ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — 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.”
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.
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 chargers over the next two years if Denver decides to part ways with Wilson.
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.
That’s the reason the Raiders sent Carr home a year ago.
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.”