Deciphering the unfolding drama between the Denver Broncos’ coach and quarterback requires understanding the combatants. Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Russell Wilson are more than Super Bowl-winning NFL icons. They are also experienced in hardball tactics.

Payton, one of the game’s great offensive minds, is the only head coach in league history to be suspended for a full season. When the ESPN analyst and retired NFL player Ryan Clark accused Payton of behaving as a “thug” during his Broncos tenure, the harsh commentary recalled the days when bounties were offered for injuring New Orleans Saints opponents.

Wilson, whose good deeds off the field culminated after the 2020 season with the NFL bestowing upon him its highest humanitarian honor (the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award), knows how to play rough as well. His separation from the Seattle Seahawks became so nasty, Wilson asked ownership to fire the coach and general manager.

The Pick Six column leads this week with an examination of what will soon become Wilson’s second divorce from a high-profile coach in two years. This time, the evidence strongly suggests Wilson is more victim than villain.

The quarterback’s contention that the Broncos threatened to bench him if he didn’t forfeit injury guarantees delivered a damaging blow to Payton and the Broncos’ new ownership, led by CEO Greg Penner. The team appears unlikely to address particulars until after the season because Wilson remains the No. 2 quarterback and could play in Week 18. That opens a window to scrutinize what has been said so far, while wondering, could an NFL team really behave in this manner?

The full menu this week:

• Broncos have explaining to do
• My best Lamar Jackson MVP stat
• Issues underlying LionsCowboys blown call
• Flacco’s upside
• How Lions defied all criticism
• Two-minute drill: Tepper’s cup runneth over

1. Was this a perfect storm of arrogance and unaccountability in Denver? Did Payton meet his match in Wilson? The Broncos have some explaining to do.

Rumors that Wilson had forfeited guarantees to remain the Broncos’ starter came to my attention in November. Attempts to confirm the information went nowhere. As recently as mid-December, league sources with access to NFL player contracts said Wilson’s contract had not been adjusted. The Payton-Wilson relationship seemed strained, but Wilson continued to start at quarterback for the Broncos under the terms of the contract he signed before the 2022 season.

It wasn’t to last. The Broncos suffered their third defeat in four December games, 26-23 to New England, and that was it for Wilson. Payton announced the quarterback’s benching, framing the decision as an effort to spark the offense over the final two games. There were obvious contractual considerations; the Las Vegas Raiders benched Derek Carr under similar circumstances late last season, preventing him from suffering an injury that would have increased the team’s financial liability.

Then came Wilson’s bombshell allegation: “They came up to me during the bye week, on Monday or Tuesday, and told me if I didn’t change my contract, my injury guarantee, that I’d be benched for the rest of the year. It was a process for the whole bye week. … The NFLPA and NFL got involved at some point.”

Russini: What I’m hearing on Russell Wilson, Jaire Alexander and more in NFL Week 17

Wilson was less explicit when deflecting the report that he tried to get the Seahawks’ leadership fired in Seattle. This time, Wilson was crystal clear in his language regarding what happened in Denver.

If this is how things played out, the Broncos deserve harsh criticism. Teams and players routinely negotiate details such as the dates when certain contractual mechanisms might come into play, but veteran agents and executives could not recall a situation where a team requested that a player waive vested injury guarantees during a season. Could the Broncos be so brazen?

There are a couple of scenarios we might consider while waiting for a fuller picture to emerge.

The Perfect Storm theory: Under this scenario, the Broncos behaved exactly the way Wilson said they behaved. This would be a case of an overly empowered head coach combining with inexperienced new ownership to produce a perfect storm for organizational malfeasance.

Payton has fit the overly empowered profile by showing a propensity for saying whatever is on his mind. He ripped his predecessor, Nathaniel Hackett, and called the 2022 Broncos an embarrassment. He mocked the New York Jets for leaning into Aaron Rodgers’ arrival the way Denver had done with Wilson under Hackett. Payton belittled Wilson early in the season when he said, “Russ has gotta be sharper with getting the play out, and then we’ve gotta look at how much we have in. But, you know, if we need to wristband it, we will.”

We might envision under this scenario the Broncos meeting during the bye week to consider their strategy for the remainder of the season and beyond. They could have discussed moving on from Wilson or finding ways to proceed with him under more palatable terms for the team. Payton might have been briefed on contractual details. The team could have decided to play hardball with Wilson, consistent with Payton’s overall treatment of the quarterback.

This theory breaks down somewhat when we consider that Wilson remained in the lineup for seven additional games without changing his contract.

Would a power coach who counts tough-guy Bill Parcells as his mentor threaten to bench a player, then relent when the player refuses to comply with his demands?

“If they were discussing moving back the date when Wilson’s skill guarantees vest, that is something that could have lingered for weeks,” a longtime NFL exec said. “At the end of the day, I don’t see why there wasn’t a hard ‘no’ (from Wilson) earlier in the process.”

