The NFL playoffs are still a few days away, but that isn’t stopping the Denver Broncos from marching full steam ahead on the search for their next head coach.
After a disastrous 5-12 season and a last-place finish in the AFC West, Denver and their new ownership group are looking to take a big swing with their next head coach after ending their 15-game experiment with rookie head coach Nathaniel Hackett following an embarrassing Christmas Day loss to the Rams last month.
Naturally, the first name on the list for the Broncos appears to be Sean Payton, whom they’ve submitted a request to interview with the New Orleans Saints since New Orleans still has the rights to Payton’s services. The Saints permitted Denver to interview Payton. While Payton said recently that he “was able to have a conversation with (Denver’s) owner,” the Broncos can’t officially interview Payton until January 17.
The Broncos also plan on interviewing Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh despite Harbaugh reaffirming through a release last week that he plans on coaching the Wolverines in 2023.
Let’s examine what each coach brings to the table, what they might cost, and why two high-profile coaches want to take on the mess that is the Broncos right now.
Why Payton and Harbaugh?
Firstly, experience. The Broncos have gone to the first-time head coach well for each of their three previous hires (Hackett, Vic Fangio, and Vance Joseph) and four of their six hires since Mike Shanahan departed in 2008.
Josh McDaniels, Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio, and Nathaniel Hackett combined for a 45-79 record and zero playoff appearances during that span. The two head coaches that the Broncos have hired since Shanahan left for D.C., John Fox and Gary Kubiak, posted a combined 67-29 record, 10 playoff appearances, two AFC Championships, and one Super Bowl victory.
With Russell Wilson in two and not going anywhere thanks to the massive extension he received last season — not to mention the tremendous cost of the acquisition from Seattle — you can see why Denver wants to go the route of an experience NFL head coach.
Ultimately, the Broncos are looking for a strong voice who can begin to create a new culture in Denver.
Sean Payton won a Super Bowl in 2009 and helped turn Drew Brees into a Hall of Famer after the Chargers discarded him.
Jim Harbaugh had immense success in San Francisco — a 44-19-1 record and a stretch of three straight NFC championship game appearances — and took the 49ers to the NFC title game. Harbaugh also helped foster the best years of Colin Kaepernick’s career in San Francisco.
The Broncos are in the bottom third of the league in available cap space this offseason and have a crated draft war chest thanks to the Russell Wilson trade, so bringing in a seasoned head coach who can foster a new culture will be paramount for a team that won’t likely be adding much in the way of impact talent this offseason.
What Might it Cost to Land Them?
Payton would be a double whammy for the Broncos in the cost department. The veteran NFL head coach is under contract with the Saints through the 2024 season. If Denver wants to hire Payton, they’ll have to compensate the Saints, and according to Ian Rapoport, it’s going to start with a first-round pick:
Denver will once again have its full allotment of draft picks in 2024, so they’ll have what they need to make it work, and it then becomes a question of what they have left to make it work for Payton while he tries to resurrect a franchise that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2015.
As far as Harbaugh is concerned, he’s making north of $7 million a year thanks to a five-year extension worth $36.7 million that he signed the last time he was a part of the NFL coaching musical chairs and nearly landed in Minnesota.
Denver would have to come to Harbaugh with a number in the ballpark of $10 million — if not more — to pry him away from Michigan, where he seems plenty happy to stay and compete for a national title. Harbaugh’s brother John is set to make $12 million in Baltimore this season, and Andy Reid, Mike Tomlin, Sean McVay, Pete Carroll, and Bill Belichick will all make more than that.
But, why? …
The next logical question would be, why would either want to go to Denver? A franchise strapped for cap room and draft picks this offseason and locked into a horrific contract with Russell Wilson for the foreseeable future doesn’t seem all that appealing at face value.
But a new ownership group looking for a strong football voice might appeal to both Payton and Harbaugh, two football coaches who want to be the loudest voice in the room.
Payton led the Saints for 15 years, and while Payton says he retired because coaching had lost its appeal, that’s obviously not true if, just one year later, he’s back in the mix for another head coaching job elsewhere. His voice had grown stale in New Orleans, and that’s not a dig at him; 15 years is a very long time in the modern-day NFL. Things run their course. In Denver, his voice will be fresh and the chief football voice for an ownership group lacking any real football experience or expertise.
Likewise, Harbaugh is the loudest voice in the room and the king of intensity. Intensity isn’t just his schtick; it’s his most valuable asset as a football coach. Harbaugh doesn’t out X and O other coaches. He out-motivates them. Harbaugh is as good as his staff, and he will build a great one and empower them as he has at every stop in the collegiate and professional ranks.
Denver is a great landing spot for coaches with the pedigree and personalities of Sean Payton and Jim Harbaugh. Whether or not they’ll succeed is an entirely unknown story, but if their track records are any indication, there’s probably a pot of gold at the end of both of those rainbows.