DENVER — Always upbeat, proudly Christian and often iffy throwing the football, Broncos Country hadn’t seen a quarterback quite like Russell Wilson since Tim Tebow.
Except Tebow took Denver to the playoffs in 2011, then promptly got run out of our dusty old cow town.
Well, Wilson isn’t going anywhere except back to the huddle, despite his 4-11 record, 11 interceptions and uninspiring 36.7 QBR during a dismal debut at the helm of the Broncos offense last season.
Do you harbor concerns Wilson might be washed up at age 34, a year before that $245 million contract extension kicks in? Me, too.
But what, Wilson worry?
“My confidence doesn’t waver much,’’ Wilson said, as the Broncos got up to speed on the offense being installed by new coach Sean Payton during training camp.
Wilson’s confidence might never waver. Our faith in him, however, has been shaken. Going into his second season in Denver, he’s still four victories behind what Tebow produced during his brief stint with the Broncos.
While I’m not certain Wilson can return to the Pro Bowl form he displayed during a decade as the starting quarterback in Seattle, I do believe his relationship with Payton can not only work, but result in a playoff berth the new coach expects in his first season on the Denver sideline.
My theory of why everything is going to be OK in Broncos Country?
I call it the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” Effect.
OK, I beg your forgiveness for my 1990s pop-culture reference. But for you kids out there, long before Will Smith was slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars, he starred in a popular sitcom that made him a great, big television star.
On the show, Smith portrayed a street-wise kid from Philly who moved to Cali to live with the family a wealthy uncle and his family. Hijinx ensued. Mostly with a nerdy, arrogant, smart and respectful cousin named Carlton. The creative tension of their relationship made “Fresh Prince” a prime-time winner.
In this remake of the Broncos, who haven’t been to the NFL playoffs in seven long years, I’m casting the forever-earnest Wilson as Carlton and the wise-cracking Payton as Will.
“I don’t know how fast you guys type,” Payton wryly told the media wretches assembled at Broncos headquarters earlier this year, with his tongue planted firmly in cheek. “But I learned Russ can type 60 words per minute.”
So not only is Wilson married to a gorgeous singer, the father of beautiful children and owner of a mansion with a nine-car garage, his thumbs can tweet faster than mine.
Do I sound envious?
But my point is the not-so-gentle grief Payton regularly gives everyone in the high-and-mighty NFL, from league honchos to the president of his own club in Denver, serves a purpose. And that heapin’ spoonful of sarcasm just might cure Wilson of the self-absorbed, brand-centric persona that tends to rub folks the wrong way when he’s not regularly leading touchdown drives.
“I think Sean is one of the best coaches ever to coach this game. He’s intense. He’s focused. He’s such a great teacher of this game,” said Wilson, always primly buttoned down and sounding like the teacher’s pet.
A dust-disturber by nature, Payton doesn’t need Wilson to bring him a shiny apple to team meetings. He would much rather his QB lead the Broncos to an average of 24 points per game than lead them in high-knee drills on a flight to away games.
Over the course of a decade, there’s ample evidence Wilson and Pete Carroll, also a strong-willed, charismatic coach, began to grate on each other before Seattle traded a championship quarterback to Denver for a king’s ransom.
All former Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett apparently wanted to do is kiss Wilson’s … Super Bowl ring. And we saw how that turned out. Before the first loss of last season, I got the impression Wilson didn’t fully trust Hackett’s ability to run the offense or organize a team.
From the moment he took the gig in Denver, Payton has been totally unafraid to take a little dig at Wilson.
Remember when the new coach and his veteran quarterback sat down and broke bread together for the first time at an Arizona restaurant during the week of the Super Bowl back in February?
“We had a good dinner,” Payton said at the time. “There was a group of people at our table. Joe Montana was at our table. I know Russell was interested in talking about where we’re going, and I was interested in learning from Joe Montana.”
The way I interpreted those words: DangeRuss is no Super Joe.
And the bright orange sun in Broncos Country no longer rises and sets at the pleasure of Wilson.
There’s a fresh, sassy prince on the Front Range.
Here’s hoping Payton is a breath of fresh air strong enough to resuscitate Wilson’s career.