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Renck: Russell Wilson went from “Let’s Ride” to “Last Ride” with Broncos, revealing dangers of desperation

From “Let’s Ride” to “Last Ride” in two years.

Broncos coach Sean Payton filed for divorce from quarterback Russell Wilson on Monday. The only thing to figure out now is who gets custody of Thunder.

I was enjoying my return to The Denver Post, stomach full of lunch and face sore from laughs. Then the phone pinged. Any time there is an alert in early March about an NFL team, it means you’re not going to be home for dinner.

Wilson arrived in Denver in March 2022 determined to make history. This is not what he had in mind. The Broncos will take on an $85 million salary cap hit, divided over two seasons. No team has absorbed this much money for a mistake. As in, ever.

When the Broncos acquired Wilson, he was viewed as a savior — a former Super Bowl champion capable of returning Denver to relevance. Somehow, inexplicably, he made it worse. He won 11 games for roughly $124 million, a return-on-investment cringe not seen since the Rockies shipped off pitcher Mike Hampton in 2002.

It was not all Wilson’s fault, though his decision to reinvent himself as a pocket passer in 2022 under clown show coach Nathaniel Hackett and consistent failings in the red zone this past season left his fingerprints at the scene.

No one quite knows how the Broncos became a quarterback nadir, replacing the Cleveland Browns. Peyton Manning retired, walking into a life of commercials and coaching youth football, and there became a sobering new reality. The Broncos did not know how to find a replacement. John Elway had as much to do with it as anybody when he whiffed on Paxton Lynch, leading to long-armed reaches into the island of misfit toys that included Joe Flacco and Case Keenum. When general manager George Paton took over in 2021, he inherited the mess at the league’s most important position. Watching the Broncos spiral out of playoff contention in the final month, he surveyed the AFC landscape and determined a franchise quarterback was a must.

Tired of shopping for a couch on Craigslist, Paton wandered into IKEA and wasn’t going to take no for an answer. He traded four draft picks (two first-rounders, two second-rounders) and three starters (quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant and defensive end Shelby Harris) to Seattle in exchange for Wilson.

The trade now serves as a cautionary tale of desperation. The Broncos gave up everything and ceded all power to Wilson in the relationship. Getting a revised contract was always part of the deal to waive his no-trade clause, though he will never play a down on his five-year, $242.5 million extension.

Wilson was given the green light to bring his entourage into the building and function as a pseudo-coach.

It was an epic failure. With Hackett complicit, Wilson sacrificed a season trying to prove he could run an offense that was designed for Aaron Rodgers, the Broncos’ original 2022 target before he received a new contract from the Green Bay Packers.

At one point in 2022, nobody was neutral in Broncos Country about Wilson. They disliked him. Or hated him.

When the Broncos hired Payton 13 months ago, he made it clear he was not married to the quarterback. He would give it a season. It only took 15 games and he went to Jarrett. Stidham, that is. He became the 13th starter since Super Bowl 50 and was as underwhelming as those before him.

It is important to remember Payton was not brought here to fix Wilson. He was brought here to fix the Broncos. That could not happen, he decided, with Wilson. The Broncos offense stank in the red zone and specifically in goal-to-goal situations. While Payton was rather ordinary on game day in his return after a one-year hiatus, he laid the blame on Wilson.

Russ went off script. He failed to call plays quickly enough. He forgot to send players in motion.

Payton, however, did the impossible and made Wilson a sympathetic figure when he benched him as it leaked out that the Broncos asked Wilson to adjust his contract during the bye week last October. Wilson’s $37 million in base salary in 2025 would have become guaranteed if he had remained on the roster past March 17. Denver wanted to move the date back. Wilson balked and explained in December that it was then that a benching was first broached. I don’t blame the Broncos for asking for relief, nor do I blame Wilson for refusing. The relationship was fraying at the seams.

When the season ended, Wilson held a morsel of hope that things could work out as the team publicly kept the door slightly ajar.

Wilson reached out to me last week, saying he “forever wished it was going (to happen) in Denver. I really wanted to win there.” His first year was a lost season for several reasons, including injuries — hamstring, shoulder, concussion. But he believed he played well last season, posting 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He was “grateful for long-lasting relationships,” but acknowledged it was time to move on from a “sad and disappointing” ending.

No one will ever question Wilson’s work ethic or passion. He was better, but not in the eyes of the one person who mattered.

Payton wants to run his offense — steeped in timing, execution and the ball coming out from the pocket. Scribbling outside the lines — Wilson’s strength — is not sustainable for the coach.

Under normal circumstances, the GM would be fired for the Wilson acquisition and contract. Owner Greg Penner views the situation differently. Paton was working without ownership when the deal was struck, and the new owners signed off on the contract extension. And for now, Penner likes how Payton and Paton work together.

In the end, Payton’s legacy, if not his express lane to Canton, hinges on this next move. The onus is on him. He has never let anything interfere with winning. Wilson didn’t take. Payton moved on. He believes he and his staff can find the right quarterback, that they will be better at it than most. In eight years, the Broncos’ caliber of play at the position has gone from Hall of Fame to Hall of Meme.

Payton pulled off the Band-Aid and lost zero winks of sleep.

So it is, Wilson’s last day is my first day at The Post. Let’s write.

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