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Former Broncos Insider: Sean Payton Must Fix Locker Room Culture

Mile High Huddle on FanNation 3/9/2023 Nick Kendell
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The Denver Broncos' to-do list in 2023 starts with the locker room culture and the quarterback.

Last season, the Denver Broncos were an unmitigated disaster — from coaching incompetence to injuries and what currently looks like one of the worst trades in the NFL in the last decade. 

Denver’s product on the field last year was unacceptable for a team that had relatively high preseason expectations after finally landing a franchise-caliber quarterback… or so everyone thought.

It wasn’t just the on-the-field product that was an issue in the Mile High City last season, but problems festered below the surface. The reported tension between Russell Wilson and other players was very likely amplified due to an underperforming team.

Things boiled to the surface in a Christmas Day blowout loss at the hands of the Los Angeles Rams (51-14), in which a sideline altercation between offensive lineman Dalton Risner and Brett Rypien made national news when the backup quarterback challenged the offensive line for not picking Wilson up off the turf after being sacked.

In a recent segment on Good Morning FootballNFL Network’s Cameron Wolfe discussed the Broncos’ offseason to-do list, which completely revolved around new head coach Sean Payton getting Wilson right and fixing poor morale and direction in the Denver Broncos locker room.

Wolfe noted that the Broncos were “probably one of the most disappointing teams in the NFL” and, despite the hype, came out and “laid an egg.” Wolfe pointed out that Denver “doesn’t pick until the third round," so for Denver, “Sean Payton has to fix Russell Wilson.”

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After years of Pro Bowl output in Seattle, Wilson played like one of the worst 5-to-10 starting quarterbacks in the NFL last year in Denver’s discombobulated offense.

Many in the league believe that Wilson will still be that quarterback going forward; as Wolfe said, “There are a lot of executives who think (Wilson) has declined, and his play has shown as much.” But Wolfe still thinks Wilson could be “due for a bounce-back year” and that pairing the quarterback with Payton could get him playing at a high level again. 

With Payton, Wolfe believes that “there are still elements there within him” where Wilson could turn back the clock and play at a high level again. Thanks in large part to having Payton in Denver, Wolfe emphasized Payton’s ability to maximize similarly undersized quarterback Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints as a reason for optimism surrounding Wilson next season. 

In order for that to happen, though, Wolfe believes Wilson will need to listen to Payton, focus on how to maximize the fact that he's a shorter passer, and move the pocket and the quarterback around to create better opportunities for the signal-caller within the structure of the offense.

In Wolfe's opinion, the most critical task the Broncos and Payton need to complete this offseason is fixing the locker room culture in Dove Valley, as the former Denver beat reporter pointed to the embarrassing Risner-Rypien sideline spat as a manifestation of the issues within the Broncos facility and the divide between Wilson, the offense, and the defense.

Wolfe puts it on Payton to try to get the Broncos all pulling in the same direction and improving the losing culture, saying, "That is something we have heard about in Denver about the connection between Russ and his teammates. That has to be figured out.”

Luckily for the Broncos, this is now Payton’s team, and what he says goes. This can be shown by Wilson having his second-floor office taken away and his entourage of private coaches/support having their access to the facilities in Denver revoked, according to reports since Payton was hired.

Given Payton’s track record of turning around a historically horrible franchise in the Saints, Wolfe does believe the coach can get it done. “Payton has been a culture-setter and a tone-setter,” Wolfe said.

The reality likely is that both the culture in Denver being fixed as well as the play of Wilson are not as mutually exclusive as Wolfe indicates in this GMFB segment. Things don’t get as toxic and out of line last year if Wilson simply plays better.

Teammates, coaches, and organizations will put up with a lot if the player in question is performing at a high level. Just look at the last half-decade of Aaron Rodgers with the Green Bay Packers as one of the countless examples.

But if Wilson doesn’t play better, even if Payton helps smooth over some of the issues in the Broncos locker room, things will still flare up, and there will be issues and finger-pointing. It’s simply the reality of the NFL: winning cures all.

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