On Wednesday, Russell Wilson was benched by the Denver Broncos and head coach Sean Payton.

In the hours that followed, multiple reports emerged from many different folks in the media. One side says the Broncos sat Wilson down for the final two games of the season because of his declining play. The other argues the team approached the quarterback on Halloween to make changes to his contract. And when he didn’t agree to the changes, the Broncos threatened to bench him then and there. With the Broncos basically out of the playoffs, it the decision to bench him was finally made.

So was it because of his play or pay?

Russell Wilson didn’t play well enough for Denver

In 2022, Wilson looked washed. It was wild because he had never played that poorly in Seattle.

There was plenty of blame to go around—from Nathaniel Hackett, to the offensive line, and the QB himself—but Broncos Country hoped he would bounce back with a new coach in 2023.

After a long coaching search, Denver landed on an offensive master in Sean Payton. Surely Payton would be able to resurrect Russ’ career, right?

He did.

Compared to 2022, Wilson has been fantastic in 2023. And that’s possibly why many fans were upset with the benching. Really, compared to almost any Broncos quarterback since Peyton Manning, his play this year has been great.

But, when you take a step back and compare him to the rest of the league, Wilson’s play has really only been mediocre this year.

He’s 20th in Total EPA/Play, 21st in QBR, 7th in passer rating, and 18th in PFF passing grade, among other stats listed here by Nick Kendell.

And when it comes to his play in Payton’s offense, well, the coach didn’t really get to run his offense because of Wilson’s limitations.

Simply put, Sean Payton has the largest playbook in the NFL. He has, as Chris Simms says, “a million plays.” And yet, the offense was limited to what Wilson could run.

They didn’t work the middle of the field, which was a key piece of Payton’s offense in New Orleans, there wasn’t much of the quick passing game, either. Neither of those were Wilson’s strengths.

So, it’s clear that Payton adapted the offense to the QB. Despite some arguing the contrary. His few strengths include rolling out of the pocket and making plays on the fly, throwing extremely short, or attacking vertically. Not much in between.

What he did consistently was play with happy feet, feeling pressure when there was none, dropping his eyes from downfield to spin around and roll out. Sometimes he found open receivers, sometimes he just threw it away. Or worse, fumbled.

And Wilson constantly missed open receivers, too. From K.J. Hamler in the end zone last year in the loss to the Colts to Jerry Jeudy in multiple games this season; Wilson couldn’t find teammates running in the open. It’s almost as if he forgot how to progress through his reads, or just decided to become one-read-and-go.

“I can tell you we’re desperately trying to win,” Sean Payton said of the benching after practice on Wednesday. “Sure in our game today there are economics and all those other things. But the No. 1 push behind this — and it’s a decision I’m making — is to get a spark offensively.”

Russ’ contract is a big reason the Broncos benched the quarterback

Russell Wilson’s contract is a mess.

George Paton should have never paid him $250 million before he played a single snap in the Mile High City.

Beyond the massive bottom line, there are some interesting guarantees. If Wilson is on the Broncos roster on June 1, 2024, both his 2024 and 2025 years are guaranteed. What’s more, if the veteran gun slinger is injured this year, his pay is still guaranteed for those years.

So, it makes sense that with the season basically over—Denver has only a 1.4% chance of making the playoffs—they would bench him so he couldn’t get injured.

And after the benching news broke, more details came out about the Broncos approaching Wilson’s agent about him waiving that injury clause.

So, why then did Russ keep playing?

Well, the Broncos pushed themselves into the playoff hunt. After starting 1-5, Denver was 3-5 at the time the allegedly asked him to defer the injury guarantee. And then, they just kept winning. They won five straight games and actually were over .500, at 6–5 in late November.

Payton told the USA TODAY, “I’m going to be pissed off if this is not a playoff team,” before the season. And with the playoffs within reach, it seemed he thought, “Let it ride.”

But now that the Broncos are no longer a possibility, Payton and Co. decided to protect the franchise’s future.

Technically, Denver could decide to move forward with Wilson. By keeping him healthy, they’re keeping the option open to cut him or not pre-June 1.

However, according to Diana Russini’s sources, he does expect to be cut by the Broncos in March.

Pay or Play? For Russell Wilson, it’s been a combination of both

Ultimately, his contract pays the quarterback too much for mediocre play.

If they keep him on the roster, he’d make $35 million and $55 million as base salaries in 2024 and 2025. Of course, this is all George Paton’s fault for creating that crazy contract before he played a snap with the Broncos.

Cutting Wilson pre-June 1 will mean an $85M dead cap over the next two years.

That is, unless Wilson is signed by another team.

According to Spotrac, there is offsetting language in his deal if he’s signed by a new team.

That’s good news for the Broncos, at least.

For the next two weeks, Denver is Jarrett Stidham’s team. At least offensively. Then, expect the Broncos to sign a veteran QB, draft a rookie, or both for 2024.

Benching and cutting Wilson will likely mean more short-term struggles for Denver. But with any hope, Payton will find a quarterback to run his offense and the Broncos will be competing for titles in the long-term.