Payton said he was “not privy” to any contract discussions with Wilson, adding, “That’s something (general manager) George (Paton) and the front office (handle). I’m not involved in any of that. … There will be a time and place at the end of the season where some of the questions you might have, someone else will be able to answer.”

Payton’s outspokenness on so many other matters makes his relative silence on this one seem telling. The fact that the Sunday morning NFL news cycle came and went without a word in defense of Payton, from the coach himself or sources close to him, suggests to me the Broncos do not have information undermining Wilson’s allegations.

Payton is not the first successful coach to reject Wilson. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll also sought a future without the quarterback. But Carroll’s Seahawks maximized Wilson for years. Payton seemed ready to move on almost from the beginning. Was Wilson that far gone?

“The days of Bill Parcells and all that stuff, I don’t really know how close we are to those days,” a coach from another team said. “Can you think of two more different approaches to coaching a quarterback than Mike McDaniel versus Sean Payton? Both could make a case for not wanting the guy they inherited. Both have certain styles of offense. One treats his guy like he’s the golden child, and the other one treats his guy like the disruptive kid in class. Do I think Mike McDaniel could make something out of Russell? I think he could.”

The Sons of Anarchy theory: Under this scenario, Wilson has out-Paytoned Payton by disclosing some of the facts publicly while leaving out critical details and framing, painting his coach and team in a harsh light.

We would agree under this scenario that the Broncos wanted to bench Wilson at the bye, and that Wilson did not want to be benched. The parties might have discussed potential compromise solutions, which could have included Wilson forfeiting injury guarantees and/or moving back vesting deadlines so that he might remain on the roster into the 2024 offseason on terms more favorable to the team. In this scenario, the threat would not have been as overt as Wilson made it sound.

Pushback from the NFL and NFL Players Association — which sent a letter to the team saying a threat to bench Wilson if he didn’t alter his contract would violate the CBA — might have made it tougher for the Broncos to follow through immediately on the threat. The team then won games unexpectedly by riding a defense that was forcing turnovers, further complicating the timing of a QB change. Once the turnovers stopped flowing, the Broncos lost games, fell from realistic playoff contention and Payton made the quarterback switch he planned to make all along.

Wilson, suddenly vulnerable, told his side of the story, and here we are.

But if Wilson had left out key details, the Broncos would have a strong incentive to push back against damaging narratives. If they thought Wilson would go quietly, they were obviously deceiving themselves.

“Fifteen years ago, the quarterback would sit quiet and try to get on another team,” a different exec from another team said. “When you mistreat a guy like Wilson, that ain’t going to happen. I think Sean messed with the wrong guy because (Wilson) told the story.”

Payton and the Broncos’ ownership have much explaining to do as a result. What they say could affect the legacies of a coach and quarterback, both with Hall of Fame aspirations.

2. Lamar Jackson entered Sunday as the betting favorite to win MVP. Case closed after the Baltimore Ravens’ 56-19 victory over Miami.

As discussed in my Thursday column, the ideal MVP candidate is a quarterback whose elite production helps his team win with a highly-rated offense in spite of weak defense/special teams. That did not describe the leading candidates as a whole this season, including Jackson, whose Baltimore Ravens’ defense has dominated, casting the offense into a support role.

2023 NFL MVP guide: Lamar Jackson and the challenger (almost) no one is talking about

But after Jackson turned in a signature performance against the Dolphins to secure the AFC’s No. 1 seed Sunday, can the award go to anyone else? The Ravens were playing on a short week after traveling across the country from California, where they dominated the NFC-leading San Francisco 49ers on Monday night. Miami never had a chance.

Jackson completed 18 of 21 passes for 321 yards and five touchdowns with a perfect 158.3 rating. His Ravens improved to 4-0 against current division leaders, with a 24.8 average point differential in those games. No team since at least 2000 has produced such a large scoring differential against division winners, per TruMedia.

Lamar Jackson vs Current Division Leaders

EPA/Pass Play0.391st
Rushing Yards2131st

The table above shows Jackson’s production in those victories against the Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars (23-7), Detroit Lions (38-6) and 49ers (33-19). Not having to face his own team’s division-leading defense helped. It’s also true that Baltimore did not require dominant offensive performances to win those games.

If we zoom out to consider the season-long EPA associated with various MVP candidates, we see Jackson making a huge jump Sunday, but still lagging behind most of the others. The chart below compares those totals against the average cumulative EPA production for the past 10 MVPs (all quarterbacks).

Dominating against top teams late in the season carries additional weight. Dominating without key weapons, including two starting running backs and All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews, adds to the case. I suspect what happened Sunday will push Jackson over the top among most voters. His odds are now 10,000-to-1.

