Russell Wilson arrived in Denver under the cover of darkness, the central figure in the biggest and most secretive trade of the NFL offseason. He now arrives at Denver Broncos headquarters in literal darkness, pulling into his dedicated parking spot between 4:30 and 5 a.m. each morning to work on his transformation of the franchise.
Not since Peyton Manning retired after the 2015 season have the Broncos had this type of team leader, a quarterback with the clout of not just a player but almost a coach and executive.
When the Broncos go from one drill to another, for instance, it’s not uncommon for Wilson to pull aside a receiver and have him run a route again in a more precise way. That’s Manning stuff.
“He’s obsessed,” Broncos general manager George Paton said of Wilson. “That’s the best word I can think of.”
Wilson made it a routine during training camp to get all the skill position players together at sunrise and walk through the day’s play script. He has taken ownership of the offense.
“I think Russ, he knows kind of what we were trying to accomplish, what we were trying to do,” first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett said. “You see that system come alive over there when he’s going through his progressions, going through his reads and feeling confident the guys are getting in the right spots, which is what we’re searching for.”
No one knows for sure how that will work out. As with many of the starters, Wilson didn’t take a snap in a preseason game. His team opens the season in a Monday night game at Seattle, where he made a rapid ascent over the last decade from third-round pick to superstar.
Wilson is now bathed in a different spotlight. He’s the most prominent quarterback in a league-wide game of musical chairs, with relocated signal callers in new starting roles in six of eight divisions.
Among the quarterbacks now in new places — all onetime face-of-the-franchise players selected in the first round — are Carson Wentz (Washington), Matt Ryan (Indianapolis), Deshaun Watson (Cleveland), Mitch Trubisky (Pittsburgh), Marcus Mariota (Atlanta) and Baker Mayfield (Carolina).
There are other compelling quarterback situations to watch, too, including the San Francisco 49ers keeping Jimmy Garoppolo as a backup (and insurance policy) to new starter Trey Lance, and the ongoing battle for the starting job in Pittsburgh between Trubisky and promising rookie Kenny Pickett.
In the NFL, if you don’t have a good-to-great quarterback, you don’t have a chance. And the notion that one player can change the trajectory of a team was only underscored by the last two seasons, when Tampa Bay signed Tom Brady and won the Super Bowl, and the Rams traded for Matthew Stafford and did the same.
Wilson, who set an NFL record with 113 wins in the first decade of his career, is the final puzzle piece that makes the AFC West the best quarterback division by far. Kansas City has Patrick Mahomes and the Chargers have Justin Herbert, two of the most talented passers in the league. Las Vegas has Derek Carr, who quietly has emerged as a consistent performer and a sturdy leader for a Raiders club battered last season by off-field transgressions.
The deal that brought Wilson to Denver also sent Broncos quarterback Drew Lock to Seattle, where he lost the competition for the starting job this summer to Geno Smith. This marks the first time in eight years Smith has won an NFL starting job.
Although most observers expect the post-Wilson Seahawks to lose more ground in the standings — a five-step drop, if you will — coach Pete Carroll said: “Geno, he knows our stuff and he does really well and he understands it and he commands everything that we’re doing. He’ll give us the best chance to play great football right off the bat.”
Wentz has taken quite a tumble from those early days in Philadelphia, where there were most-valuable-player rumblings during his second season. Eagles fans were delighted the Rams took Jared Goff with the No. 1 pick in 2016, allowing Philadelphia to take Wentz second. But after suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 13 of that second season — at Los Angeles, coincidentally — Wentz never truly recaptured that magic.
He later flamed out with the Colts and developed a reputation for being insecure and difficult to coach. The final straw in Indianapolis came last January when he turned in a disastrous performance in a win-and-in game against Jacksonville. He had an interception, a fumble and was sacked six times in a 26-11 loss.
With the Commanders this summer, Wentz has shown impressive flashes and there’s no denying his athleticism. He also has thrown some passes in practice so off the mark, they were as cover-your-eyes hideous as that mustard jacket and ketchup shirt ensemble he wore at his introductory news conference.
Overall, he’s excited about his fresh start.
“Obviously, we’ve put some good, some bad, some ugly out on tape,” he told reporters recently. “And it’s not been perfect. But I think I like where we’re at. I like the mindset. I like the makeup. Definitely not perfect, and we’ll be building and growing as a team every week — really, every time you step on the field.
“But the body of work we’ve had from OTAs, the summer, training camp, and then preseason games, I really like where we’re at and I’m optimistic.”
Wentz is starting his new gig where his last one ended. The Commanders open against Jacksonville.
The Colts traded for Ryan from Atlanta, and the Falcons quickly filled that void by signing Mariota. The latter move reunited Mariota and Atlanta head coach Arthur Smith, his offensive coordinator in Tennessee.
Whereas Wentz tried to make a lot of hero throws in his one season with Indianapolis, Ryan is more likely to take what defenses give him and throw check-down passes in a pinch. Ryan is that golfer who punches out of the trees and back into the fairway; Wentz tries to thread it through the woods to the flagstick.
As risk-taking goes, no one took a bigger quarterback gamble than the Browns, who traded three first-round picks to Houston for Watson, then signed the troubled player to a five-year deal worth a guaranteed $230 million. It was the largest guaranteed contract in NFL history and to a player facing allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate conduct from more than two dozen massage therapists.
Eventually, after an initial suspension and appeal by the league, a third-party arbitrator issued Watson an 11-game suspension and $5-million fine. The quarterback will be eligible to return for a Week 13 game against the Texans, his former team.
Mayfield, whose fate with the Browns was sealed when they traded for Watson, was ultimately shipped to Carolina for a conditional fifth-round pick. He beat out Sam Darnold for the starting job with the Panthers, and Darnold subsequently suffered a high-ankle sprain expected to keep him sidelined for at least the first month, anyway.
So, as this crazy quarterback revolving door continues to spin, who will Mayfield face in Week 1?