Sean Payton, Russell Wilson lean on Broncos QB coach Davis Webb
Even the most intense football coaches sometimes find themselves going through the motions.
Sean Payton did at one point deep into a February stuffed full of coaching interviews.
Call a guy, talk, say you’ll circle back.
Bring a candidate to town, shake him down and size him up as efficiently as possible, send him on his way.
Then 28-year-old Davis Webb showed up at Denver’s training facility for a meeting with Payton and general manager George Paton about the quarterbacks coach job and the Payton almost caught and released one too many times.
“You get into this routine after an interview,” Payton said recently. “You go, ‘Alright, let’s get him to the airport and on to the next one.’ I’m sitting and talking to George and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Why are we letting him leave? I know better.’ We called him up. Well, I called the driver up and brought him back and hired him.
“I’m glad we did that.”
The 2023 season in Denver, Payton’s first, will be measured in many different ways. Can the Broncos end a seven-year playoff drought? How about the six straight losing seasons? Or the 15 straight Ls against Kansas City and six more against Sunday’s opponent, Las Vegas?
Long before the calendar turns to 2024, the first snow blankets the Front Range or, heck, the Raiders’ charter flight takes off Sunday night, the football world will start taking stock of the most pressing question facing the Broncos: Can Russell Wilson rebound?
Wilson, a nine-time Pro Bowler in Seattle, is confident a turnaround is at hand. Payton, long known as one of the best offensive minds in football, thinks his quarterback played well over the second half of camp.
If Wilson does indeed return to form, it will be for many reasons. His own ability and an offseason spent cutting about 15 pounds. Perhaps better health luck around him. A remade offensive line. A head coach who’s won 152 regular season games, which is 152 more than Nathaniel Hackett at this time last year.
Don’t underestimate Webb’s role in this project, though. He is part translator and part mentor. A sensei and a grasshopper. A career backup quarterback who appeared in just two games over six seasons but nearly universally regarded as a prodigious football mind.
He is the conduit between a head coach and quarterback who are both football junkies with long track records of success, but otherwise couldn’t be more different.
Found in translation
Since Payton stepped off the stage at his introductory news conference and laid down the law regarding Wilson’s personal staffers having access to the Broncos facility, their relationship has been perfect offseason talk-show fodder. Does Payton like him and want to work with him? He’s maintained the answer is yes and grown warmer in the sentiment through training camp.
Do they think they can win together? Never a doubt for Wilson, who raved about Payton before the coach ever actually met the Broncos ownership group in person.
Are their personalities alike? Not even a little bit, though Payton said they’ve found a rapport.
“It works. I think in the very beginning, with all these guys, I’ll be sarcastic with them and have fun with them,” Payton said recently. “We try to create as much pressure as we can during the week so that when game day comes, you’re reacting and playing. This guy has been in tons of big spots–championship games, Super Bowls—throughout his career. That’s what puts him in that class where he’s at. He’s got a certain expectation of himself.”
There’s also the football part, though.
Wilson had a brand new playbook to learn and Payton a new signal-caller to figure out after 15 years of mind-meld with Drew Brees in New Orleans.
That’s where Webb comes in.
“It’s about understanding the intent of the play-caller,” Webb told The Post. “If you want to be successful in any offense and the quarterback, the play-caller, the head coach and the front office don’t share a common vision, it’s not going to work. So to be able to see it from the play-caller’s eyes and then having Russell’s library from his Seattle days and his Denver days and combining them, that’s where you get the most explosiveness, the most positive plays.”
The challenge: Webb had never worked for Payton or played with Wilson. Before interviewing for the job, he talked with mutual friends about Wilson – Webb used to train with Wilson’s private quarterbacks coach, Jake Heaps – and studied reams of tape. Same with Payton’s Saints offenses.
Webb set about essentially learning two languages so that he could teach Wilson fluently.
“That’s one of my favorite things about this position is that our offense, for the most part, is West Coast,” Webb said. “I was in the West Coast twice with Ben McAdoo and Jeremy Bates, but I was in the digit system with Pat Shurmur and then four years with (Brian) Daboll, which is the New England tree. So just kind of having different things – I was in the Air Raid with Kliff (Kingsbury). So when I hear something or see something, how can it hit the guys’ brains so they can react properly and find a completion?
“That’s one of my favorite things as a player or a coach: How can I make this simpler?”
If Wilson and Payton team up for several years, they’ll reach the point where Wilson knows what Payton’s going to call before the radio crackles. Where Payton will know what Wilson wants at the top of the red zone menu against Kansas City in December compared to Las Vegas in October.
Until then, though, Webb sees his job as understanding every corner of the the matrix both men are working on and ensuring that nothing gets lost in translation.