3. The NFL’s latest officiating fiasco was a long time in the making.

On a surface level, referee Brad Allen moved too quickly and the Detroit Lions moved too slyly on the disputed two-point conversion try that Allen’s crew disallowed, letting the Dallas Cowboys escape with a 20-19 victory Saturday.

When Allen saw three Lions players approaching him before the two-point try, he should have taken time to sort through the situation. Lions players also could have confirmed with Allen that left tackle Taylor Decker was eligible to catch the pass he caught for the would-be conversion.

Lions’ loss after ref’s controversial call leads to confusion and an irate Dan Campbell

Let us count some of the factors contributing to the latest NFL officiating crisis.

• Imperfect pregame protocol: Lions coach Dan Campbell noted that his team briefed game officials on their plans to use the trick play, suggesting Allen should have known to make the proper notation regarding who was eligible. The idea that Campbell stared into Allen’s eyes while informing him of this specific play during a pregame meeting sounds great, but that is not how these meetings go. The referee himself does not attend said meetings. Crew members meet with the head coach on the referee’s behalf.

• Overemphasizing pace of play: Professional sports leagues seek to speed up the pace of play for TV purposes. Baseball instituted a pitch clock. The NFL has pushed officials to cut game times by speeding up game administration. Allen appeared to hurry when listening for which players were eligible, turning away from Lions players to inform the Dallas defense. He might have assumed the Lions were making Dan Skipper eligible, as they had done earlier in the game, when Decker was the one the Lions intended to make eligible.

“The whole world is watching, and the referee looks like he’s rushing to catch an Uber for New Year’s Eve,” a veteran coach said, reflecting exasperation with the push to speed up games at the expense of being thorough.

• Cost over equality: Fans 100 years from now will undoubtedly look back on this quaint era of part-time officials and marvel that any league taking itself seriously would entrust on-field rules interpretation to part-time officials. Imagine if Campbell sold insurance in Chicago much of the week, then traveled to games so he could coach the Lions. The arrangement would be laughable. The league has resisted hiring full-time crews because it would cost much more to pry their current officials away from careers in other fields. The league needs to make officiating a career, not a second job.

4. Joe Flacco got hot at the right time and won the Super Bowl with Baltimore in 2012. Can he do it again for the division-rival Browns?

Flacco’s arrival in Cleveland has given the Browns renewed hope and a great story to rally around after cycling through starting quarterbacks all season. As the seconds ticked down on Cleveland’s latest victory, 37-20 over the New York Jets, I wondered how well Flacco was playing late in his 2012 Super Bowl-winning season with Baltimore.

That was the year Flacco put up a postseason stat line for the ages: 11 touchdown passes, zero interceptions and a 117.2 passer rating as the Ravens won it all. Thanks in part to Flacco’s hot playoff run, those Ravens knocked off teams led by Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady before defeating the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

There were zero indications late in that 2012 regular season that Flacco was suddenly going to produce at such high levels. The table below compares Flacco’s production for his final five meaningful regular-season starts in 2012 against production for his five starts with Cleveland. I excluded 2012 Week 17 because Flacco barely played as Baltimore rested its starters.

Super Joe? Flacco then and now

EPA/Pass Play+0.03-0.07
Avg Air Yds9.99.4
16+ Cmp2532

The numbers are similar, including identical passer ratings. There’s nothing predictive about those 2012 stats, but a Browns fan can dream, right?

Passing yards aren’t a basis for performance evaluation, but no one ever would have expected Flacco to rack up so many so quickly for a team that wins with defense. His 1,616 yards in five starts with Cleveland are the 12th-most in NFL history for one player in a single month, per Pro Football Reference.

Most Passing Yards in One Calendar Month

Peyton Manning12/20131,755
Jameis Winston12/20191,718
Matt Hasselbeck12/20021,700
Drew Brees10/20111,687
Matt Ryan10/20161,666
Dak Prescott11/20191,665
Kurt Warner11/20081,652
Jim Kelly09/19911,644
Jared Goff12/20191,643
Patrick Mahomes10/20181,630
Ryan Fitzpatrick12/20191,628
Joe Flacco12/20231,616
Peyton Manning11/20141,603

5. For the Lions, having a philosophy and sticking to it seems more important than having the perfect philosophy.

Campbell’s insistence on attempting two-point tries on consecutive plays from the 2-, 7- and 3-yard lines against the Cowboys invited criticism, but it also showed just how committed the coach remains to his overall philosophy. I saw the sequence as a metaphor for the Lions’ overall resurgence. They have done things their way, frequently when others have raised logical concerns about their methods.

Cambpell’s hiring and subsequent “kneecap biting” news conference invited ridicule. It looked like the team had hired a meathead coach. Campbell has proven to be authentic and effective in building the Lions into a playoff team.

