Russell Wilson not the first to struggle in Broncos scheme


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — If there is one signature moment that encompasses the Denver Broncos‘ frustrating season thus far, it’s been authored by wide receiver KJ Hamler.

Hamler took off his helmet and slammed it into the turf over and over after the Broncos failed to score a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds of a dismal loss to the Indianapolis Colts last Thursday.

The Broncos rarely score touchdowns this season — with six through five games — and the lack of consistency offers little hope for things turning around. Coach Nathaniel Hackett, quarterback Russell Wilson and the rest of the offense aren’t on the same page often enough and, sometimes, they don’t look like they’re reading the same book.

Every migraine-inducing punt looks familiar to Denver legend John Elway. He felt the same pain when former head coach Mike Shanahan arrived in Denver in 1995. He brought in the playbook that Hackett and so many others have built on since.

“I even came into it, my first year in the scheme, having been exposed to some of the components of it at Stanford a little bit, and when I was with [Jim] Fassel when Wade [Phillips] was the [Broncos] head coach,” Elway said. “I felt like I had a certain background, but the timing of it, the precision of it, there is an adjustment in it for everybody in the offense, not just the quarterback. That exists in everything you do, no matter what offense you’re in, but in the version of this scheme we ran, those initial games it really struck me how much of an adjustment it was for all 11 guys.”

The roots of what Hackett is trying to do with Wilson and the Broncos’ offense date back to one of the franchise’s signature eras — the Elway-Shanahan pairing in 1995 that led to back-to-back Super Bowl wins to close out the 1997 and 1998 seasons. It was also the start of a coaching tree that eventually branched out to include Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, Matt LaFleur in Green Bay, Sean McVay in Los Angeles and Mike McDaniel in Miami.

Five games into his Broncos’ tenure, Wilson is where many other quarterbacks — even some of the best to have played in the NFL — have been. The spot where they wrestle with what they hope is short-term pain on the way to long-term gains.

Consider LaFleur’s first season with the Green Bay Packers in 2019. With Hackett serving as his offensive coordinator, Aaron Rodgers had nine games with either one or no touchdown passes, as well as four games when he didn’t complete 60% of his passes, even as the team rolled to a 13-3 finish.

He then won the league’s MVP award in 2020 and 2021.

Talk to those who have been in the offense or coached it, they all trace many of the issues back to two big-ticket items — the footwork at every position to stay on schedule, and the timing for the running back to choose a run lane or the quarterback to see the right receiver as he breaks free.

“I always [like] to put formations to plays, the personnel that was in the game at that moment, when I was working through things,” Elway said. “For me, that was the hardest thing, the little adjustments for everybody, in those concepts. And footwork by you as a quarterback, in the bootlegs and the play action, and the timing are so important so the best way I can say it I guess is guys can’t get open too soon or too late.

“As a quarterback you to have work your progressions, and as the receivers, you have to maintain your timing, that you’re open right at that point in the progression, not before, not after.”

That timing hasn’t been there for the Broncos, especially when Wilson is targeting players other than Courtland Sutton, who leads the team in targets, receptions, and yards receiving. Overall the Broncos’ offense has scored 16 or fewer points in four of five games and they’re tied for 30th in scoring, they’re 30th on third-down conversions and last in red-zone offense.

With the benefit of 11 days between a loss to the Colts Thursday and the Los Angeles Chargers game on Monday (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+), Hackett said he and the coaching staff evaluated Wilson and the offense to this point, even digging into the video from training camp practices.

“Everything is more growing pains right now. We’re five games into the season, five games we’ve all been working together, we’re all still getting to know each other, Russell getting to know the team, the team getting to know him,” Hackett said. “Same thing for me, when you’re in those high critical situations how people are going to react. What plays are maybe our go-tos, what we want to accomplish … it’s about us understanding what we want to go to when we need to.”

Former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer echoed that sentiment. He arrived to the Broncos in 2003 as a free-wheeling, seat-of-his-pants scrambler looking to launch any and all off-schedule throws.

“All of a sudden [then-offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak] and Mike [Shanahan] are walking me through all of the different footwork combinations on play action out of a three-step drop, out of a five-step drop according to each look,” Plummer said. “And you’re learning it, thinking ‘this is crazy’ and then when it hits you, when you get that comfort level … you just see what it all can do.”

Plummer had the three seasons of his career with the fewest interceptions during his four with the Broncos and advanced to the AFC Championship game to close out the 2005 season.

How the offensive line plays into the scheme is as crucial. In the zone run game, especially the outside zone run game, which calls for the linemen to block areas or zones instead of specific defenders, the need to maintain proper spacing and not leave gaps for defenders to use is paramount. If done properly the running backs will have three choices — called “bounce” (outside), “bang” (cut upfield) or “bend” (cut back across the formation) — to find the best running lane.

If the linemen on the move don’t maintain their spacing, they leave gaps for the defenders. Or if they make the wrong choice of defenders in any of the zones, it doesn’t take much for the play to dissolve.

“Every movement of the defense changes what’s going to happen to you on the fly,” said Mark Schlereth, a former Broncos guard who played six seasons in Denver starting in 1995. ” … You have to drill it a million times because every time the defensive front moves, all my footwork, all my takeoff points are different for each of those. … You can’t dabble in it, you have to major in it.

“Until you get to the point, in the middle of a cadence, when somebody shifts in the defensive front, it could be just eight inches, that you understand immediately how it changes things for you before the ball is snapped, it’s not going to be as effective.”

Schlereth said he went as far as writing down each step he had to take on every play as well as where he wanted to make contact with the defender with his hands “for every single adjustment the defender could make so when I got in a game I didn’t think. To handle the level of detail, you have to think before you play so when you play you know.”

It all might beg the question of why so many teams and coaches, especially those who have worked with Mike Shanahan or Kubiak, are running a difficult offense.

Elway, who had three of his four career seasons with at least 25 touchdown passes in the final four years of his career after Shanahan’s arrival, and Plummer each have an answer.

“I just look at my own experiences,” Elway said. “I never thought it was difficult like we couldn’t learn it, but putting it into practice every play with that timing you need, with everybody right where they need to me, including me, then you can do great things. I played some of the best football of my career even though physically I maybe couldn’t do some of the things I did 10 years before that. The payoff is huge and all you have to do is look around and see how many people are running versions of it now.”

“Why? Why go through it?”’ Plummer has said. “Because it’s the best thing going when it’s going.”

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