UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – So, Wilson’s gone; can Paton be far behind?

My first boss at the Rocky Mountain News was managing editor E. B. Blackburn, an irascible, cantankerous Southerner given to folksy pronouncements that were piercingly apt, thought-provoking and not easily forgotten. He was the prototypical crusty old newsman.

He once called me into his office to express his displeasure with the newsroom’s failure to act on suggestions he had been passing on. I was then assistant managing editor in charge of the newsroom at night.

“Denny,” he barked, “I’m tired of droppin’ rocks down the well and never hearin’ a splash.”

I feel the same way when people don’t answer my emails or phone messages.

Another time, discussing a staffer with whom he was dissatisfied almost to the point of termination, and that staffer’s supervisor who, he felt, was slow to act, he sagely observed:

“Always remember, Denny, the greatest job security any of us has is the unwillingness of the person who hired us to admit they made a mistake.”

I’ve thought of that pearl countless times, always marveling at the wisdom in his admonition.

It came to mind again last week, when the Broncos, in the first of a flurry of financial maneuvers, announced that Russell Wilson had been informed that the club was cutting him loose before he played the last three seasons of his monster contract. 

Virtually every story about Wilson’s release has included a recap of the ill-conceived trade that brought him here and the unwise decision to sign him to an expensive long-term deal before he played even one down for Denver.

But nowhere have I read a word about the courage it took the architect of that acquisition, Broncos General Manager George Paton, to swallow hard, admit the colossal mistakes, and move on.

Admitting defeat is the first, painful, step to reversing course. Only then can going forward begin.

It remains to be seen if the team can make the right decision in the wake of acknowledging the worst trade in NFL history.

I, for one, think the best chance to succeed is hitting on a quarterback in next month’s draft of college players (admittedly no small feat), rather than signing any of this year’s free agent QBs. 

The best of those seeking employment elsewhere is Kirk Cousins, taken in the fourth, not first, round in 2012. He was 50-37-1 with Minnesota but had only three winning seasons and took the Vikings to the playoffs just twice in six years. Before that, he went 23-23-2 in three seasons as the starter in Washington. Significantly, he and Wilson are the same age: 35.  

Among the others are:

  • Ryan Tannehill, who after back-to-back seasons of 11-5 and 12-5 for Tennessee in 2020 and 2021 went 9-11, combined, the last two AND also is 35 years old; 
  • Sam Darnold, the third pick in 2018, who has been a bust in New York with the Jets and in Carolina, and was a backup in San Francisco to Brock Purdy;
  • Jameis Winston, a former overall No. 1 draft choice whose nine-year won-lost record is 34-46 (including 6-4 in four seasons, 21 games, with New Orleans); and 
  • Gardner Minshew, a journeyman at best whose only claim to fame in five otherwise undistinguished seasons is leading Indianapolis to a 7-6 record as the Colts’ starter for most of last season.
  • Without the benefit of one-on-one interviews or any other exposure at the NFL Combine, I still like what I’ve seen of Michael Penix Jr., ahead of Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy and Oregon’s Bo Nix.

But, thankfully, it’s not my job that’s on the line here.

Denver’s decision to admit the gargantuan Russell Wilson mistake led me to look back over the Broncos’ biggest moves the last few years. 

Here’s a timeline:

  • January 2021—George Paton hired as general manager
  • January 2022—Nathaniel Hackett hired as head coach
  • March 2022—Russell Wilson acquired in trade from Seattle
  • August 2022—Walton-Penner Group buys the Broncos
  • December 2022—Hackett fired after 15 games
  • February 2023—Sean Payton named head coach
  • April 2023—John Elway ends his long association with the franchise
  • March 2024—Wilson released, two-year record: 11-19

Applying Ben Blackburn’s view literally, one could conclude that GM Paton is on thin ice for a reason that goes beyond the failed hiring of Nathaniel Hackett and acquisition of Wilson.

Broncos legend Elway, the man who hired him, is no longer in the front office.

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 16 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at denny
dressman@comcast.net.