Russell Wilson-Sean Payton drama starting early with the Broncos

Perhaps Sean Payton understands Nathaniel Hackett’s plight better now.

When the Broncos jumped out to a 21-3 lead against Washington on Sunday, it seemed the safest of bets that Payton would improve to 73-0, including playoffs, when his teams held a lead of 18 points or more.

Russell Wilson’s teams in Seattle had never blown that big of a lead.

Denver’s defense had sacked Sam Howell three times, rookie speedsters Marvin Mims Jr. and Jaleel McLaughlin had scored their first NFL touchdowns and second-year speedster Brandon Johnson had caught Wilson’s third touchdown throw.

When the Commanders went three-and-out on their next drive, Mims returned the punt 45 yards to the Washington 40-yard line with 7:57 left before halftime.

The rout was on.

After burning his final timeout with 6:46 left in the first half, however, Wilson coughed up the ball at midfield and the Commanders recovered.

The comeback was coming up.

Sean Payton and Russell Wilson on the Broncos sidelines during the loss to the Commanders.
Sean Payton and Russell Wilson on the Broncos sidelines during the loss to the Commanders.

“We give them the ball at midfield, and that momentum shifts at that point with the fumble,” said Payton, who displayed an increasing sense of frustration with Wilson after the Broncos’ 35-33 loss to Washington.

All of the problems that plagued the Broncos in their season-opening loss to Las Vegas came roaring back: the costly penalties, the ineffective pass rush, the poor pass protection, an offense that suddenly looked like all those cars that got stuck in the mud at the Burning Man festival.

Another thing that returned: the frustrated fans at Empower Field counting down the play clock like they did for Hackett in Week 2 last year as the rookie coach struggled to get play calls into Wilson on time.

“There were a number of drives where we were late with personnel, getting out of the huddle we took a while. That has to change,” Payton said. “We had to burn timeouts in the first half, and I’m not used to doing that. We have to be better. I have to be better. Russ has to be sharper with getting the play out, and then we have to look at how much we have in. If we need to wristband it, we will.”

A season ago, general manager George Paton responded by bringing Jerry Rosburg out of retirement to help Hackett with game management.

Russell Wilson gets sacked by the Commanders.
Russell Wilson gets sacked by the Commanders.
USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

When Hackett was fired with a 4-11 record, Rosburg took over and went 1-1 as interim coach before giving way to Payton, who famously criticized Hackett over the summer for doing one of the worst jobs in the history of the NFL.

“But everybody’s got a little stink on their hands. It’s not just Russell (Wilson). It was a (poor) offensive line,” Payton told USA TODAY of the now-Jets offensive coordinator “It might have been one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL. That’s how bad it was.”

Now, Payton is off to a worse start than Hackett, who began 2-1 before losing 10 of his last 12 games.

The only Broncos head coach to start his tenure worse than 0-2 was Vic Fangio, who lost his first four games in 2019 on his way to a 7-9 record. Mac Speedie lost his first two games in 1965 and finished 4-10.

Back to Sunday and Wilson’s fumble, one of two turnovers he had to go with his three touchdown passes.

The Commanders scored 32 of the next 35 points, handing the Broncos back-to-back home losses to start a season for the first time in their history.

“We have to be better than that, and that starts with me,” Payton said.

The Broncos signed Jarrett Stidham to a two-year, $10 million contract this offseason, a sizable contract for a backup.

Stidham turned heads at the end of last season in Las Vegas after the Raiders opted to move on from Derek Carr.

How patient Payton is willing to be with Wilson can soon turn into an open question in Denver if the 0-2 start snowballs.

It won’t get any easier for the Broncos this Sunday as they take on the 2-0 Dolphins in Miami.

— With AP

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