ENGLEWOOD | Russell Wilson pledged to bounce back from his dud of a Denver debut while the Broncos look for a coach to replace the one who bombed so spectacularly that he didn’t even make it through his first season.
The Broncos (5-12) extended their playoff drought to seven years and their string of losing seasons to six with a hugely disappointing 2022 campaign that held so much promise back in the spring.
They figured they finally had the right coach in the fresh-faced, energetic and edgy Nathaniel Hackett. They paired him with Wilson, who cost them a bevy of players and picks — including the fifth overall in the upcoming draft — and a good chunk of new owner Rob Walton’s fortune.
Hackett found that managing a good game was harder than talking a good one and he had absolutely no answers when Wilson discovered his mid-career change was so discombobulating that he resembled a rattled rookie more than a savvy superstar.
Broncos fans wondered what happened to the nine-time Pro Bowler they’d heard about during his decade in Seattle.
“I’ve asked myself that same question,” Wilson said. “’Where’s he at?’”
Wilson pledged to bounce back from a season that featured career lows in wins (he went 4-11 as a starter), completion rate (60.5%) and touchdown throws (16) but a career-high 55 sacks.
“We are going to turn this thing around,” he said after throwing for three touchdowns and connecting on a trio of 50-plus-yard throws on Sunday. “I am excited about it. It starts with me, and it starts with all of us together. I am looking forward to it. I am looking forward to winning.
“That is what we came here to do and that is what we are going to do.”
Wilson finally displayed a glimpse of his vintage self after 67-year-old Jerry Rosburg took over after Hackett’s dismissal following a 51-14 blowout by the Los Angeles Rams on Christmas Day.
After averaging a league-low 15.5 points a game under Hackett, the Broncos averaged 27.5 points per game with Rosburg running the show. They lost a 27-24 heartbreaker at Kansas City and beat the playoff-bound Chargers 31-28 on Sunday.
Rosburg needed just a few days to repair the sputtering offense, fix Wilson and instill discipline and accountability to a team that had cratered under the weight of Hackett’s lackadaisical leadership.
The Broncos’ 471 yards of offense Sunday was their most since Peyton Manning came off the bench to lead them past the Chargers on Jan. 3, 2016, igniting a run that led them to a Super Bowl triumph.
“What you saw out there,” Rosburg said, “was Russell Wilson. That’s who he is. He’s a Hall of Fame NFL quarterback. Everything has to fit together for the quarterback to play winning football. You saw what it would look like if we ever got to that point.”
Rosburg hedged a bit after getting his first NFL win at age 67, but he’d suggested all last week that he was going to return to the hyperbaric oxygen therapy venture he was involved with before GM George Paton lured him out of retirement this season to serve as a senior assistant to Hackett.
The Broncos’ coaching search begins in-house with defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero this week. The Houston Texans have asked permission to speak with Evero after firing coach Lovie Smith after just one season.
Also on deck is a Zoom interview with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who led the Wolverines into the College Football Playoff again, and a conversation with Sean Payton, who’s still under contract with the New Orleans Saints and can’t be interviewed until Jan. 17.
San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan confirmed Monday that the Broncos have asked for permission to interview 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans.
Co-owner and CEO Greg Penner said he’s looking more for a CEO than an X’s-and-O’s head coach, saying leadership is the No. 1 quality he desires. The next coach will be Denver’s fifth since Gary Kubiak stepped down a year after leading the Broncos to their third Super Bowl championship.
As it turns out, Hackett’s first and biggest mistake was running a light training camp that featured very little live tackling and plenty of regeneration and rest days designed to keep players fresh and healthy.
It backfired with a whopping 22 players on injured reserve, including WR Tim Patrick (ACL), LT Garett Bolles (ankle/leg), RB Javonte Williams (knee) and OLB Randy Gregory (knee).
“Nathaniel brought that philosophy over from Green Bay, and they were one of the healthier teams,” Paton said. “He brought the philosophy here and it didn’t work for us.”
Although the Broncos gave away their first- and second-round picks to the Seahawks as part of the Wilson trade, they did jump back into the first round of April’s draft by sending pass rusher Bradley Chubb to Miami for the Dolphins’ first-rounder, which originally belonged to the 49ers and will be no better than the 29th overall selection.
The lone bright spot for Denver was again its stellar defense. CB Patrick Surtain II earned a Pro Bowl nod and Justin Simmons picked off a career-high six passes. On Sunday, Simmons became the first Broncos safety since John Lynch in 2005 to force two fumbles in a game.
JEUDY IN THE SKY
Jerry Jeudy enjoyed a bounce-back year in his third NFL season and capped a monthlong surge Sunday with a career-high 154 yards on five receptions and 39 yards on three carries.
Jeudy, the Broncos’ first-round pick in 2020, posted career highs in receptions (67), receiving yards (972) and touchdowns (six). His 193 scrimmage yards Sunday was the most by a Broncos receiver since Emmanuel Sanders posted 205 against Pittsburgh in 2015.
“I hope so,” Jeudy said with a smile when asked if he’d made a statement heading into his contract year.