With the acquisition of Russell Wilson, the Denver Broncos will immediately have one of the best offenses in the NFL, and one of the most well-rounded teams overall. Their defense has had vital pieces for a while, and now Denver finally has an elite quarterback who can lead the way and get the ball to their talented receiver group.
Late one evening, after the trade that sent Russell to Denver, he face-timed, asking me if I was available to spend a month until OTA’s at his home in San Diego with his incredible staff to assist in his off-season training. I had very little contact with him in over a decade, although I watched with pride his accomplishments at the collegiate and professional level. So yes, I cleared my schedule, and a few days later, was on my way to the west coast. I was more than happy to help in any way I could and spend quality time with him and his family on and off the field, more than 15 years after initially meeting him.
At that time, while serving as the offensive coordinator at NC State, I had the opportunity over the summer to bring in a group of high school quarterbacks for a workout. Russell was clearly the best of the group. After the workout, I took him aside and put him through a private NFL-style workout. His athleticism, arm talent, and accuracy in the pocket and on the move were exceptional. Russell was without question an elite passer from an NFL perspective, but while spending more time in the classroom after the workout, I found him to have unquestionable football intelligence, authenticity, self-confidence, and charisma.
In talking with our head coach at NC State, I boldly and confidently stated that Russ was the second coming of my boyhood hero, Viking Hall of Fame QB Fran Tarkenton! After agreeing that we would allow him to play both baseball and football at his request, we committed to him on the same day.
Fast-forward to today. I believe Russell’s greatest impact on the Denver Broncos won’t be because of his stats or his athleticism. But rather, a series of long-term intangible influences on the entire organization that will propel the Broncos and Russ to a legacy of success.
After watching Russell’s work ethic and building of relationships with his teammates this offseason, there is no doubt his intense preparation has already positively impacted the Broncos and will continue to do so throughout his first season. I have watched him spend countless hours relentlessly studying, teaching his teammates, and discussing a wide variety of football topics. He did it with teammates in person (when he brought teammates to work at his home) and on Zoom, all between a full day of physical training and taking care of his body.
In a podcast I did with Russell last spring, (“Leadership Gameplan” on Spotify) Russell’s focus was on the idea that “language is everything.” During my time with him and his teammates, his relentless commitment to language was heard in the classroom and on the field.
To Russell, words matter. How words are used, and the meaning behind them. Russell is a tremendous teacher of the game. His presentation of the Broncos’ offense and interactive communication while teaching is as good as any NFL offensive coordinator. His communication is engaging, entertaining and consistent. Everyone learns the “big picture” and the “why” behind each play.
After OTAs and prior to training camp, Russell brought the players back to San Diego to keep everyone on the same page and continue preparation for training camp. Russell clearly understands that “leadership” starts with the people. I think the relationships he created throughout the offseason gave the Broncos a head start into training camp and a competitive advantage as the season approaches.
I have had the privilege to coach many great quarterbacks throughout my career. They are all gifted with mental toughness and are special in their own way. Russell’s mental toughness and positive mindset are remarkable. This mindset never changes. He wants to “authentically” put on as he says “a show” in and out of the building of what a championship player and play looks like each moment of the day.
Russell does this through positive words but mostly through his demeanor and actions. The “show” he puts on each day is not an act, but who he is and the mindset that allows him to develop camaraderie with the people surrounding him. Those relationships go beyond the players and coaches, but also include support staff, and those he engages every day at the facility. He clearly understands that everyone matters and their work leads to winning as well on game day.
Russell, between his family, business and his highly visible off-season travel, has a unique ability to compartmentalize his life but makes sure football is always at the forefront. I have witnessed this first-hand. I have experienced enough to say there can be no player more invested in the game or his team than Russell. Football starts very early in the morning and often doesn’t finish until late at night.
His energy and commitment to the game resonate with everyone he touches. Russell has a way of creating a sense of urgency while at the same time eliminating stress through his preparation, self-confidence, and sense of humor.
The Right Situation
In Denver, Russell is now in a great situation that will make his transition a lot easier. He is truly a coach on and off the field.
Wilson, with General Manager George Paton and Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett, has dramatically changed the culture in the facility. Those three have the selfless personalities working together in the organization’s best interest. Russell’s positive energy and multiple skillsets will lead to a legacy and a perfect storm of success along the way.
The Broncos’ defense has a chance to be very good and should complement what they do offensively. Even with the unfortunate injury to Tim Patrick, Russell will be surrounded by a core of quality receivers, be supported by an excellent running game, and based on what I saw from last year’s Green Bay tape, where Hackett was the O.C., I believe the offensive line will be exceptionally coached in pass protection. That will be combined with an offense of play-action passing, movements and screens to take the pressure off Russell. During the last 10 years, Russell has been one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the league, and I think that will be minimized during the course of the season.
Language and Communication
Returning to language, Russell understands as a true leader he cannot be at his best unless his teammates are too. Therefore, communication and language are so important to him. Throughout the course of a game, every player and coach must be on the same page with language. Players gladly assimilate this attention to detail because Russell explains to them the “why” behind everything they do with consistent language. He is relentless on this topic as well.
“Why” everything has a certain name and getting them to see the big picture rather than focusing just on what they do individually. Through this kind of consistent communication, Russell will have Denver playing at the highest level possible in crucial situations.
Russell has taken on one of the great challenges of the 2022 season by accepting a trade to play in the AFC West. This is a division with three accomplished and potential Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Mahomes, Carr and Herbert.
As we all know, these quarterbacks have the “it” factor like Russell. They can bring their team back late in the game. The NFL game is a “58 minutes-plus-2 minute” game. Because of this, the AFC West will be the league’s most competitive and exciting division and a tremendous challenge for Russell, his coaches, and teammates. He knew from the start what he was getting himself into and he is embracing the challenge openly for the world to see.
To know where Russell comes from, I can only tell you the story he told to me and our listeners on my podcast. It was a few days before his first college game, and he gets a call from his mother desperately crying. His mother is an emergency nurse, and his dad is in the hospital ill with diabetes.
His dad had fallen in the kitchen, hit his head and was in a coma. The doctors wanted Russell to come to the hospital to say goodbye. While there, his mom starts singing in his father’s ear. Then she starts telling him to move. Soon after his dad begins to move, and he wakes up in front of the doctor and his family.
As Russell says, when this happened it changed him. This is the narrative that explains Russell Wilson. As he said after experiencing his dad waking from his coma, “there is no other way than to believe.” This goes to his heart behind the man who continues to amaze the football world after 10 years.
With that in mind, how can he not believe that he can lead his team back from a 20-point deficit, in the fourth quarter, or to future Super Bowls?
The great quarterbacks have the ability to embrace adversity, take on the most difficult moments and give their teams “hope” when it matters most.
Russell Wilson is one of those players.