“Just kind of combine all (my experience), learning from Sean, and mix it all in,” he said. “Then it’s trying to help Russ in communicating his (football) life – he’s been in a lot of different meeting rooms – and mine and trying to find the common ground there where we can elevate everyone around us.”
“Half player, half coach”
Webb lights up when a reporter starts to ask about a third-down run for 17 yards in the preseason.
“He’s a top five dual-threat quarterback of all time,” Webb said of Wilson. “… He’s done it for so long, consistently, where if it’s not ‘one to two to three’ and the house is burning down, either find the check down or take off and use your athletic ability.”
Make no mistake, though, Wilson got pushed hard in camp by Webb, Payton and a host of others.
One camp observer told The Post that the coaching Wilson is receiving this year is “a complete 180” from last year.
Webb, as one example, has impressed upon Wilson the importance of climbing in the pocket rather than defaulting to escaping out the back door. Wilson’s made so many plays in his career using a well-timed reverse spin to get to the perimeter and create off-schedule, but in Payton’s offense that cannot be the first option.
“Pirouetting and getting out this way out of the pocket is the easiest way,” Webb explained. “However, when you escape 10 yards back, those 10 yard routes become 20. Then in coverage, the reaction time is not ideal. Stepping up to press the line of scrimmage is almost like a two-on-one, three-on-one fast break where (defenders have to) come to you and you’re able to play basketball.”
Webb likes metaphors. He’ll use music references, too, because, “it hits their brain quickly. … So if you can find some sort of phrase or acronym that they can remember, then when the play gets sent in, they sort of chuckle because of something that was said in the meeting room by somebody.”
That ability to connect complicated schemes in simple ways is the reason coaches have been trying to convince Webb to give up playing and get into coaching for years. He was offered Buffalo’s quarterbacks coaching job last offseason but decided to play another year. Even then, he had duties with the New York Giants that included meeting twice weekly with the team’s receivers and three times a week with the rookies.
“He was half-player, half-coach,” said Broncos practice squad receiver David Sills V, who spent the past three years with the Giants. “He was preparing every week like he was a coach.”
Added Broncos offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, “You can tell it wasn’t a lark for him to just say, ‘oh, let me see if I like coaching.’ He’s been committed and dedicated and it’s very impressive.”
Cooks in Russ’ kitchen
Webb, though, is hardly the only one involved in coaching Wilson and the Broncos quarterbacks.
Payton, naturally, sets the course.
Lombardi has 10 years as a quarterbacks coach for Payton on his resume.
Pass game coordinator John Morton is heavily involved, too.
“There’s a unique chemistry in there,” Payton said. “Obviously, Davis is day-to-day with those guys, and then the other group of us, when you look at Joe and Johnny, there’s so much that goes into these plays and the pictures, that the room flows fine. It’s not noisy or busy. There’s quite a bit of experience there.
“It’s something we kind of set up intentionally.”
Lombardi and Morton aren’t in every meeting with the quarterbacks, but they’re around a lot.
“Then we’re talking and, oh, here’s a point that hasn’t been made that I think is important,” Lombardi told The Post. “You just chirp in. It’s not a noisy room or people vying to try to get the floor. It’s just, the install’s going on, the film’s getting watched.
“It’s just like a bunch of friends sitting in the living room watching a football game together.”
The bet is the group’s organization and history together will mean the collective output will help Russ get back to cooking rather than crowding the kitchen.
“We’ve got great coaches. It’s a tremendous staff,” Wilson said. “Really have done some great things in this league if you think about what they’ve all done. … I think the best thing about it, too, is they’re all great competitors and we all want to be great every day.”
Plans to action
Payton knows exactly what he wants the Broncos’ offense to look like and how he wants Wilson to play this fall.
The offseason, he said, provided plenty of time to get, “a pretty good grasp as to his strengths, the things that he does well.” He’s described the quarterback as “a tireless worker” committed to Payton’s vision.
Webb has to see the vision precisely the way Payton does. Any variance, and this isn’t going to work.
The first-time QB coach has a quiet confidence in his veteran pupil. It’s rooted not in the flash plays of camp, but in the minutiae.
Since mid-August, Webb said, “I feel like he’s really been consistently good. And for a quarterback, that means great. If you’re consistently good at finding completions, doing the right thing in the run game and the pass game when it comes to protection or in the run game with ‘Mike’ points, (you’re in good shape).”
Sunday, everybody gets a first look at Payton’s vision, Webb’s influence and the collective’s combined power. Everybody gets a first look at Wilson’s quest to prove himself again.
What’s it going to look like? Was 2022 really an aberration?
“All I know is the way Russell has got better each and every day since I met him on FaceTime and just his comfortability with myself, Joe Lombardi, Johnny Morton, Sean Payton and his teammates,” Webb said. “It’s been a really good sight to see, everybody meshing together at the right time.”
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