When the Lions acquired quarterback Jared Goff, some saw the move as Detroit doing a favor for the Los Angeles Rams by by absorbing Goff’s expensive contract. But the Lions were acquiring a potential long-term starter, which is what Goff became for them.

In the draft, the Lions took heat for using first-round picks for non-premium positions, especially for selecting running back Jahmyr Gibbs at No. 12. Gibbs ranks ninth in yards from scrimmage per game (87.9) and is a key weapon for the Lions.

It’s debatable whether any other team should look for a coach in Campbell’s mold, or take on an expensive castoff quarterback such as Goff, or use early draft choices for running backs (or tight ends, such as star rookie second-rounder Sam LaPorta), or make in-game decisions as aggressively as the Lions have done.

What works for the Lions might not work for everyone else. But there’s value in knowing who you are and playing to your identity. The Lions are doing that better than at any time I can recall.

“They hired (GM) Brad Holmes, hired Dan Campbell, got Goff, elevated Ben Johnson to coordinator even though he had never called plays and dismissed a (defensive) position coach in-season while standing by the coordinator of a really bad defense,” an exec from another team said. “They traded their tight end (T.J. Hockenson) and got a better one in the draft — from the same school (Iowa)!”

Laughing at the Lions was safe for years because the results almost always justified the laughter. Detroit is getting the last laughs more frequently now.

6. Two-minute drill: If any team owner was going to throw a drink toward opposing fans, it was probably going to be David Tepper of the Carolina Panthers.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell works for team owners, not the other way around. That presents a problem when it comes to handing down (up?) discipline. But if team owners are going to throw drinks through open suite windows onto opposing fans seated only feet away, perhaps the league should consider implementing a personal conduct policy.

Wait, there is one?

“Ownership and club or league management have traditionally been held to a higher standard and will be subject to more significant discipline when violations of the Personal Conduct Policy occur,” the policy states.

Panthers owner David Tepper appears to throw drink into crowd

The video below shows what appears to be a piece of ice traveling from Tepper’s cup toward the window. A fan in a Jaguars jersey then stands up, turns around and approaches the window before video cuts off.

The Panthers’ 31-67 (.316) record since Tepper purchased the team places Tepper 30th among current owners. Only the Jaguars’ Shad Khan (.310) and new Washington owner Josh Harris (.250) have lower win rates.

All 32 NFL owners from worst to first: The good, the bad and a few surprises

Tepper’s temper seems to be a defining trait for him. If he throws objects into the crowd next week, he’ll be much less likely to hit anyone. The 2-14 Panthers will be playing at home, where images such as the one below have become the norm.

• 2024 draft implications: Arizona’s upset victory at Philadelphia moved Washington into the No. 2 slot behind Carolina, whose pick belongs to Chicago and will be No. 1.

How the final week plays out will affect the order quarterback-needy teams near the top.

New England’s road game against the Jets comes to mind. The division rivals have nothing but draft position on the line. The Patriots would secure the second pick if they lose and Washington upsets Dallas.

The current order: 1. Chicago (via Carolina), 2. Washington, 3. New England, 4. Arizona, 5. New York Giants, 6. Los Angeles Chargers, 7. Tennessee.

Bears secure No. 1 pick in 2024 NFL Draft

• Defenseless in Seattle: The Seahawks rank 29th in defensive EPA per play after turning the Mason Rudolph-quarterbacked Pittsburgh Steelers into a 468-yard juggernaut during a defeat that left Seattle needed help to reach the playoffs.

Beginning in 2013 and extending to this season, here’s where Seattle has ranked in defensive EPA per play: 1, 3, 7, 7, 8, 15, 19, 18, 22, 25 and 29 this season. The trend is unmistakable.

It’s a tough spot to be in when Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay are coaching in the division. Next up: Arizona, which finished Sunday with 32 first downs, second-most for the franchise since at least 1940, in a 35-31 upset at Philadelphia. Only the Kurt Warner-led 2008 Super Bowl Cardinals team has had more (33).

• Titans were warned: Titans could become Texans if they’re not careful,” our headline read late last season. These AFC South rivals have indeed traded places. Houston’s 26-3 victory over Tennessee dropped the Titans to 5-18 in their past 23 games, including 5-15 since that column ran.

I don’t think the Titans are losing for the reasons laid out in that column, but they could lose for them in the future. The idea then was that consolidating too much power in coach Mike Vrabel following general manager Jon Robinson’s firing could lead to some of the issues Houston experienced when Bill O’Brien became the driving force behind the Texans. Some of the coaching advantages Vrabel has provided tend to matter only in close games.

The Titans seem to be losing mostly because the life cycle of their team has turned over. The question now is whether Tennessee has the personnel leadership needed to rebuild in a division suddenly stacked with promising quarterbacks in Jacksonville, Houston and Indianapolis.

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