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Priority for new Broncos head coach: Fixing Russ

Greg Penner and George Paton held a news conference Tuesday to explain the firing of coach Nathaniel Hackett and their plans on hiring.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — This year’s slogan, which turned out to be the worst in Denver Broncos history, was “Let’s Ride.”

The Broncos’ unofficial motto for 2023 will be, “Can Russ Be Fixed?”

After all that General Manager George Paton surrendered – the building blocks for the future though draft picks, two starting players, a backup quarterback, and a $245 million in contract extension dollars -- to acquire Russell Wilson, the quarterback performed so far below his previous play that new co-owner and CEO Greg Penner fired the head coach, Nathaniel Hackett, just 11 months and 15 games into his four-year contract.

A new head coach is needed – the third in three years for Paton and for the Broncos – and that new boss will be charged with fixing Russ.

After finishing in the top 10 in 9 of his previous 10 years of NFL rankings with Seattle, Wilson is 29th this year in his first season with the Broncos.

Wilson has three more guaranteed years at $104 million ahead on his contract, although there is a possible expensive escape after next year – where the Broncos could release Wilson and pay him $39 million to go away for 2024, which would save them the early guarantee trigger for $37 million in 2025. Still, Wilson is the Broncos’ quarterback next year. And the team would rather he become Russ again and gladly pay him to be their quarterback through 2025.

But is Russ fixable?

> Watch Broncos co-owner and CEO Greg Penner and General Manager George Paton speak about Hackett's firing on Tuesday:

“We saw flashes of Russ this year,’’ Paton said Tuesday as he joined Penner in a 26-minute press conference to address the firing of Hackett and plans to replace him.

“Russ even said he didn’t play up to his standards," Paton said. "But the first half of the Chargers game (6 on Oct. 17), the first half of the Raiders game (4 on Oct. 2), you can go through the season and you do see flashes. And he’ll be the first one to tell you he didn’t play up to his standards, didn’t play up to our standards. He needs to be better.

“I don’t think we made a coaching move based on Russ. That wasn’t what it’s all about. That’s not why we’re getting a new coach to turn around Russ. It’s about the entire organization. It’s about the entire football team. It’s not one player. It’s not whether Russ is fixable or not. We do believe he is. We do.”

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson gets ready to run on the field before an NFL football game between the Los Angeles Rams and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Dec. 25, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The new head coach will be a little more empowered than Hackett was. And Paton’s authority will be slightly clipped. Penner said he will lead the head coaching search with assists from Paton, and fellow owners Rob Walton, his wife Carrie Penner and Condoleezza Rice.

“Condi has great experience doing football searches," Penner said. "She was just a part of the Stanford football head coach search."

To a greater point, after Paton ran the search last year and wound up with Hackett, a change in search committee leadership was made.

“The new head coach will report to me, which is more typical structure of the NFL,’’ Penner said. “Obviously the relationship between the general manager and the head coach is a critical one. George is going to be intimately involved in this process of looking for a new head coach, and we’ll make sure that there’s a good fit there.”

The new head coach – Jim Harbaugh, Frank Reich, Sean Payton, Dan Quinn and the Broncos’ own defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero are expected to be among the candidates – will report directly to Penner, not to Paton as Hackett did.


So what will the search committee be looking for in a new head coach (besides fixing Russ)?

“It starts with strong leadership,’’ Penner said. “I think that’s going to be the most critical factor here with our head coach. Xs and Os are important, but we need a strong leader for this organization. That starts with culture. It’s instilling a sense of accountability, discipline and we need an identity on offense.”

Leadership and culture, though, are buzzwords. Fixing the offense means fixing Russ.

Hackett, who was hired with extensive offensive coordinator experience in his background, couldn’t get the best out of Wilson. And losing 51-14 on Christmas Day – an embarrassment that included the unwanted drama of teammates yelling and pushing each other on the sidelines and edge rusher Randy Gregory punching an opponent during the postgame handshake gathering – hastened Hackett’s inevitable firing.

And with a 4-11 record, No. 32-ranked scoring offense and Wilson’s disappointing play, Hackett’s firing at year’s end was inevitable.

“Would have liked to have been patient and waited until the end of the season to make a decision,’’ Penner said. “Didn’t go into this week thinking this was the time we were going to make a change. But after we saw the effort we put forward on Sunday, some of the things that were going on off the field, we just felt like it was time to make a decision and once we made that decision in all fairness to the organization and to Nathaniel we felt we needed to move forward and make a change.”


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