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Restoring Russell Wilson: Broncos need 28-year-old quarterback-turned-coach Davis Webb to fulfill duty

DENVER -- Could five PowerPoint slides really determine how to fix Russell Wilson?

Actually, from the moment the Denver Broncos hired Sean Payton this past winter, a different question has dominated NFL discussion about the team from the Mile High City: Can the Super Bowl-winning coach salvage the Super Bowl-winning quarterback?

Fresh off the worst season of his professional career, Wilson heads into the 2023 campaign flanked by one of the top offensive minds in football over the last couple decades. In a vacuum, that's the conclusive factor in Russ' road to redemption. But as head coach, Payton doesn't have the luxury to live in a vacuum. He's in charge of overseeing the entire team. And in the wake of Denver's shocking 5-12 flop in 2022, Wilson isn't the only Bronco in need of care.

Payton faces the tall task of bringing back a winning culture within the building that's been absent since Peyton Manning rode off into the sunset in March of 2016 after helping to deliver the franchise's third Lombardi Trophy. Not that the 59-year-old coach isn't equipped for the challenge -- remember the turnaround he orchestrated in New Orleans? -- but Payton just has a lot on his plate. That's what made the formation of his staff so crucial -- and the hiring of his quarterbacks coach so interesting.

Back in January, Davis Webb was a sixth-year quarterback in his second stint for the New York Giants, having yet to throw a regular-season pass in the NFL. With Big Blue locked into the No. 6 seed prior to the Week 18 finale at Philadelphia, Brian Daboll decided to rest QB Daniel Jones and give the journeyman his first professional start. While the Giants lost to the Eagles, 22-16, Webb acquitted himself pretty well, throwing for 168 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 41 yards and an additional score. Two weeks later, following New York's Divisional Round loss in Philly, Webb's contract expired. The next month, Webb was in Denver interviewing for a job as the Broncos' quarterbacks coach.

Webb had no coaching experience at any level, though the Bills had reportedly wanted to make him their QB coach after his playing contract with Buffalo expired following the 2021 season. Still, Payton had no previous relationship with the 28-year-old. But after Payton called Eli Manning -- Webb was Manning's third-round rookie backup with the Giants in 2017 -- the two-time Super Bowl champion vouched for his former teammate and good friend, and the interview was set up. With a few days to prepare, Webb -- who describes himself as "a big PowerPoint guy" -- put together a 30-page presentation for Payton, the offensive coaching staff and Broncos general manager George Paton.

"I did a ton of film watching of Russ, but I had also done it last year, so I kind of just looked at my notes, too. I just watch QBs around the league to stay up to date," Webb told me while the two of us sat on a bench outside the Broncos' practice facility near the end of training camp. "I ended up calling a couple of buddies that were also mutual friends with Russ to try and gather as much information as I could about him to walk in there and be prepared. Those first five slides were dedicated just for Russ because I saw a lot of great things from last year that nobody is talking about. And the way that he finished, in particular."

Webb left the interview and headed to the airport. But Payton was so inspired by Webb's plan for Wilson -- and how he'd coach the quarterback room as a whole -- that the head coach called the driver who was taking Webb to the airport and told him to turn around. Webb walked back into the Broncos' facility and Payton hired him on the spot. That same day, Webb dove in headfirst on building a relationship with Wilson. The two FaceTimed as Webb's plane was about to take off, with flight attendants eventually forcing an end to the call. But during their conversation, Webb delivered a message built on honesty and truth, a message that he rehashed to me:

"I retired to come and hang out and coach you. Because I believe in you. If I didn't, I'd be a free agent, and God knows where I'd be. You came here for a reason, and we have a new common goal. We're here together and this is a brand new year for all of us. Because I don't know what happened last year -- and frankly, I don't care."

Payton, for his part, hasn't been too bashful when it comes to discussing the Broncos' disastrous season under Nathaniel Hackett, who was relieved of his head-coaching duties just 15 games (and a 4-11 record) into his tenure. At his introductory press conference in Denver, Payton was asked about the special perks Wilson apparently received in 2022, including reportedly having his own office in the facility and receiving building access for his own personal performance team.

