Russell Wilson aims for Tom Brady, Matt Stafford Super Bowl model

Russell Wilson arrived in Denver under cover of darkness, the central figure in the biggest and most secret deal of the NFL offseason. He now arrives at Denver Broncos headquarters in literal darkness and drives into his reserved parking spot between 4:30 and 5 a.m. every morning to work on his transformation of the franchise.

Since Peyton Manning retired after the 2015 season, the Broncos haven’t had that kind of team leader, a quarterback with the clout of not just a player but almost a coach and an executive.

For example, as the Broncos move from one exercise to the next, it’s not uncommon for Wilson to pull a listener aside and have him run a route with even more precision. This is Manning stuff.

“He’s obsessed,” Broncos general manager George Paton said of Wilson. “That’s the best word I can think of.”

Wilson made it a routine during training camp to gather all the skill position players together at sunrise and go over the day’s game script. He took the offense.

“I think Russ, he kind of knows what we were trying to achieve, what we were trying to achieve,” said first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett. “You see that system over there comes alive as he goes through his progress, goes through his reads and feels confident that the guys are in the right places, which is what we’re looking for.”

Nobody knows exactly how this will work. Like many of the starters, Wilson didn’t snap in a preseason game. His team opens the season with a Monday night game in Seattle, where he’s had a meteoric rise from third-round pick to superstar over the past decade.

Wilson is now in a different spotlight. He’s the most prominent quarterback in a league-wide game of musical chairs, with staggered signal callers in new starting roles in six of eight divisions.

Among the quarterbacks now in new locations — all former Face of the Franchise players selected in the first round — are Carson Wentz (Washington), Matt Ryan (Indianapolis), Deshaun Watson (Cleveland) , Mitch Trubisky (Pittsburgh), Marcus Mariota (Atlanta) and Baker Mayfield (Carolina).

There are other compelling quarterback situations to watch, too, including the San Francisco 49ers keeping Jimmy Garoppolo as a backup (and insurance policy) for new starter Trey Lance, and the ongoing battle for the starting job in Pittsburgh between Trubisky and promising rookie Kenny Picket .

If you don’t have a good to great quarterback in the NFL, you don’t stand a chance. And the notion that a player can alter a team’s trajectory was only underscored by the last two seasons, when Tampa Bay signed Tom Brady and won the Super Bowl and the Rams traded for Matthew Stafford and did the same.

Wilson, who set an NFL record with 113 wins in the first decade of his career, is the final piece of the puzzle that makes the AFC West the best quarterback division by far. Kansas City has Patrick Mahomes and the Chargers have Justin Herbert, two of the most talented passers in the league. Las Vegas has Derek Carr, who has quietly emerged as a consistent performer and resilient leader for a Raiders club plagued by off-field transgressions last season.
The deal that brought Wilson to Denver also sent Broncos quarterback Drew Lock to Seattle, where he lost competition for that summer’s starting spot to Geno Smith. This is the first time Smith has won a starting job in the NFL in eight years.

Though most observers expect the post-Wilson Seahawks to continue losing ground overall — a drop of five steps, if you will — coach Pete Carroll said, “Geno, he knows our stuff and he’s doing it really well and he understands and commands everything we do. He will give us the best chance to play great football right away.”

Wentz has taken quite a tumble since those early days in Philadelphia, where it made most valuable players in his sophomore season. Eagles fans were thrilled when the Rams brought in number 1 Jared Goff in 2016, allowing Philadelphia Wentz to finish second. But after suffering a season-ending knee injury in week 13 of this second season — coincidentally in Los Angeles — Wentz was never able to really reclaim that magic.

He later flared up with the Colts and developed a reputation for being insecure and difficult to train. The final straw at Indianapolis came last January when he put on a disastrous performance in a win-and-in game against Jacksonville. He had an interception, a fumble and was sacked six times in a 26-11 loss.

With the Commanders this summer, Wentz has shown impressive lightning and there’s no denying his athleticism. He’s also botched some passes in practice so badly that they’re as abominable as the mustard jacket and ketchup shirt ensemble he wore to his inaugural press conference.

Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz speaks at his inaugural press conference in March.

Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz is decked out in team colors as he speaks at his induction press conference in March.

(Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

Overall, he is looking forward to his new beginning.

“Obviously we’ve got some good, some bad, and some ugly on tape,” he recently told reporters. “And it wasn’t perfect. But I think I like where we are. I like the way of thinking. I like the makeup. Definitely not perfect and we will build and grow as a team every week – really every time you step onto the field.

“But the work we’ve had from OTAs, the summer, the training camp and the pre-season games I’m very pleased with where we are and I’m optimistic.”

Wentz begins his new performance where his last left off. The Commanders open against Jacksonville.

The Colts traded for Atlanta’s Ryan, and the Falcons quickly filled that gap by signing Mariota. The latter move reunited Mariota and Atlanta head coach Arthur Smith, his offensive coordinator in Tennessee.

While Wentz tried to make a lot of hero throws in his one season with Indianapolis, Ryan tends to take what the defense gives him and throw check-down passes in a pinch. Ryan is the golfer who hits out of the trees and back into the fairway; Wentz tries to thread it through the woods to the flagpole.

In terms of risk-taking, nobody took a bigger gamble on quarterbacks than the Browns, who traded three first-round picks to Houston for Watson and then signed the struggling player to a five-year, $230 million guaranteed contract. It was the largest guaranteed contract in NFL history and for a player accused of sexual assault and improper conduct by more than two dozen massage therapists.

After an initial suspension and appeal by the league, an outside referee eventually issued an 11-game suspension and a $5 million fine. The quarterback may return for a Week 13 game against the Texans, his former team.

Mayfield, whose fate was sealed with the Browns when they traded for Watson, was eventually shipped to Carolina for a conditional fifth-round pick. He beat Sam Darnold for the starting job with the Panthers, and Darnold subsequently suffered an ankle sprain that was expected to sideline him for at least the first month anyway.

So, as this crazy quarterback revolving door keeps spinning, who will Mayfield face in Week 1?

Cleveland, of course. Russell Wilson aims for Tom Brady, Matt Stafford Super Bowl model

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