UNDER FURTHER REVIEW -Broncos need the next Manning, not another Hadl

Denver’s acquisition of Russell Wilson became official with the start of the 2022-23 National Football League season at 2 p.m. Mountain Time, March 16.  

This means Broncos fans can begin planning their Super Bowl LVII parties or their trips to Arizona for the big game next February.

Or does it?

Contrary to the rampant optimism and excitement that borders on delirium in these parts, I advise restraint and caution.

Yes, Russell Wilson is a nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback who led Seattle to two Super Bowls—one ending in victory over the Broncos—and holds the NFL record most wins by a quarterback in his first nine seasons (98).  At 33, he’s three years younger than Peyton Manning was when he moved to Denver in 2012.

But there are other caveats to consider:

  • Wilson, who has never received even one vote for the NFL Most Valuable Player Award, has endured 478 sacks in 174 games. Manning, by 2012 already a four-time MVP, had been sacked only 256 times in 227 games.
  • A scrambler, Wilson also has 929 rushes so far in his career, while Manning, who rarely ran unless his life depended on it, had only 369 carries in about 30 percent more games by the timehe joined the Broncos. 
  • Altogether, that’s a lot more hits while possessing the ball.

And so, the Broncos must hope that Wilson:

  • Stays healthy, and that his finger injury which kept him from playing for the first time last season, is not the beginning of a physical decline; and
  • Sustains his high level of play into his second decade in the NFL, as Manning did.

For sure, I hope he does.  The Broncos do seem to have many of the pieces that make up a championship team: a group of above-average receivers, a stud running back in the making, a talented secondary and a strong linebacking corps. Maybe they’re a quarterback away.

But I’m concerned about the price the Broncos paid: first-round draft choices this year and next, second-round picks both years, and two starters—tight end Noah Fant, himself a former first-round pick who caught a career-high 68 balls in 2021, and Shelby Harris, the anchor of the defensive line whose specialty is batting down passes at the line of scrimmage. 

Throw in quarterback Drew Lock, who admittedly was not likely to ever be Denver’s starter again but did have the prospect of a fresh start with a new head coach and offensive coordinator, and you have one of the biggest packages in the history of NFL trades. If this doesn’t work, General Manager George Paton has mortgaged the future for disappointment.

These mega-deals, in which one team lands a superstar while the other harvests a trove of valuable assets, often benefit the team getting the haul more than the team acquiring the star. Too often, one player is not as good in the long run as the five, six or more he was deemed to be worth. 

There are numerous examples. 

One of the worst was John Hadl from the Rams to the Packers in 1974 for Green Bay’s top five draft choices over two years. It caused Dan Devine to quit and move to Notre Dame, and left the Pack reeling in mediocrity until Brett Favre came to Green Bay via trade with Atlanta almost two decades later.

Another was the surreal Ricky Williams draft-positioning deal in 1999 between New Orleans and Washington. It was memorialized—prophetically—with an ESPN The Magazine cover showing Williams and Saints coach Mike Ditka as bride and groom with the title “For Better Or Worse.” In that one, Ditka gave Washington eight draft choices to move up to the fifth pick in the first round so he could grab Williams, a star running back at Texas.

After starting with three victories, Hadl lost 13 of his last 17 games for Green Bay. Williams was traded to Miami after three seasons, and Ditka was fired after going 3-13 in Williams’ rookie season. In 2013 Sports Illustrated ranked the Williams deal the second-worst NFL trade of all time, behind only Minnesota’s infamous trade for Herschel Walker. In Green Bay, the Hadl debacle ranks just behind Walker.

In the Walker deal, Minnesota acquired what the Vikings thought was the last piece to a Super Bowl winner, along with four mid-to-low draft choices. In exchange, Dallas received what ultimately amounted to eight draft choices: three first-rounders, three second-rounders, one third and one sixth. 

Walker helped Minnesota reach the playoffs in ’89 but not the Super Bowl. He left for Philadelphia in free agency two years later, after seasons of 6-10 and 8-8. Jimmy Johnson, meanwhile, utilized his stockpile of draft choices to acquire many of the key players on the Cowboys’ three Super Bowl champions in the decade of the 1990s.

All that said, to borrow a piece of baseball wisdom: “You can’t hit a home run if you don’t swing for the fences.” 

Only time will tell if Pete Carroll & Company can turn their Wilson bounty into a championship nucleus.  We’ll know pretty quickly if Russell Wilson is the next Peyton Manning, or another John Hadl.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 13 books, seven of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.