LONDON – Six days across the pond can produce clarity for an American football franchise in trouble.
The Denver Broncos, like many NFL teams, are built on a lot of temporary pieces and precious few foundational ones.
Nathaniel Hackett’s standing in the eyes of his boss’ boss? Supported, but, “this is a week-to-week sport and so we’re always evaluating things,” franchise CEO Greg Penner said Friday of the head coach.
Might a Bradley Chubb trade materialize in the coming days? Maybe, maybe not. But being a “core player,” as general manager George Paton described him Thursday, guarantees nothing.
Paton himself? He’s done a lot of good — and boy, several of his draft picks and free-agent signings came up clutch in Denver’s 21-17, four-game-losing-streak-snapping victory over Jacksonville at Wembley Stadium here Sunday — but ultimately will be judged the same way all others are: The head coach and quarterback.
Ah, yes, the quarterback.
Russell Wilson in his first six months in Denver has found himself — and often put himself — on the receiving end of a barrage of heat, both for his play and personality. For sandwich commercials. For PR-speak. For “Let’s Ride.” For cringes that go so viral they’re common conversation points 5,000 miles away from the Rocky Mountains. For high knees.
The reality, though, is that more than anybody else in the building, he’s the one the Walton-Penner Family Ownership Group has its newly acquired franchise staked to. He’s the one with the $245 million extension in ink. He’s the one who is ultimately going to drive whether the Broncos return to relevance or remain relegated to a relentless flaming in the court of public opinion.
All the way over here in England, the brass finally saw what it hoped it paid for: Improvisation and moon balls. Fourth-quarter heroics. Teammates leaping into him after a seven-play, 80-yard, game-winning touchdown drive that handed Hackett and the Broncos a victory they all desperately needed.
“We’ve hurt ourselves,” Hackett said of the first seven weeks, “so it’s about us continually learning to not hurt ourselves to give us a chance to win the game. And I think this game is more important for us because of how we won it, being up and then down and then up and being able to weather that storm.”
But Denver needed one more score when it took the field with 3 minutes, 49 seconds, to go and trailing 17-14.
First Wilson hit KJ Hamler on a high-arcing, 47-yard bomb up the sideline. Later, he turned a third-and-5 into a first down with a 10-yard scramble, bum hamstring and all.
As running back Latavius Murray plunged across the goal line and put the Broncos ahead for good with 1:43 left, Wilson turned toward the Denver sideline, dropped to a knee and pumped his fist.
Then he let fly a couple more for good measure.
“Adversity is temporary,” Wilson said following Denver’s third win. “I’ve never shied away from pressure. You’ve got to look right at it and keep going and keep believing and stay the course.”
Denver certainly has faced it over its first seven games and did again in the first quarter-plus Sunday. In fact, the Broncos authored about as bad a start as they could have dreamed up. And, given this team entered Week 8 as the worst offense in the NFL, the imagination already skews rather dark.
Wilson nearly threw an interception on the game’s first play, then took a third-down sack. He followed that up with a poorly thrown ball for Courtland Sutton that was intercepted and set up Jacksonville’s opening touchdown.
Denver didn’t achieve a first down until its fifth possession of the game, and the 86,215 in attendance likely couldn’t help but wonder if Wilson should be out there at all given his hamstring injury, shoulder injury and performance level.
“That was a hot start,” Hackett joked after the game.
As it happened in real time, though, he sought out his quarterback on the sideline.
“Talked with Russell, told him to take a breath, breathe and just do what he does,” Hackett said. “As we came into what we wanted to do in this game, after we saw the adjustments that Jacksonville had made, we were able to get some efficient plays for him and that’s how he started feeling in that groove.”
After those opening four drives, the 11th-year quarterback completed 16 of 25 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown and also ran three times for 16 yards.
Wilson’s late heroics certainly wouldn’t have materialized had the Denver defense not put together another strong performance.
Safety Justin Simmons’ second-quarter interception in the end zone not only snuffed out a first-and-goal at the 1 situation for the Jaguars, but it got his frustrated unit, which had committed four penalties, off the hook just as it was fair to wonder whether the too-often-hung-out-to-dry group might just be ready to head home.
It turned out to be at least a game-saving play and perhaps even more, depending on what happens in the coming weeks.
“It was huge,” Hackett said.
So was Wilson down the stretch.
The Broncos will need a lot more of that to get where they want to go. Will it show up consistently? Only time will tell. For the moment, a little Russell magic made the flight home a whole lot more fun. He even threw a light-hearted nod to the moment that nearly defined the past week rather than scoring drives of 75, 98 and 80 yards.
“Yeah, I got the high knees on that third down,” Wilson said. “While the guys are playing ‘Uno’ on the flight, maybe we’ll all have to (do them).”