ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Denver Broncos owner and CEO Greg Penner and general manager George Paton said Tuesday they believe in the future of quarterback Russell Wilson and that his subpar play for much of the season was not the driving factor in the decision to fire Nathaniel Hackett Monday.
The two men, who are beginning the franchise’s fourth search for a new head coach since January 2017 and third since January 2019, also said they believe Wilson can return to the level of play from earlier in his career.
“The decision to have Russell here is a long-term one,” Penner said inside the team meeting room in the Broncos’ suburban Denver facility. “This season has not been up to his standards or expectations. We saw some glimpses of it in the last few weeks. He knows he can play better, we know he can play better, and we know he’ll do the right work in the offseason to be ready for next year.”
The Broncos traded five draft picks, including a 2023 first-round selection that now projects to be in the top three picks of next April’s draft, as well as three players to the Seattle Seahawks last March in exchange for Wilson. The Broncos then signed Wilson, in early September, to a five-year, $245 million contract extension.
But save for some flashes in portions of games, Wilson has looked out of sync all season, missing open receivers and unable to find much consistency. He is on track for a career low in touchdown passes — he has 12 in his 13 starts — and has been sacked a league-leading 49 times in those 13 games (3.8 sacks per game) even though he missed two games this season due to injury.
If Wilson, 34, is sacked three more times over the final two games of the season, he will set a career mark in that category. The Broncos are also the lowest-scoring team in the league at 15.5 points per game and have had 11 games this season when they’ve scored 17 or fewer points, nine of those in losses.
But Penner and Paton each emphasized a coaching change wasn’t made to repair Wilson, but to get Wilson to play better as part of a critical review of “the entire organization.’
“Russ even said he didn’t play up to his standard … he’d be the first one to tell you he didn’t play up to his standard, didn’t play up to our standard, he needs to be better,” Paton said. “I don’t think we made a coaching move based on Russ. That wasn’t what it was all about, that’s not why we’re getting a new coach to turn around Russ. It’s about the entire organization … it’s not whether Russ is fixable or not. We do believe he is; we do.”
Penner, too, said Hackett wasn’t fired solely for Wilson’s play or for the 37-point blowout loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.
“You have to look at the full body of work. For a number of reasons, it just wasn’t the right fit,” Penner said.
Penner said the team is already evaluating candidates it hopes to interview for the job and added “we have to get this right.” When asked if any of the current assistants would be considered for the job, Paton only offered up defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero as a candidate they would like to interview.
The Walton-Penner group, headed by Walmart heir Rob Walton, was approved by the NFL in August as the Broncos’ new ownership. Paton had already led the search and interviews of 10 candidates before Hackett was hired last January and the trade for Wilson was made last March, but the group was in place when the team signed Wilson the extension.
Paton, who was hired in January 2021 as the team’s general manager, addressed his decision Tuesday to hire Hackett earlier this year, saying he “believed in the decision at the time.”
“It just didn’t work out here [for Hackett], and that’s on me. I take full responsibility for where we are as a football team,” Paton said. “I brought in the head coach, I brought in most of the players, those are my decisions and there’s no one to blame but me. And I just want to be clear, this isn’t just about the coaching, this isn’t about just Nathaniel. This is about the entire football operation.”