SEATTLE — In a shiny mint suit and black bow tie, Russell Wilson was overdressed for this awkward affair. He looked like he was going to a gala, with his sparkling shirt studs and patent leather shoes, instead of a contentious homecoming. If Wilson expected a celebration when he packed that outfit, he ended Monday night with a more subdued state of mind.
The Denver Broncos quarterback, playing his first game with his new team in the city he just departed six months ago, experienced a sound he’d never had directed toward him at Lumen Field. Booooooo! He listened to fans compare him to Alex Rodriguez, orchestrator of Seattle’s most bitter superstar departure, who took a $252 million deal from the Texas Rangers more than two decades ago. The old signs of “Let Russ Cook” had been revised to read “Let’s Cook Russ.” Through it all, he played with admirable focus, dissecting the Seattle Seahawks for 340 passing yards. At the end, it was the five yards he wasn’t allowed to go after that dominated the conversation.
At the end, Wilson watched from the sideline as Brandon McManus attempted a 64-yard field goal with a victory at stake. McManus missed. The Seahawks prevailed, 17-16, over Wilson and over the assumption that life after Wilson is guaranteed to be dreadful. A crowd of 68,965 erupted in chants of “Geno! Geno!” for Wilson’s old understudy, Geno Smith, who just resurrected his career at 31 after spending eight years as a backup.
Nevertheless, Wilson called the night “special.” Considering how it played out, the most apt descriptions were bizarre and troublesome. A single game, even one this wacky, won’t define Denver’s season unless the Broncos let it. That said, they’ll need to work quickly to smooth over such a perplexing defeat.
“We didn’t get it done,” Wilson said, “but there’s so much more that we can do.”
In the record book, it counts as a typical, season-opening road loss for a transitioning team with a new franchise player. But it will be remembered as a debut in which rookie head coach Nathaniel Hackett showed he’s still a teething leader. At the most critical moment, Hackett took the football out of the hands of one of the greatest clutch quarterbacks of this era. He opted to have McManus kick what would have tied for the second-longest field goal in NFL history instead of going for it on fourth down and five from the Seattle 46-yard line.
Wilson had completed a nine-yard pass to running back Javonte Williams on third and 14 with 1 minute 11 seconds remaining. The Broncos still had three timeouts, and the entire playbook would’ve been available to them on a potential fourth-down try. But Hackett had the team run the clock down to 20 seconds before calling a timeout to bring in McManus.
After initially defending his decision after the game, Hackett admitted Tuesday afternoon that he made a mistake. “Looking back at it, we definitely should’ve gone for it,” he told reporters upon returning to Denver.
Despite winning a Super Bowl and playing at a Hall of Fame level for 10 years in Seattle, Wilson wanted the Seahawks to trade him, mostly to escape Coach Pete Carroll’s conservative offensive philosophy and play for a team that gave him greater responsibility to decide games with his arm. In his first game in a Broncos uniform, he commanded an offense that produced 433 total yards. He patiently carved up a young defense with green cornerbacks. But at the conclusion of a final drive that could’ve reintroduced his greatness, Wilson was a spectator. He was Russ, cooked by the poor choice of his inexperienced coach.
“I was surprised that they took Russ out there at the end,” Carroll said.
To be fair, Hackett had two low-percentage options. One necessitated the unlikely; the other demanded a historic feat. However, Wilson has made a career out of specializing in the former. Denver traded five draft picks and three players to acquire him from Seattle. Before this season opener, it negotiated a contract extension with Wilson worth up to $245 million that doesn’t begin for another two years. He is in Denver to end the Broncos’ six-season playoff drought and return them to perennial contention. In a sense, Hackett called an audible on a decision the franchise has already made.
Afterward, Wilson didn’t question his coach.
“I believe in Coach Hackett,” Wilson said. “I believe in what we’re doing. Also, I don’t think it was the wrong decision. I think [McManus] can make [the kick]. Obviously, in hindsight, he didn’t make it. But if we were in that situation again, I wouldn’t doubt whatever he decided.”
Of course, if Wilson had doubts after Week 1, the Broncos would be in crisis. It’s too soon for fissures to develop. It’s not too soon for scrutiny, though. Denver pulled off a trifecta that indicates poor preparation and discipline. The team committed 12 penalties, failed to score a touchdown in four trips to the red zone and lost two fumbles after snapping the ball at the 1-yard line. In the second half alone, the Broncos made three trips inside the 10-yard line and came away with just three points.
“Bad deal,” Hackett said of the sloppy execution. “That starts with me. I’ve just got to be sure we’ve got a better plan.”
Overall, the Breakup Bowl hinted that both the Seahawks and Wilson should be okay on their own. There’s little reason to think Wilson, still in his prime and on a team with good talent and solid weapons, will slide. The Seahawks were the big question mark. They needed to show life and provide hope as they reconstruct their roster. Even without Wilson, there’s still some magic in the franchise. On Monday night, Smith gave an electric performance in the first half and finished 23 of 28 for 195 yards and two touchdowns.
He left the field declaring in an ESPN interview, “They wrote me off. I ain’t write back, though.”
Later, he explained of his long journey from perceived bust to resurrected starter: “I’ve just been working. That’s what I mean by, ‘I never wrote back.’ I don’t listen to stuff like that. I just work. I know what I have inside of me.”
When the game ended, Wilson greeted Carroll at midfield and then hustled over to congratulate Smith. Then he took a long, unfamiliar trek to the visitors’ locker room. The losing locker room. He put on that suit and hoped it would hide the disappointment.
In the house of his old team, he said of his new team: “The great thing is I told these guys is we’ve got to be unwavering.”
He repeated the adjective.
On Monday night, Wilson found closure. There is no time to revisit the old or celebrate the new anymore. The season has begun, and so has the urgency.