The Denver Broncos had just finished a training camp practice in 90-degree August weather under their new coach, Sean Payton, when the players marched into a final formation and lined up for a round of sprints that took them the width of the football field.
Payton had been stressing strength and conditioning for a team that finished with a disappointing 5-12 record last season, one that began with Super Bowl hopes but disintegrated under the weight of an ineffectual offense. The gassers were a new wrinkle added to the end of every practice.
“When you’re done with practice and you think everything’s over, you got to push past your limits a little bit more,” said Justin Simmons, a safety in his eighth season with the Broncos. “There are going to be days where you don’t want to do it, but everyone here knows that in order to be where we haven’t been in a while, you got do you things you haven’t done, and that pretty much nips that in the bud right there and work through it.”
Payton coached the New Orleans Saints for 15 seasons and won a Super Bowl in 2010 with the team. He had endured only four seasons with losing records in New Orleans and, importantly, schemed an offense that repeatedly led the N.F.L. behind a shorter-than-listed quarterback, Drew Brees.
The Broncos’ 5-foot-11 quarterback, Russell Wilson, has throughout his career referenced Brees’s accomplishments, even as Wilson took the Seattle Seahawks to two Super Bowls in his 10 years with that franchise.
When the Broncos traded for Wilson in 2022, and then swiftly signed him to a five-year contract extension with $165 million guaranteed, hopes were high that Denver had finally acquired a passer who could lead the franchise back to the championship heights last scaled by Peyton Manning in the 2015 season.
The fanfare of last season’s training camp heralded a new era in Denver. The sale of the Broncos was finally going through, and the team would be helmed by a first-year coach in Nathaniel Hackett. The league scheduled the Broncos to five prime-time games, and many pundits predicted that the team would make the postseason out of the competitive A.F.C. West.
But under Hackett, Wilson threw for only 16 touchdowns, the fewest in his career, as the offense ranked last in the league in points per game (16.9). Hackett at times struggled with game-management decisions, and the Broncos committed 2.59 pre-snap penalties per game, the third most in the league. The Broncos, under the new ownership of the Walton-Penner group, fired Hackett after 15 games.
Payton’s presence has offered a potential reset. At training camp, most Broncos players deflected questions about the 2022 season, or discussed it only briefly before shifting to the season ahead.
“Last year is last year,” Wilson said on July 28 after the first full practice of Broncos camp. “It wasn’t anything that I ever wanted in terms of the expectations of how I expect to play every day. But you take the good with the bad, you take the highs with the lows, you take the mountains with the valleys.”
Payton, though, discussed it candidly. In a fiery July interview with USA Today, he criticized the franchise’s leadership for allowing Wilson’s private quarterback coach access to the team facility, and said Hackett, now the offensive coordinator for the Jets, may have led “one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the N.F.L.”
“Everything I heard about last season, we’re doing the opposite,” Payton said.
Jets players and coaches publicly defended Hackett, and Payton later apologized for putting his team through an early media controversy. But Simmons said Broncos players did not address Payton’s comments because adjusting to Payton’s style of coaching — particularly his level of detail and step-by-step instruction — took precedent.
Unlike under Hackett, Payton said his starters will play some portions of the preseason exhibition games, as they did last week against the Arizona Cardinals. Though the Cardinals won, 18-17, Wilson completed 7 of 13 passes for 93 yards and a touchdown. Wilson, who did not play at all during the preseason last year, played 20 snaps with the offense against Arizona.
“He wants everyone to be thinking the same thing at all times so that nothing’s a shock when he decides to do something or we’re in a certain situation,” said Adam Trautman, a Broncos tight end who played under Payton for two seasons in New Orleans. Occasionally during practice, Payton will stop a drill and gather players to home in on a teaching point, where other coaches, Simmons said, may address an issue only after a drill is finished.
“Normally you just roll through plays and you get your plays in, but those stoppages where he talks about why something is important or what he’s seeing, it hits a little bit different when you’re out here live and you can see it in color,” Simmons said.
During a red zone drill on another recent afternoon, Payton did not need a stoppage, as Wilson and the offense looked particularly sharp. On back-to-back plays, Wilson threw touchdown passes to Trautman and the receiver Courtland Sutton. Practice ended shortly after that drill, but players took off their pads and walked to their lockers instead of lining up across the field.
Payton had given them the day off from gassers.
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