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Russell Wilson tells the story behind his demotion to the Denver Broncos' backup quarterback job

Henry Chisholm Avatar
December 30, 2023

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Russell Wilson wants to be a Denver Bronco.

“I want to be here. I want to play here. I want to be able to win here. I want to win championships here,” he said Friday.

Broncos head coach Sean Payton announced on Wednesday that Jarrett Stidham, the Broncos’ backup since the start of the season, would serve as the Broncos’ starter in the season’s final two games. Wilson, meanwhile, will serve as the second option.

“It’s a hard decision, but for me, where I’m at in my career, that is all I am interested in—getting another win,” Payton said on Friday.

Sean Payton and Russell Wilson speak during the Broncos’ loss to the Patriots. The game could be Wilson’s last appearance as a Bronco. Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Broncos traded for Wilson in March 2022. Shortly thereafter, they signed him to a five-year, $243 million extension through 2028. Wilson, currently 35 years old, will be 40 when the contract ends.

The Broncos are 12-20 since Wilson took the helm. Wilson’s passing production per game has dropped by 15 yards in Denver compared to his decade in Seattle, where he was a nine-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion. His passer rating has fallen from 101.8 in Seattle to 90.9 in Denver.

While Wilson’s play has picked up this season—his 26 passing touchdowns rank sixth in the NFL and tie for the fifth-best mark in his career—he’s unlikely to stick in Denver through the end of his contract. 

Payton says he’s saving conversations about Wilson’s future for after the season.

“We haven’t sat down and met,” Payton said Friday. “What I’m used to doing and what we will do when the season ends is there will be five or six days of being away from it because experience has told me [to do that]. Then, we do this whole process of the whole roster. We have a series of numbers and grades that I’ve learned early in my career. We go through every player, starting with the trainers, the strength [coaches], the position coaches, the coordinators, pro personnel, general manager, and head coach. We’ll do that, but we haven’t begun at all to decide. Not just ‘Russ,’ but any other player.”

Wilson’s hopes of staying in Denver seem to be trending in the wrong direction.

According to Wilson, the Broncos approached him during the bye week to discuss tweaking his contract. The Broncos were fresh off a win over the Chiefs, which turned out to be the second game of a five-game winning streak.

Russell Wilson exits the field after defeating the Chiefs, which ended Denver’s 16-game losing streak to Kansas City. a few days later, the Broncos approached him about adjusting his contract. Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Wilson’s 2024 salary is fully guaranteed, but his 2025 salary won’t be guaranteed unless he’s on the team on the fifth day of the new league year, which will be in mid-March. If the Broncos release him before then, they won’t be responsible for his $37 million 2025 salary.

But there’s a catch; if the Broncos release him and he’s injured, that 2025 salary will be guaranteed. In other words, if Wilson sustains an injury that isn’t healed by March, they’ll be on the hook for $37 million, making moving on from Wilson much more difficult.

When the Broncos approached Wilson, they wanted to move back the guarantee date from March to closer to the 2024 season, which would reduce the risk of injury affecting their flexibility. That would also give Wilson the chance to compete for a job.

“They told me that if I didn’t change my contract—my injury guarantee—that I’d be benched for the rest of the year,” Wilson said. “I was definitely disappointed about it. It was a process throughout the whole week, the whole bye week.”

Wilson declined.

“I wasn’t going to .. take away injury guarantees,” Wilson said. “The game is such a physical game.”

Wilson left the bye week unsure if his time as a starter in Denver was done.

“They definitely told me that I was going to be benched and all that,” Wilson said. “That whole bye week, I didn’t know what was going to be the case. I was going to be ready to play. I wanted to go to Buffalo and beat Buffalo.”

Russell Wilson warms up before the Broncos’ Monday Night Football win over the Buffalo Bills. Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The potential of moving to the bench loomed over the past eight weeks.

“It was challenging,” Wilson said. “It’s challenging, for sure. At the same time, I’ve got a job to do: get the ball in the end zone.”

Wilson is making peace with his new circumstances.

“Most importantly right now is really just being the best teammate that I can be and leading in practice, and leading the young guys, and doing whatever it takes,” he said. “And listen, I have my head ready to play, just in case something happens or whatever. I’m rooting for Jarrett. I told him personally in the QB room the other night, ‘Listen, at the end of the day, my whole goal is for us to win this game. And whatever it takes—extra film, anything that he needs—we’re all in this together, and I want to be able to walk off that field as a winner, as a team.”

Wilson, now in his 12th NFL season, has started every game he’s played in as a professional.

“I’m gonna keep putting my best foot forward every day, try to be as professional as I can be every day, no matter what the circumstances are,” Wilson said. “I learned that a long time ago. Every day you wake up, you realize it’s a gift to play this game, and I’m grateful for that. I hope that it’s here, and I hope that it’s here for a long time. I hope we win some more silverware in the front hall and we get some more championships. And if it’s not here, then I’ll be prepared to do that somewhere else. But I hope that it’s here, and I really do genuinely mean that.”

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