Mile High hopes: Can Russ have impact like Peyton?

In the middle of the NFL combine last week, a lunch conversation with a Seattle Seahawks executive turned to the topic du jour that had repeatedly dogged the franchise’s outlook over the last season. Centering on a familiar name with an ambiguous problem, with few definitive answers crossing the table.

Russell Wilson,” a visitor broached. “What’s going on there?”

“I don’t know what he wants,” the executive said. “We’re in a great city, great fan base, great organization that knows how to win. I get [that] the defense hasn’t been great the last few years, but neither has the offense.”

The executive shrugged.

“I don’t know what the better situation is that he’s looking for.”

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Less than one week later, the question which had seemingly been hanging over Seattle since the less-than-harmonious end of the 2020 season has been answered by Wilson and the Denver Broncos. A 33-year old quarterback looking for a seismic change hitched up with a franchise hungry for the transformative leader it lost with the retirement of Peyton Manning in 2016. Two entities in need of a common embrace of an immediate football goal.

The tao of now, rather than the stoicism of later.

This is what brought Wilson and the Broncos together. A familiar marriage of experienced upper-tier quarterback talent and sturdy Super Bowl window, not unlike what Denver was reaching for when former general manager John Elway reeled in Manning back in 2012. Granted, this union was certainly more costly for the Broncos the second time around. While Manning arrived for nothing more than a fat free agent contract, Wilson was procured for a significant trade package that will offer Seattle a chance to jumpstart a significant rebuild in the next few seasons.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - AUGUST 21: Quarterback Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks warms up before an NFL preseason game against the Denver Broncos at Lumen Field on August 21, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
The Broncos are counting on Russell Wilson to do what Peyton Manning did for them a decade ago. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

But price tag aside, the spirit of what Wilson and the Broncos are trying to accomplish with this union is very much the same. Neither side has time to waste. The Broncos hit the offseason with an aggressive quarterback plan that included varying blueprints for chasing three different veterans. Aaron Rodgers was in that group with Wilson. And trailing behind, Denver was continuing to monitor Deshaun Watson’s legal proceedings, just in case everything else fell through.

Of course, now we know that the Rodgers plan went off the tracks, thanks to some patient diplomacy in the Packers front office and a gargantuan contract offer. But don’t believe for a moment that Rodgers wasn’t a primary target for the Broncos. He was. Right into the NFL combine, even though Denver’s braintrust had a sneaking suspicion that if Rodgers really wanted to be somewhere other than Green Bay, he likely would have pulled the eject lever weeks ago, rather than dragging everything into March.

Indeed, it was that indecision by Rodgers that made the Wilson trade possible, fueling Denver’s motivation to pursue every avenue to an elite-level veteran quarterback. Someone capable of trading haymakers with the AFC West’s heavyweight of quarterbacks, as well as reshaping the team’s culture as it leaned hard into what it believes is capable of being a Super Bowl level roster with the right leader. A Peyton Manning-type of talent. Hence the short list of Wilson and Rodgers, then a distant backup plan of Watson depending on the course of his legal dossier.

It was a serious, thoughtful and impressive course schematic drawn up by general manager in George Paton, who resisted the typical “purge urge” that can sometimes undermine the start of a new regime. Rather than give in to sweeping change immediately, Paton spent a year measuring that talent and coaching staff, resisted the urge to immediately draft a quarterback (which would have elongated the building process), and started looking outward for quarterback opportunities that could elevate Denver into immediate contention.

The way Paton had it figured after the 2021 season, his roster was already very good and lined with plenty of young and rising talent. But it lacked the elite-level quarterback who could help change the building and culture in quick order. He knew Wilson and Rodgers were these types of players. But each came with questions. Did either really want out of their current situations? Would their respective franchises actually answer a trade call? And even if they were made available, did Denver have the assets to fight off other teams that would surely want to get into the bidding?

In Wilson’s case, the answers lined up perfectly. And in a stroke of luck, it happened at the precise time everything about Rodgers’ future started to tilt back toward the Packers. The result was the exact quarterback opportunity Paton was looking for. A player in Wilson who would no doubt arrive with the same fire that Manning did: Looking to prove that he still has plenty of elite-level football left in the tank, motivated to show that he can bring a team together outside of Seattle, and hungry to seize upon another Super Bowl window. And like Manning before him, an opportunity to play for a team that checks off a litany of talent boxes without the burden of rebuilding significant portions of the team.

The simple truth in Denver is that the franchise never adequately filled the Manning void after he retired. Instead, it toiled for six years and one day of a rebuild, juggling mediocre quarterback fits that were hopelessly struggling to turn the key on a fast-improving roster. The goal of this offseason was to resolve that in a meaningful and familiar way, with a player motivated to remake the final stretch of his prime years.

The Broncos and Wilson found that fit on Tuesday. A quarterback looking for a better situation has found his way to a franchise searching for the unifying piece. The last time that happened in Denver, the partnership culminated in a Super Bowl. From this week on, that’s exactly what this prioritization of “now” rather than “later” is going to be all about.

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