does well is throwing the ball down the field.”
In recent seasons, opposing coaches said privately — and in how they lined up — that they did not think the Broncos could make them pay down the field. They crowded the line of scrimmage, clogged the short and intermediate routes and consistently added pressure on third-and-long plays to unsettle the Denver quarterbacks. Rinse and repeat, week after week, for an offense that hasn’t scored more than 23 points per game since 2014 and hasn’t topped more than 21 points per game since 2016.
Wilson, on the other hand, has averaged 7.8 yards per pass attempt during his 10-year career — anything above 7.5 is considered a quality showing and 8.0 or above is usually an elite downfield passing game. The Broncos haven’t had a starting quarterback average more than 7.2 yards per attempt for even one season since Manning averaged 7.9 yards per attempt in 2014.
“He has elite arm strength, elite accuracy, we feel he has the best deep ball in the NFL,” Broncos general manager George Paton said. “Then, you watch him off schedule, his eyes and his instincts and the playmaking ability. The it factor that all great quarterbacks have, Russ has. He’s the best in the biggest moments. He’s best at the end of the game — to win the game.”
For his part, Hackett was hired in January by Paton because of his success as a playcaller on offense in Buffalo, Jacksonville and Green Bay as well as Hackett’s promise to match the players the Broncos have to the game plan each week.
The team’s receivers, including a first-round pick, Jerry Jeudy, as well as two receivers Paton signed to contract extensions last season, Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick, had extended bouts of inactivity last season.
Sutton had six games with three or fewer targets, nine games with two or fewer receptions. Jeudy had two receptions longer than 35 yards all season. Wilson said he has already reviewed the Broncos’ games from last season and sees plenty of potential in the group.
“Watching the wideouts and to see these guys, to see Tim Patrick attack the football against the Cowboys,” Wilson said. “To see Courtland Sutton dive for a go-ball against the Steelers. To see [KJ] Hamler battle through all of the things he’s been battling with and to know he wants to still get work even though he’s been dinged up and he’s getting back. That’s passion to me. To see him in the preseason game track down balls has been cool to watch. And then you think about Jerry Jeudy. I think he’s a star.”
There is plenty of work to be done before the regular season arrives and the Broncos have seen plenty of July optimism evaporate long before Halloween. But Wilson has already mapped out plans for offseason throwing sessions with the group to try to change the course of things. He posted video of their first meeting in California this week.
— Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson) March 22, 2022
“Every time I call a play, I want the offense to believe this play could go to the house — every single time,” Wilson said. “Every time. So I think that starts in practice. It starts with one-on-ones. It starts with running routes on air. Getting to throw in California or if I’m here, whatever it is in the offseason. We’re already planning everything and everything else. That’s where that trust comes.”