Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks star quarterback expected to return the Broncos to relevance after six playoff-free seasons, had to waive his no-trade clause, and to do that he needed to see the situation for himself.
That meant meeting general manager George Paton and new coach Nathaniel Hackett and making sure he and his family would be happy after a wildly successful decade in Seattle. Wilson’s 113 wins in the first decade of his career set an NFL record, and he made nine Pro Bowls and two Super Bowls, one of which the Seahawks won.
“I wanted to make sure it was a perfect fit for me. Once I met with George and coach Hackett, I was like, ‘OK this could work for a long time.’ ” said Wilson, 33, said in a news conference Wednesday at team headquarters to officially announce the deal.
Wilson and Hackett wore identical blue sports coats, white shirts and orange ties, an indication perhaps of their like-minded pursuit of winning.
For Paton, who grew up in La Canãda-Flintridge and played football at Loyola High and UCLA, the trade was by far his biggest player transaction since taking the job as Broncos GM last offseason. It’s been a whirlwind couple of months for the former Minnesota Vikings executive, who also hired Hackett during that span.
Paton consulted Hackett before pursuing Wilson, and asked the coach if he wanted to study video on the quarterback.
“I wanted him to watch the tape,” the GM said. “[Hackett] said ‘I don’t need to watch the tape, he’s kicked my … many years.’ ”
The NFL rumor mill had the Broncos pursuing a trade for Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and that speculation only increased when Paton hired Hackett, the Packers’ offensive coordinator. In actuality, Paton hadn’t talked to the Packers about a deal for Rodgers since the spring of 2021.
He was zeroed in on Wilson, and the Seattle Seahawks were open to discussions. The Seahawks said in a statement Wednesday that it was Wilson who “made it clear he wanted a change,” something the quarterback denies.
Either way, the conversations between Paton and Seahawks general manager John Schneider started in late January at the Battle House Renaissance in Mobile, Ala., when the two were in town for the Senior Bowl. They continued a month later at the scouting combine, where the two met four nights in a row in a quiet booth at Loughmillers, a pub in Indianapolis that wasn’t as crawling with NFL personnel as other hangouts.
Asked that week about interest in Wilson from other teams, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told reporters: “This time of year, there’s conversations about everybody. We talk about everybody.”
Behind the scenes, Wilson to the Broncos was gathering steam. The combine ended Monday, March 7, and from their respective team headquarters that evening Paton and Schneider hammered out a blockbuster deal. In exchange for Wilson and a fourth-rounder, Denver sent the Seahawks two first-rounders, two second-rounders, a fifth-rounder, quarterback Drew Lock, defensive tackle Shelby Harris and tight end Noah Fant. Considering the players and picks involved, it was the modern-day version of Dallas trading Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings in 1989.
“Obviously, these type of deals you want to keep quiet,” Paton said. “You never know what can happen with a deal like this if it gets out. Does another team get involved? Do they change their mind? So we’re fortunate. It was a tight-knit group who knew and things don’t get out in our building. I credit Seattle, obviously John and Pete it didn’t get out there, and then Russell’s camp. Three camps kept it close.”
On that Tuesday morning, the news out of Green Bay was that Rodgers was staying with the Packers. There was widespread disappointment among Denver fans who thought the four-time Most Valuable Player would be leading their organization, which had missed the postseason every year since Manning retired after the 2015 season.
Within the Broncos inner sanctum, only excitement. Wilson had been the true target for weeks. Down the stretch, the quarterback had been texting with Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning to ask him his experiences with the organization. Not only had Wilson watched all 17 of Denver’s regular-season games, but also he had even studied the preseason.
“Talking to him was almost like talking with a scout,” Paton said. “He knew the positives, the negatives, what the strengths of the team are, how are we going to improve here, what are our needs. He really talked like a seasoned personnel executive in discussing the team.”
News of the Wilson trade broke within a couple of hours after the Rodgers development, when ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the Super Bowl-winning quarterback from the Seahawks was switching teams. Just before that, knowing word was getting out, Paton told his brothers and sister, simply texting them a Photoshopped picture of Wilson in a Broncos jersey. He also called the Broncos players to inform them they had been traded.
Most of the people in the Broncos organization learned the news via Twitter, and team headquarters erupted in hoots, hollers and high-fives when the word spread. Hackett cranked up the 2004 hit song “One, Two Step” by Wilson’s Grammy-winning wife, Ciara, that echoed through the building.
Hypnotic, funky fresh,
Work my body,
This beat rolls right through my chest
What only a few members of the organization knew was that Wilson was already in the air and on his way to Denver.
