There is, obviously, a mean-spirited way to do this. Sean Payton taped a “kick me” sign to his own back during training camp when he ripped the 2022 Broncos apart and buried their coaching staff. Then, his team gave up
a 70-burger this week.
He’s now 0–3 after a 70–20 demolition against the Dolphins, which looked a little more like Oregon-Colorado (or maybe Cumberland–Georgia Tech) than an NFL game. And while no one expected the Broncos to beat the Dolphins this weekend, Payton’s confidence during the preseason probably didn’t project a first-team-out-of-the-playoff-hunt kind of feel. Or an FBS early-season opponent feel. It certainly didn’t have a still-burning-panic-timeouts kind of feel, and yet, there was Russell Wilson twice before halftime staring at the defense like it was a calculus final. The Broncos barely got a doomed outlet pass out in time before the receiver was buried by Miami’s defense. Funny how that goes. Although, maybe to Payton’s advantage, we’ll forget about that because of how ridiculous the final score ended up being.
Coaches who have won Super Bowls in the past possess the kind of gravitas where they can say they would do things better than someone else and we’ll automatically believe it. However, the cliff toward self parody is a steep and slippery one from that throne. Just ask someone such as Jon Gruden, who had nearly become a meme of himself before getting the Raiders pointed in the right direction before his dismissal. With a great reputation in the NFL comes a great responsibility, especially when you call your predecessor a clown and start talking about the playoffs for a team that finished 5–12 the year before, then allow, for the first time in league history, five or more rushing and passing touchdowns in the same game. I wonder whether Payton wishes he was still subject to the unspoken, gentlemanly code of coaches now?
But, we’re not going to pull all the clubs out of the bag on this one, even if it would be fun. We’re going to ask, very specifically, whether Payton’s winless Broncos are better at this juncture than last year’s Broncos, who were 2–1 through three weeks, including a win over the eventual NFC West champion 49ers. We’re going to focus on Payton’s area of expertise, the offense. We’ll get to what happened on the other side of the ball, don’t worry.
Last year, through three games, Denver was rushing the ball for 4.2 yards per carry. Denver came into Sunday’s game averaging 4.8 yards per carry, and finished Sunday’s game against the Dolphins with 3.5 yards per carry.
Through three games, Denver was averaging 6.01 net yards per passing attempt and an 83.1 average quarterback rating. Through two games this year, Wilson’s passer rating was a 108.5, and on Sunday, he finished the game with an 83.9.
Through three games last year, the Broncos had 30 penalties, costing them 236 yards. Through two games, Denver has 19 penalties for 141 yards, and committed seven penalties for 46 yards against Miami.
Last year, through three games, Wilson was 16th in the NFL in EPA+CPOE, a composite which tracks a player’s expected points added on a per down basis, and his completion percentage above expectation, a strong metric that has success in evaluating overall quarterback performance. This year, Wilson entered Sunday fifth with a composite score of 0.178 (in 2022, it was 0.076).
I would say Denver had a slightly more difficult start to the 2022 season, with games against the Seahawks, Texans and 49ers, than the ’23 Broncos, who faced the Raiders and Commanders before taking on their first real contender in Miami this weekend.
My attempt at a completely reasonable assessment devoid of the kind of self-satisfying pot shots that make this job enjoyable is this: Denver’s defense last year under Ejiro Evero was markedly better. Defensively, this team has been getting its doors blown off, but I see a lot of people blaming Vance Joseph specifically when Payton was seemingly billing himself as a package deal with Vic Fangio (who, ironically, works for the Dolphins now). Assembling a staff is as much the responsibility of a head coach as calling plays or designing an offense. Joseph has had two top-10 seasons in either of pass yardage or rush yardage per attempt allowed since 2016 when he became a regular defensive play-caller.
Payton has obviously been tougher on Wilson, although Payton had the luxury of fact-finding what happened in 2022 and could better foresee some of the embarrassing early-season penalties that the Broncos endured. Whereas there may have been an assumption of Wilson’s ability to handle critical down situations last year, one no longer exists.
Furthermore, I think Payton will probably “max out” this version of Wilson, understanding, of course, that 2023 Wilson cannot play the kind of game that ’15 Wilson could and, as evident Sunday, can come nowhere close to scoring with the best offensive teams in the league. Also understanding that Wilson is healthier this year and seemingly more willing to use his lower body to extend plays and involve himself in the run game, a luxury that didn’t really exist in Denver last year. In ’22, Wilson ran the ball nine times for 52 yards through three games. This year, Wilson did that in one game (six rushes for 56 yards in a narrow Week 1 loss to the Commanders), although he rushed for just a single yard in the ’23 opener, he did seem more able to create a touchdown through movement Sunday. Additionally, I think we need to be O.K. with the fact that maxed-out-Wilson is only maybe slightly better than ’22 Wilson, and how no one saw that coming before Denver traded for the quarterback.
Mostly, Payton needs to be O.K. with that because it’s his rear end that will need to cash the check he wrote with his preseason comments to USA Today. Or, he needs to find another reporter to which he can safely stage another media event to explain why these Broncos are winless through three games and how it’s still somehow someone else’s fault (I’d tread lightly if I were Joseph). If it were me, I’d cut my losses because this iteration of the Broncos was always going to be a little bit of a rebuild, but we’re just realizing that now, in 2023, instead of when we should have, in ’22.