LONDON — These Broncos are the mess that George Paton made.
Think bad football makes you grouchy? While seething fans feel a sense of betrayal instilled by false hope, Paton might be the maddest man in Broncos Country. The general manager who thought it was a bright idea to hire coach Nathaniel Hackett and give quarterback Russell Wilson a $245 million contract is irked. And Paton doesn’t try to hide it.
“We need to win a (blankety-bleep) game,” Paton growled Thursday. “That’s the only way you can get rid of the noise.”
Stewing over how these Broncos have blown three victories by a total of seven points, Paton blew a gasket and opened a vein of despair, which bled orange and blue. In a one-on-one interview with The Denver Post, his words were coarse and his frustration real.
“We’ve got to win. (Bleep), these games are there for the taking. We’ve got to make a (blankety-bleep) play,” Paton told me, as we stood on a knoll above a lush, green field where the Broncos practiced for a game in Wembley Stadium against Jacksonville.
Through gritted teeth set in a stern jaw hangry for victory, Paton set a very different tone than the all-is-well message he delivered in front of microphones and television cameras only minutes earlier, when he gave a vote of confidence to Hackett.
His urgency shook the pastoral grounds of the veddy British and oh-so-bougie Harrow School, where a 2-5 team that’s made a nasty habit of getting embarrassed in front of the entire NFL nation was working hard to avoid another nasty pratfall in jolly old England.
For boneheaded strategic choices that indicate a coach overwhelmed on the big stage, Hackett has been roasted from coast to coast. DangeRuss has been DisasteRuss, with a 83.4 quarterback rating that puts him 25th in the league, ranked between Davis Mills and Jacoby Brissett, who are nobody’s idea of franchise players.
How can the architect of this mess sleep at night?
“What heat am I feeling? This isn’t a copout, but my pressure is just trying to win the next game. This adversity is part of the job. I’ve been in this business for a long time, and this is just part of the deal,” Paton said.
“I’m sleeping good at night.”
I felt compelled to ask if Paton feels pressure because there are two decisions that matter most to the general manager of a pro football team.
No. 1: head coach.
No. 2: quarterback.
Fail on those two counts and even a general manager with a well-earned reputation for acing the NFL draft is almost certainly doomed to fail.
If Hackett is Strike 1 and Wilson proves to be Strike 2, Paton won’t get many more chances to swing and miss with a new ownership group that didn’t hire this general manager. The crazy-rich Waltons didn’t become billionaires by throwing good money after bad.
Paton, however, lauded new chief executive officer Greg Penner as a steady hand at a time the franchise has gone through the upheaval of trying to integrate new ownership with a new coach and a new quarterback within the same calendar year.
Amid all the changes, the Broncos seem stuck in the losers’ loop, where habitually repeated mistakes can ingrain a sense of doom in an organization’s DNA.
“We need to learn how to win football games. We haven’t done that,” Paton said.
What separates a winning culture from a losing culture? It’s a mystery the Broncos have been working on for more than five years without any solid clues.
“If we knew,” Hackett said, “we’d all have that magic potion.”
Not very long ago, around Labor Day, the Broncos looked like legit playoff contenders and Paton appeared to be the front-runner for executive of the year. He had orchestrated a blockbuster trade for the franchise quarterback we all had been missing, then signed Wilson to a megadeal worth nearly a quarter-billion dollars that figured to keep Denver squarely in the Super Bowl conversation through 2028.
Well, that was then. These days Paton curses everything from the team’s lousy injury luck to a high-profile telecast schedule that has exposed Hackett as a bungling apprentice in front of a nationwide audience.
“There are no excuses in this league,” Paton said. “But we’ve gone through a lot.”
Lose to Jacksonville, and the uproar will be so loud in Broncos Country it will be extremely difficult for Paton to stand pat with an upcoming bye week to re-evaluate everything.
But firing Hackett could make Paton appear panicky in the eyes of ownership and trading outside linebacker Bradley Chubb would send a disheartening message to a locker room that already doesn’t have enough playmakers to compete with Kansas City in the AFC West. Paton told me the biggest way he can make an impact is during the offseason. So beyond a shake-up of Hackett’s lieutenants on the coaching staff or trading a second-tier player, Paton might regard making bolder moves as wishy-washy commitment to his vision.
“We’re scoring 15 points per game. That’s not good enough. Really not good enough. But the defense is playing really well. I believe in Nathaniel. I believe in Russ. We’ve all got to do better, myself included. I need to do better,” Paton said.
Before getting back to work as the clock ticked toward the league’s Nov. 1 trade deadline, Paton offered me a handshake and declared: “I’m optimistic. We’ll see.”