The night before, after reaching a deal with the Seahawks, Paton called Kelly Kleine, executive director of football operations, into his office to tell her the Wilson deal was done. He asked her to get a Broncos jersey ready and Denver gift baskets for Wilson’s wife and three children, a gesture the team regularly extends to new players and coaches.
Kleine assembled a basket for Ciara that included Broncos hats, shirts, a candle, key chain, Colorado snacks and the like. The kids got team teddy bears, lollipops, ski hats and Colorado coloring books.
For the quarterback, the club put together a 10-page booklet that discussed the history, alumni and traditions of the Broncos, had pictures of everyone in the organization, and outlined the charity opportunities in Denver, in keeping with Wilson’s career-long dedication to Seattle Children’s Hospital.
It was also necessary to expand the circle of Broncos employees in the know. Kleine called equipment manager Flip Valenti and told him she needed a No. 3 jersey with Wilson on the back. He happily complied, knowing what that meant.
But even though the teams had agreed to a trade, the deal technically wasn’t completed. Wilson still had to agree to it, and the players involved all had to pass their physical examinations.
The original plan was for Paton, Hackett and offensive coordinator Justin Outten and passing game coordinator Klint Kubiak to fly to the Caribbean on Tuesday to meet with the vacationing Wilsons in St. Barts. But getting there, especially international travel on such short notice, proved too complicated.
So the quarterback came to them, with Wilson and his wife flying to Denver on Tuesday in their sleek, black private jet, accompanied by agent Mark Rodgers and a pair of security guards.
Instead of bringing Wilson into team headquarters, the Broncos quietly decorated a banquet room in the neighboring fieldhouse, and had the two SUVs transporting the entourage through a tunnel and park at the edge of the field. There, Paton and Hackett were waiting to welcome them with handshakes and hugs.
This was the culmination of weeks of trade talks, and stood in stark contrast to the first Broncos visit by Manning almost 10 years to the day. That was a media circus, with dozens of reporters at the facility — along with fans trying to catch a glimpse of the star quarterback — and news helicopters hovering overhead.
There was no fieldhouse back then. In an effort to convince Manning to sign, however, team president Joe Ellis unfurled blueprints to show plans for remodeling team headquarters.
The glitzy facility was finished in 2014 and allowed for the Broncos to pull off the Wilson visit in near silence.
Kleine had stocked the banquet room with a healthy buffet of fresh fruit, salads and wraps. One wall of the room is a giant window facing team headquarters, so sun spilled in and illuminated a long table decorated with two Broncos helmets and an orange Wilson jersey. Framed on the wall is the No. 58 jersey of iconic pass rusher Von Miller, who turned out to be a key part of the deal for the quarterback.
In November, the Rams traded their second- and third-round selections in this year’s draft as part of a deal for Miller. Absent those picks, the Broncos would have been more circumspect about giving up as much as they did for Wilson, especially in light of Paton’s philosophy of building through the draft.
The Broncos team store, which is open to the public, is part of the fieldhouse. The club closed it for Wilson’s visit, and Ciara shopped for more gear while her husband met with his new coaches and discussed football strategies for hours.
Also in the fieldhouse is the Broncos’ radio studio, and word leaked to color analyst and legendary safety Steve Atwater that Wilson was in the building. He asked Patrick Smyth, the club’s chief communications officer, if he could say hello to the quarterback.
“What number were you as a Hall of Famer?” Smyth playfully asked Atwater, a member of the Canton class of 2020. “Of course you can say hi to him.”
That night, before the Wilsons boarded their plane back to St. Barts, the team hosted a dinner for them at Elway’s, a downtown steakhouse within the Ritz-Carlton. They ate in a private room, which they accessed via the kitchen, and clinked glasses of Veuve champagne. Paton gave a warm toast, and Wilson followed with a longer one in which he talked about teamwork, family and new beginnings.
“His put mine to shame,” Paton said. “He was really eloquent and wanted to tell everyone what he’s all about. Just appreciated being here and wanted everyone to know that he’s all about winning.”
After searching for years for their next answer at quarterback, the Broncos suddenly are relevant again and in the mix to get back into the playoffs. That was far less likely to happen with Lock or Teddy Bridgewater under center.
“You’re in a bubble when you’re in this position,” Paton said. “So it just seems like part of the job. You don’t really understand how big it is until you go to your kid’s hockey game, or you walk into our building and people are crying.”
The Wilson deal was completed March 8, which the Broncos hope will be a fateful day in their history. That’s also the birthday of Paton’s father, Tom, a longtime high school coach in the San Gabriel Valley who died in November and was immensely proud of three sons and a daughter.
“Happy birthday, Tom Paton,” George’s wife, Barb, wrote in a group text to the family. “We got you a quarterback.”