UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Kicking game, not QB, ruins Payton’s opener

Sean Payton’s first game as head coach of the Denver Broncos this year ended with the exact same outcome as Nathaniel Hackett’s last year: a 17-16 defeat.

But that’s about the only similarity to the Broncos of 2022.

Most notable among the contrasts was the play of quarterback Russell Wilson.

Last Sunday against the Raiders, Wilson completed 27 of 34 passes (79.4%), spreading the receptions among 10 players, for 177 yards.  All last season, he completed 60.5 percent (292 of 483).

A third of his completions Sunday were throws on the run, either designed rollouts or scrambles; he was sacked only twice, for a total loss of 11 yards. That should tell you the slimmed-down 2023 version is more mobile.

His quarterback rating against the Raiders was 108. That’s 23.6 higher than his rating for the 2022 season.

Payton got more out of Wilson in their first game together than he got from Brees in their first game as coach and quarterback. While Payton won that one in New Orleans in 2006 (19-14 over the Browns), Brees passed for 170 yards, on only 16 of 30 (53.3.

And Wilson threw two touchdown passes in his first game under Payton, Brees one. 

The moral of the Wilson/Payton-Brees/Payton comparison, dear Broncos fans, is to not overreact to Week One’s loss.

Some would say the critical difference Sunday was a surprise onside kick to start the game that just missed succeeding. It set up the Raiders for a 44-yard touchdown drive on their first possession of what proved to be a tight game. But had it succeeded, it would have been hailed as a stroke of Prime-like daring.

More decisive, in the end, was a missed extra point attempt by new Broncos kicker Wil Lutz. It was his first missed PAT since January 3, 2021—2 years and 252 days. He was kicking for Sean Payton then, too.

Lutz joined the team after Payton cut Brett Maher following the last preseason game—that 41-0 rout of the Rams in which Maher went 5-for-5 on extra points and kicked two field goals.

Those Rams apparently were more impressed with that performance than Payton. They signed Maher to be their placekicker, and on Sunday he made good on all three PATs plus kicked three field goals in the Rams’ 30-13 victory over Seattle.

One of Maher’s field goals was a 54-yarder. That’s worth noting because, in addition to missing his first extra point as a member of the Broncos, Lutz also missed his first field goal attempt, a 55-yarder on the first drive of the second half.

If that kick hadn’t sailed outside the right upright, Denver would have had 19 points and might have won.

It should also be noted that Denver’s long-time placekicker, Brandon McManus, whom Payton cut earlier this summer, helped Jacksonville beat the Colts in Indianapolis by making all four of his extra point attempts AND a 45-yard field goal, on his only attempt.

So, if Coach Payton is to be second-guessed about anything related to the kicking game, it might be his choice of kickers rather than the way he chose to open his first game in Denver.

The bigger question involves that team up the turnpike.  Have Coach Prime’s Buffaloes usurped the hearts of at least some Broncos fans with their scintillating start?

Empower Field at Mile High was a sea of orange Sunday. But the day before, a sea of fans covered the Folsom Field gridiron after Colorado handled Nebraska 36-14.  

A second straight exciting performance has catapulted Colorado to national prominence. In the coaches poll, the Buffs are up four, from No. 25 to 21. And in the writers poll, they moved from 22 to 18. 

And both ESPN Game Day and Fox Sports’ Big Noon Saturday pre-game shows will originate from Boulder this Saturday, when the Buffs play Colorado State.

The line of the weekend belonged TV analyst Joel Klatt—himself a former Buff quarterback—who amended Coach Prime’s “We coming” declaration as he surveyed the throng that engulfed their new heroes after the referee declared the game over.

“They’re no longer coming,” Klatt said. “They’re here.”

That onside kick to start Sunday’s game is about as brash as reserved Sean Payton will get. So, we’ll have to give him a little more time to show that he and his Broncos are coming, too.

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 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.