How Sean Payton Might Get The Best Out Of Russell Wilson
The Sean Payton-Russell Wilson partnership officially kicked off this week with Payton, answering a flurry of questions about how he might change the Broncos, said Russ would not be allowed to run his own little corporation inside the team facility.
Wilson becoming a part of the team -- not growing his personal brand from his C-suite office in Broncos HQ -- is likely a good start for the Payton era in Denver. Easing the terribly obvious resentment between Broncos player and their well-compensated quarterback is at least one important step out of the toxic swamp created by the bumbling Nathaniel Hackett and the team’s flailing ownership.
How Wilson, coming off a catastrophic 2022 campaign in which he fell off in ways both measurable and immeasurable, can improve in Payton’s offense is going to be the subject of (nearly) endless real and fantasy football discourse in the coming months.
There are a few ways Payton can -- and likely will -- correct course for Wilson. Making life easier for Wilson will be the overriding goal of everything Payton and his offensive staff does this offseason. Wilson is what Pete Carroll thought he was: A more-than-capable game manager who should not be tasked with carrying an offense by his lonesome. I think Payton’s offensive system, which worked quite well for Drew Brees -- hardly the prototypical NFL quarterback -- can also work for Wilson.
Below are a couple ways Payton might make Wilson a more efficient, productive signal caller in an entirely new offense in 2023.
Pass More on First Down
Every quarterback, not just the mediocre ones, benefits from dropping back when the defense has to respect the pass and the run. Take the 2022 Lions: Our Analytics King Dan Campbell regularly called passes on first down, keeping Jared Goff out of the unenviable spots he had been in for much of the 2021 season. Only seven teams had a higher pass rate over expected than the Lions this season, and they included a who’s who of the NFL’s elite: The Chiefs, Eagles, Bills, Bengals, Bucs, and Chargers. Goff responded with 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions, with the league’s 13th highest drop back success rate.
The Broncos had a zero percent pass rate over expected on first down, which ranked tenth on the season. It’s hardly condemnable, like much of Nathaniel Hackett‘s offensive philosophy, but it certainly could have been higher. Wilson’s early-season struggles can be (partly) blamed on a lack of first down passing. Denver was 6 percent below their expected first down pass rate from Week 1-4.
Wilson’s best game of his otherwise-forgettable 2022 season -- a Week 14 loss to the Chiefs in which he exited in the fourth quarter with a brain injury -- saw Denver exceed its expected first down pass rate by an eye-popping 20 percent, their highest rate of the year by a wide margin. Russ threw for 247 yards, three scores, and a pick.
Payton has a solid record of using first downs to attack the defense via the pass. From 2011 to 2019, Payton’s Saints were 2 percent over their expected pass rate on first and ten, a rate that would have tied the aforementioned 2022 Lions. When Drew Brees posted a career-best adjusted yards per attempt in 2018, New Orleans was over its expected first down pass rate. His 5,476-yard, 46-touchdown 2011 campaign saw the Saints lead the NFL with a 9 percent PROE on first and ten.
There’s more than enough reason to believe Payton understands the importance of dropping back on first and ten. That’s not the worst development for Wilson.
Increase Play Action Usage
Denver’s 2022 offense was vanilla and miserably predictable. Opposing defenses knew exactly what Hackett’s offense was going to do and when they were going to do it. They neither leaned on the run nor leaned on the pass, but were constantly reaching for some imagined offensive balance that would magically produce yards and points. Here’s the thing: It didn’t.
Hackett seemed to be of the incredibly stubborn class of coaches who believes play action is effective only after establishing the proverbial run (it isn’t). When Hackett’s Broncos fell behind in 2022, they all but abandoned play action, leaving Wilson in an unenviable position against defenses that could let it rip in obvious passing situations.
Wilson’s 21.3 percent play action rate ranked 31st among qualifying QBs in 2022, a marked decrease from his most successful seasons in Seattle. The Seahawks in 2021 used play action on almost 30 percent of Wilson’s drop backs. That number was 26.4 percent in 2020, and during Wilson’s torrid early season stretch, Seattle was deploying play action on 28 percent of his drop backs. Wilson delivered with the misdirection, averaging 8.3 yards per attempt and throwing six touchdowns to one interception on play action passes from Week 1-6.
It’s no coincidence that Wilson posted a career-high adjusted yards per attempt (9) in 2018, when the Seahawks used play action on 30.9 percent of his drop backs -- the fifth highest rate in the league. His touchdown-to-interception ratio on play action passes that season? Twelve to one. Tom Brady and Phillip Rivers in 2018 were the only quarterbacks to receive a higher PFF grade on play action attempts. Not bad, Russ. Not bad at all.
Some of Wilson’s most odious 2022 outings saw the Broncos completely abandon play action. Against the Panthers in Week 12, Wilson used play action on just 15 percent of his drop backson his way to 142 yards and one touchdown. In Denver’s Christmas Day massacre at the hands of the Rams, Wilson’s play action rate sank to 9.5 percent, the lowest of any quarterback that week. He threw for 214 yards, one score, and three picks against LA. You get the idea. When Russ fell apart, play action was absent from the game plan.
It’s hardly a lock that Payton will utilize play action as much as we might hope as Denver’s play caller. That Payton’s Saints offenses were usually in the bottom half of the league in play action rate is cause for some concern about whether the 2023 Broncos will embrace misdirection as a help for Wilson. But any desire to understand why his franchise QB was horrendous in 2022 will lead Payton and his staff to Russ’s reliance on play action when he was at his best in Seattle.