"That's foreign to me," Payton said at the February presser. "That's not going to take place here. I'm not familiar with it, but our staff will be here, our players will be here and that'll be it."

In July, Payton's candid interview with USA Today's Jarrett Bell made waves across the league, with the coach taking shots at Hackett while defending Wilson. Payton swiftly called the comments "a mistake" after the article's publication, but the ordeal ultimately increased the spotlight on Wilson.

Despite all that drama, though, the quarterback's backfield mate likes what he sees from Wilson as the 34-year-old enters his second season with the Broncos.

"I feel his authority and leadership. He had that last year, but you can just feel it now," Broncos running back Javonte Williams told me during camp. "I feel like he's more comfortable with the playbook this year and just the way he carries himself around the building. He's more with the team and things like that."

Wilson already gives a lot of credit to Webb.

"He believes in me," Wilson told me in the Broncos' locker room after their preseason finale against the Rams last Saturday night. "He's spoken a lot of life into me. I believe in him. I think we both know who I can be and who I am and who I've been and where I'm going. It's all about the work and we're all in it together."

Webb was essentially a player/coach over his last four seasons in the NFL with the Bills and Giants. He'd have his own meetings with the quarterbacks throughout the week, wide receivers twice a week and rookies three times a week. He'd present his notes from the week to both the offensive and defensive coaches. Webb jokes that he's coaching because he's been around so many great quarterbacks that he rarely had a chance to get on the field. But being college/pro teammates with signal-callers like Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Josh McCown, Sam Darnold, Tyrod Taylor, Manning and Jones also allows a man who has been taking notes and building his coaching portfolio for the last six years to develop a blueprint on how he wants things to be done.

"One of the things that has always bothered me so much over the years, that I've seen or been with, is that there is so much copy and paste," Webb said of NFL coaching. "As opposed to looking at your player as an individual, and making your practice plan and drill tape and the way you do meetings dedicated to that individual. And not many people do that, sadly. And so that's all I think about, to be honest with you. What's the best way to reach him to allow him to play fast and react quickly?"

The quarterback coach's star pupil certainly appreciates this approach.

"He's played the game," Wilson said. "He's a great communicator. He's really a brilliant guy. Works his butt off. We both love the work, the process of the work, the film, the game."

One thing that was noticeable at Denver's training camp this year: Wilson is playing in a similar style to what we saw in his Seattle days, when he earned nine Pro Bowl bids and went to two Super Bowls, winning one. The plan from Payton, Webb and the offensive staff is to lean on the stuff Wilson is comfortable with -- what he has a history with -- and avoid everything else.

"If it doesn't look good and he doesn't feel good about it, it ain't worth it. It's gone," Webb said of the process of creating the playbook. "He's the one with the ball in his hands. That's what I believe in most of all -- and that might be the former player in me talking. If a quarterback doesn't have conviction on a play, the play isn't as good on the field as it is on the board."

Russ is also roughly 15 pounds lighter than he was last year. Wilson and this coaching staff have been very open about how often they expect his legs to be utilized this season, an aspect of the QB's game that wasn't always on display in 2022.

"He's top three greatest dual threats of all time, depending on how you look at it, three or five," Webb said. "He's a special player."

Can this new Denver staff coax special play out of Wilson once again in 2023? The start of training camp wasn't pretty, but the quarterback and his offense progressed as August wore on. In recent weeks, according to Webb, Wilson has looked better than he's ever seen him before in a Broncos uniform.

"The best thing about him is he's been consistent," Webb said. "And consistently good in our room means great. It's not about being perfect. It's called 'practice,' not 'perfect.' He's continued to build, stacking our library, and when the game comes, we have a good amount of five to six plays to choose from that have been in our bodies and in our minds that let us play faster and get to the next play. He's been fantastic."

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