Why was Russell Wilson benched? Explaining Broncos contract, injury guarantee behind controversial decision

When the Broncos acquired Russell Wilson from the Broncos during the 2022 NFL offseason, the expectation was that he would fill the franchise quarterback void that had existed in Denver since Peyton Manning’s departure.

But after less than two seasons, it appears that Wilson’s time with the franchise is coming to an end.

Broncos coach Sean Payton announced Wednesday that Wilson would be benched in favor of Jarrett Stidham for the final two games of the 2023 NFL season.

“Obviously it’s difficult and all of us feel like, ‘Man, we didn’t do well enough,’” Payton said when explaining Wilson’s benching, per ESPN. “But one of the things we saw when we signed Stidham in the offseason is not only film from preseason games, but regular-season games. He’s a guy that I’m anxious to see play.”

Stidham got some regular-season action in 2022 in a similar situation, as he replaced Derek Carr with the Raiders. Carr left Las Vegas after his benching and it appears that Wilson will do the same following his in Denver.

But why did the Broncos decide to bench Wilson? They are still alive in the playoff race, after all. And while Wilson hasn’t been a top-tier performer, he has helped the team achieve a 7-7 record while bouncing back from a brutal 2022 season under Nathaniel Hackett.

Here’s what to know about Denver’s decision and what it means for Wilson’s future.

MORE: Falcons, Patriots among best landing spots for Russell Wilson

Why did the Broncos bench Russell Wilson?

Two main factors contributed to Wilson’s benching. The first, as explained by Sean Payton, was that the Broncos wanted “to get a spark offensively.”

While Wilson has been efficient — completing 66.4 percent of his passes for 3,070 yards, 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions — Denver just hasn’t consistently finished drives. The Broncos rank 22nd in red-zone touchdown percentage (50.91) and rank 16th in points per game (21.8) this season.

Add in that Denver’s 298.2 yards per game ranks 25th in the league and it’s clear that the unit is falling short of Payton’s expectations.

However, the bigger thing at play for the Broncos is money. Wilson has an injury guarantee for 2025 baked into his contract worth $37 million. By benching him, Denver ensures that it won’t be on the hook for that potential sum if they should move on from Wilson during the offseason.

As Dianna Russini of The Athletic reported, that’s exactly what the Broncos plan to do during the 2024 NFL offseason. They will release him before that $37 million injury guarantee converts to a full guarantee on the fifth day of the 2024 league year, which comes in March.

The Broncos will take on a massive dead-cap charge — guaranteed money paid to a player no longer on the roster — of $89 million. That would be the largest such charge in NFL history by a wide margin, more than doubling the $40.525 million charge the Colts took on for releasing Matt Ryan during the 2023 NFL offseason.

Will that be worth it for the Broncos? Only time will tell, but it’s worth noting that the Broncos would save $37 million in cash by parting with him. His combined cap hit in 2024 and 2025 is $90.8 million; so, if the team designates him as a post-June 1 release, they will actually save money, as his cap hits for each season would then become $35.4 million and $56.3 million.

So, from a salary cap standpoint, the Broncos’ decision can be justified. They will still be paying $124 million for two years of Wilson’s service, but they will save at least some of the money owed on the five-year, $242.5 million extension to which they signed Wilson after acquiring him.

But the way that Denver handled the situation? That drew some scrutiny.

MORE: How Russell Wilson’s contract led to benching over final two weeks of 2023 NFL season

Reaction to Russell Wilson’s benching

Wilson’s benching was met with a mixed reaction from NFL fans and analysts. It wasn’t so much about the decision to play Stidham over Wilson, as many understood the benefits of playing Stidham with the Broncos only having a slim chance to qualify for the postseason.

The issue was that the Broncos reportedly tried to coerce Wilson into deferring his 2025 injury guarantee during the season. Russini reported on X (formerly Twitter) that Denver told Wilson in October that he would be made inactive for the rest of the season if he didn’t alter his contract.

So, what happened? Wilson called the Broncos’ bluff and refused to alter his deal. The team continued to play him until the lead-up to Week 17, when he was benched in favor of Stidham.

Many NFL fans and analysts were peeved by Denver’s reported threat to take the starting job from Wilson. As such, the veteran quarterback received praise from many, including former Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, for his handling of the benching.

Wilson does seem to be taking things in stride beyond his calling Denver’s bluff, too. He made a brief post to social media encapsulating his feelings about the situation and looking to the future.

It will be interesting to see where he ends up once the Broncos move on from him during the 2024 NFL offseason.

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