Analysis: Broncos, Wilson may pay for whitewashing preseason

Seahawks could surprise a rusty Wilson
September 6, 2022 at 1:16 p.m.
Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3) warms up prior to an NFL preseason football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Saturday, Aug. 27, in Denver.
Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3) warms up prior to an NFL preseason football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Saturday, Aug. 27, in Denver. (Photo by Jack Dempsey, Associated Press)

By Arnie Stapleton, AP Football Writer

DENVER (AP) — The Denver Broncos didn't circle their season opener on their calendar even though it's Russell Wilson's homecoming at Seattle.

Had they emphasized their $296 million man 's return to the city where he spent a decade, bringing the Seahawks their only Super Bowl title, the Broncos wouldn't have kept him on the sideline with their other starters in the preseason.

“This is what I have been doing the past three years," explained new Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett, who was schooled in the sit-'em philosophy by Packers coach Matt LaFleur, who copied the doctrine from Rams coach Sean McVay, who's been doing it since 2018.

McVay is 51-23, including 7-2 in the playoffs, since downplaying the preseason and keeping his starters sidelined until September. He's also the defending Super Bowl champion.

The Packers held out Aaron Rodgers last summer and they were trounced 38-3 by the Saints in their opener, but bounced back with their third consecutive 13-win season.

“It has shown that we’ve been able to do good throughout the entire year,” said Hackett, who served as LaFleur's offensive coordinator from 2019-21. “In the end, it’s all about the whole year — not about Week 1, Week 2, Week 3. We want to be sure we are being successful throughout the whole season.”

Hackett said he did it this way “for health reasons,” adding, “I'm glad the guys are healthy, fresh and ready to go.”

Even if they won't be as sharp as they might have been had Russell actually taken some snaps in the preseason to put that eye black and those shoulder pads to use.

As teams have de-emphasized preseason games in recent years, September has tended to be slipshod as starters work out the wrinkles they used to iron out in August.

Broncos general manager George Paton was all-in on his new coach’s approach to training camp, one that included plenty of “regen” (regeneration) days (after a full padded practice, a light one) and none of the traditional 7-on-7 drills and the accompanying 1-on-1 pass rush drills that have been staples of training camps for generations.

“I liked his plan for the training camp,” Paton said. “Whether we start slow or not, I do not know, but mid to late season, I think it will benefit us.”

Hackett said he put safety and science ahead of risk and ritual.

“I’m a little surprised that for a new quarterback and new group that they didn’t get at least a series at some point, but, you know, I understand why Hackett took the approach he did," said Hall of Fame QB Troy Aikman, who will make his “Monday Night Football” booth debut alongside Joe Buck at Wilson's homecoming game.

Aikman couldn't fathom heading into a season without having taken a single snap in the preseason.

“I wouldn’t have liked it, quite honestly,” he said. "I mean, I guess times change. Maybe if I was playing in today’s game, I would feel differently, but I needed the work.

"I just felt like I needed it. I felt like our team needed it. Our offense needed it to get out there and play and just get back into the swing of things,” explained Aikman, whose career encompassed a time when starters often played a quarter in the preseason opener, the first half in Game 2, three quarters in Game 3 and the entire Game 4 as a final tune-up to the regular season.

Now, there are only three preseason games because the league added a 17th regular-season game last year, and most teams use them as a dress rehearsal for the periphery, things like game-day communications and protocols.

“I don’t know. I’m a little old school in my approach. I think that if the whole approach of training camp is to keep people healthy, then let’s not have preseason,” Aikman said.

“Then coaches will say, yeah, but we need preseason in order to evaluate these players. Colleges don’t have preseason, and they evaluate their players. If you are a good coach and you can evaluate talent, you can evaluate a player in practice and know whether or not he is better than the player playing next to him and who is going to be on that roster.

“Obviously, it’s all a money thing for the NFL. So I’m not someone who is in favor of decisions like that being made just for the bottom line, so I don’t know that preseason is great for anybody, quite honestly."

Many teams use joint practices against preseason opponents as a better evaluator anyway, even though hotheads made dual workouts a hazard this summer.

It's not just the new generation of coaches that find little use for the preseason anymore.

“Bill Belichick, for instance, he approaches the first four games as an extension of training camp," Aikman pointed out. "Now, they generally win, as we know. They’ll begin the month of September and be 3-1, 4-0, whatever it is. They’re able to evaluate and develop players while they’re still winning. Not everybody over the years has been able to do that.

“So for Denver, I would expect there to be some things that they just aren’t quite as good at early in the year just because of the timing and the things that go into being successful offensively.”

So, maybe Wilson won't get to stick it to the team that granted him a divorce after his relationship with coach Pete Carroll soured in recent years. Anyway, the better reprisal would be helping the Broncos end a six-year playoff drought regardless of how his homecoming game goes Monday night.

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