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Broncos’ Lack of Response to Russell Wilson’s Benching Speaks Volumes: Sando’s Pick Six

Cover 7 | Monday 
A daily NFL destination that provides in-depth analysis of football’s biggest stories. Each Monday, Mike Sando breaks down the six most impactful takeaways from the week.

Deciphering the unfolding drama between the Denver Broncos’ coach and quarterback requires understanding the combatants. Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Russell Wilson are more than Super Bowl-winning NFL icons. They are also experienced in hardball tactics.

Payton, one of the game’s great offensive minds, is the only head coach in league history to be suspended for a full season. When the ESPN analyst and retired NFL player Ryan Clark accused Payton of behaving as a “thug” during his Broncos tenure, the harsh commentary recalled the days when bounties were offered for injuring New Orleans Saints opponents.

Wilson, whose good deeds off the field culminated after the 2020 season with the NFL bestowing upon him its highest humanitarian honor (the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award), knows how to play rough as well. His separation from the Seattle Seahawks became so nasty, Wilson asked ownership to fire the coach and general manager.

The Pick Six column leads this week with an examination of what will soon become Wilson’s second divorce from a high-profile coach in two years. This time, the evidence strongly suggests Wilson is more victim than villain.

The quarterback’s contention that the Broncos threatened to bench him if he didn’t forfeit injury guarantees delivered a damaging blow to Payton and the Broncos’ new ownership, led by CEO Greg Penner. The team appears unlikely to address particulars until after the season because Wilson remains the No. 2 quarterback and could play in Week 18. That opens a window to scrutinize what has been said so far, while wondering, could an NFL team really behave in this manner?

The full menu this week:

  • Broncos have explaining to do
  • My best Lamar Jackson MVP stat
  • Issues underlying Lions–Cowboys blown call
  • Flacco’s upside
  • How Lions defied all criticism
  • Two-minute drill: Tepper’s cup runneth over

1. Was this a perfect storm of arrogance and unaccountability in Denver? Did Payton meet his match in Wilson? The Broncos have some explaining to do.

Rumors that Wilson had forfeited guarantees to remain the Broncos’ starter came to my attention in November. Attempts to confirm the information went nowhere. As recently as mid-December, league sources with access to NFL player contracts said Wilson’s contract had not been adjusted. The Payton-Wilson relationship seemed strained, but Wilson continued to start at quarterback for the Broncos under the terms of the contract he signed before the 2022 season.

It wasn’t to last. The Broncos suffered their third defeat in four December games, 26-23 to New England, and that was it for Wilson. Payton announced the quarterback’s benching, framing the decision as an effort to spark the offense over the final two games. There were obvious contractual considerations; the Las Vegas Raiders benched Derek Carr under similar circumstances late last season, preventing him from suffering an injury that would have increased the team’s financial liability.

Then came Wilson’s bombshell allegation: “They came up to me during the bye week, on Monday or Tuesday, and told me if I didn’t change my contract, my injury guarantee, that I’d be benched for the rest of the year. It was a process for the whole bye week. … The NFLPA and NFL got involved at some point.”

GO DEEPERRussini: What I’m hearing on Russell Wilson, Jaire Alexander and more in NFL Week 17Wilson was less explicit when deflecting the report that he tried to get the Seahawks’ leadership fired in Seattle. This time, Wilson was crystal clear in his language regarding what happened in Denver.

If this is how things played out, the Broncos deserve harsh criticism. Teams and players routinely negotiate details such as the dates when certain contractual mechanisms might come into play, but veteran agents and executives could not recall a situation where a team requested that a player waive vested injury guarantees during a season. Could the Broncos be so brazen?


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