New Broncos Head Coach Sean Payton Faces a Mile-High Task in Denver
Sean Payton is heading to Denver. The veteran NFL head coach will be tasked with revitalizing the career of Russell Wilson and saving the Broncos’ new ownership group from a lengthy rebuild.
On Tuesday, the Broncos and Saints agreed on a trade for the rights to hire Payton. Yes, a trade. Because while “trading” NFL head coaches is rare, it’s not unheard of. It’s actually worked out reasonably well for teams who have done it previously.
For example(s), the Seahawks traded a second-round pick to the Packers for Mike Holmgren. The Buccaneers sent two firsts and two seconds to the Raiders for Jon Gruden. The Patriots sent a first, a fourth, and a seventh to the Jets for Bill Belichick.
Holmgren took the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. Gruden won a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers. Of course, Belichick won many Super Bowls with the Patriots. So, are the Broncos really that crazy for sending a first-rounder and a 2024 second-rounder to New Orleans for the rights to sign Sean Payton and make him their new head coach?
That answer is pretty complicated. There are multiple factors to consider here, and I think this conversation must be nuanced.
The path from firing Nathaniel Hackett to trading for Sean Payton was a long and haphazard road. When the season ended, the Broncos interviewed as many as eight head coaching candidates right out of the gates. Payton and Jim Harbaugh were seen as immediate favorites.
It was widely reported that the Broncos’ new ownership group, led by CEO Greg Penner, preferred an experienced head coach.
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.
Sean Payton was a fit from the word go. So, why the wait? The Broncos loved in-house candidate Ejiro Evero. Not enough to give him the job, though. Penner and the rest of the ownership group also loved Jim Harbaugh. So much so that they made a last-ditch effort to lure him from Ann Arbor before pivoting back to Payton and rumored favorite DeMeco Ryans last week.
With Harbaugh out, DeMeco Ryans was reported to be the favorite last week. But then Ryans got hot and heavy with Houston, and Denver had to pivot again.
The problem with single-sourced NFL reporting is that sometimes it’s wrong. For example, two of the biggest single-sourced news breakers in the game have very different accounts of how the Broncos landed on Payton.
Rapoport says that Payton was the third option for Denver after swing and misses with Harbaugh and Ryans. Adam Schefter said the Broncos never circled back Ryans this week and were focused on Payton.
Logic tells us that Rapoport is probably right, but we’ll never know. Still, the process seemed clunky and reactive, making the hire and cost of acquisition seem like a strange gamble for Denver.
However the Broncos landed on Payton; he’s their guy. If experience is what they wanted, they got it in Payton.
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.
Some frame Payton’s time in New Orleans as a failure because he only won one Super Bowl. On the contrary, Super Bowls are very hard to win.
Andy Reid, Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher, Pete Carroll, John Harbaugh, Tony Dungy … all of those coaches have two things in common: they’re a part of the most elite group of coaches in the last three decades. They all have just one Super Bowl.
Bill Belichick is the exception to the rule, and he had Tom Brady.
Whether Sean Payton was the Broncos’ first choice or third choice, he comes to Denver with a Hall of Fame pedigree, and there’s no denying that, no matter how convoluted the hiring process was.
The price for acquiring the right to hire Payton will be hefty to the Saints and Payton himself. Denver is sending a first-round pick in this year’s draft to New Orleans and a second-round selection in 2024. In exchange, Denver receives the right to hire Payton and a third-round pick.
The first-round pick heading to New Orleans was originally the 49ers’ pick, then the Dolphins (exchanged in the Trey Lance trade in 2020), and finally the Broncos after Denver sent pass rusher Bradley Chubb to Miami in November.
Denver’s first-rounder this year belongs to Seattle for the Russell Wilson trade last offseason. So, the No. 29 pick in the draft and a future second-round pick is the cost to acquire the rights to Payton. If you think back to the coach trades I referred to earlier, that’s not all that steep.
The real kicker is that Denver still has to pay Sean Payton. Last week, a report said that Payton “expects to be paid in the $20 million to $25 million range,” making him the highest-paid coach in the league.
Sure, the Walton-Penner group is worth nearly $70 billion and are the wealthiest owners in the NFL. Still, that’s a steep price to pay. Especially considering the Broncos’ only tangible asset in rebuilding the disastrous situation that Payton will inherit is money.
Paying a coach a lot of money is one thing. Paying a coach the most money in the NFL, on top of compensation for the right to pay him, is another. The cost of acquiring Payton makes this hire one that will be a stroke of genius or an unmitigated disaster. There’s no middle ground. The stakes are just too high.
But aside from the contract negotiations, all of that is now in the rearview mirror for Payton and the Broncos. The question now becomes, what is the plan?
The Broncos have no picks in this draft’s first or second round, and next year’s second-rounder also belongs to the Saints. With the Broncos lacking draft capital, Payton will immediately be faced with resurrecting Russell Wilson’s career.
Is that even possible? Was Wilson a victim of a new team, a system, and a rookie head coach? Or was 2022 a product of regression for Wilson stemming before he arrived in Denver? Let’s look at Wilson’s averages over his final four seasons in Seattle:
- Completion Percentage: 66.5
- Passing Yards: 4,081
- Passing Touchdowns: 32.8
- Interceptions: 7.8
Now, here’s how they stack up against his 2022 performance in Denver:
- Completion Percentage: 60.5 (-6.5)
- Passing Yards: 3,524 (-557)
- Passing Touchdowns: 16 (-16.2)
- Interceptions: 11 (+3.2)
Wilson’s first season in Denver was well below average. Still, I find it hard to believe that Wilson just broke in the last year.
But if Wilson is indeed on the back nine, the earliest they can move on from him is 2024. Even still, cutting him would incur a $35.4 million dead cap hit in 2024 and a whopping $49.6 million dead cap hit in 2025.
If Payton can’t help Wilson regain success, this Broncos team is heading down a long and dark rebuilding path. On the other hand, if Payton can help Wilson return to even mediocrity, the roster around Wilson is good enough to compete in the short term. But if not, well, yikes.