Broncos CEO Greg Penner watched on Christmas Day with embarrassment and disgust, knowing it was time for a new coach, while identifying what he wanted in his new boss: accountability, discipline and an offensive identity.
After interviewing eight candidates and conducting finalist interviews, Penner found his man, agreeing in principle on a new deal Tuesday with former Super Bowl winner Sean Payton, according to multiple sources.
The Broncos officially signed Payton to a five-year deal Friday, a source confirmed to Broncos Insider Troy Renck.
"Sean knows how to build a championship culture with high expectations. He coaches with intensity and attention-to-detail while setting and maintaining high standards. Sean pours his heart and soul into winning with preparation, creativity and a genuine love of the game," Penner said.
It is official. #Broncos agree to a five-year deal with Sean Payton, per source. #Denver7— Troy Renck (@TroyRenck) February 3, 2023
"It is rare in any sport to hire a head coach with Sean's credentials and we appreciate the first-class manner in which the Saints approached this process. We also appreciated the opportunity to meet and learn from the other highly qualified, outstanding coaches we interviewed," Penner continued. "Our goal was to identify a strong leader for the Denver Broncos who is focused on winning, and we found him in Coach Payton."
The sides are ironing out the wrinkles on trade compensation to make Payton the team’s fifth coach in eight years. The Broncos are expected to send their first-round pick in 2023 and a second-round pick in 2024 for Payton and the New Orleans Saints' 2024 third-rounder.
Payton will receive a lucrative contract. Terms have not been revealed, but he's likely to receive between $18-to-$21 million on a multi-year deal.
Payton, 59, becomes the Broncos fifth coach in eight years, but the first since Gary Kubiak in 2015 with previous NFL head coaching experience. He replaces Nathaniel Hackett, who was fired 15 games into his first season.
"This was the opportunity I was looking for. It’s a great fanbase and great tradition,” Payton told The Times-Picayune. “The ownership group is fantastic, and I love the way they competed in some of their games last year. It’s a good football city that we had in New Orleans.”
It was a wild ride to get Payton, who faces multiple, daunting challenges. He will be asked to revive a franchise that has missed the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons and has posted six straight losing records. Also, he will be charged with fixing Russell Wilson, who is coming off the worst season of his career. Wilson, according to a source, is thrilled with this hiring. He has known Payton for years through Pro Bowls and his friendship with Drew Brees.
"Russell is a hard worker and has played at a high level and won a lot of games in this league,” Payton said to The Times-Picayune . “The pressure is on us to put a good run game together and reduce the degree of difficulty on his position. I’m excited about him.”
Payton walks in with eyes wide open.
He interviewed with the Broncos two weeks ago, and indicated it went well, and that he was impressed with Denver’s new Walton-Penner ownership group. Then Washington Post reporter Mark Maske suggested Payton had an issue with a controlling owner, something Payton quote tweeted and denied, setting the wheels in motion for him to land in Denver. The door never closed, even as the Broncos traveled to Ann Arbor last Monday to talk in person with Jim Harbaugh and were impressed by San Francisco's DeMeco Ryans.
Payton talked with Rob Walton and Carrie Walton-Penner over the weekend. That accelerated the push to get a deal done. It took some time to iron out the wrinkles because of the draft pick compensation, but the Broncos worked it out with Saints general manager Mickey Loomis.
Payton led the New Orleans Saints to their first world title with a 31-17 win over the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. It represents a zenith he hopes to repeat in Denver, and he brings a resume with a history of success. Payton boasts a career record of 152-89 in the regular season. He is 9-8 in the postseason with seven NFL South crowns, and three NFC Championship Game appearances.
"Great hire!" Broncos All-Pro standout Pat Surtain II told Denver7.
Added standout linebacker Alex Singleton, "That is a big time hire! What he did in New Orleans speaks for itself. Respected around the league and is going to make a big impact."
"The tradition here is amazing. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but our plan is to win."— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) February 4, 2023
1-on-1 with Head Coach @SeanPayton: pic.twitter.com/LZ4qEh1OCT
Penner has only been CEO since August, but he and his search committee, which included owner Condoleeza Rice, GM George Paton, and eventually his wife Carrie Walton-Penner, concluded after their deliberate search that the Broncos needed a jolt of experience from a coach with a track record of success.
The Broncos have posted a 35-63 record over the past six seasons, including 5-16 over their past 21 games. All were under the umbrella of first-time coaches Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and Hackett. In his last six seasons coaching, Payton produced a 65-32 record. He was suspended for the 2012 season without pay for his connection to a bounty program for injuring opposing players. In 2013, Payton went 11-5 and won a playoff game.
The reeling, the losing, the embarrassment, it requires a new Broncos’ culture. Payton will be entrusted to create it, but Payton came at a heavy price in terms of his contract and draft pick assets. Fortunately, the Broncos can remove some of the sting by getting a pick back from the Saints. And if Payton returns the Broncos to past glory, no one will care about the draft picks.
The Broncos chose Payton after working through of battery of candidates: Harbaugh, who lingered over this process for two weeks, Denver defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, former Colts and Lions coach Jim Caldwell, ex-Stanford coach David Shaw, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, Ryans, and Cowboys defensive boss Dan Quinn.
When the Broncos began looking for a new field boss, there was a strong sense they would go with a veteran. Of the first-time head coach candidates, only Ryans gained momentum. However, by last Friday he was leaning towards accepting the Houston Texans job, leaving the Broncos to move forward in discussions with other candidates and unwilling to wait for him to interview with Houston on Tuesday, where he took the job.
Payton remained available. Originally, his situation appeared like it was the Broncos or staying at FOX even as he interviewed with Carolina and Arizona. It circled back to that same spot — FOX or the Broncos — as the search entered its third week.
Payton welcomes the challenge of working with Wilson, according to multiple sources. Wilson, 34, is coming off his worst season after signing a five-year, $242.5 million contract extension with $161 million guaranteed.
Wilson went 4-11 last season, missing two games with a hamstring injury and concussion while posting 16 touchdown passes with 11 interceptions. Wilson and Payton have a pre-existing relationship through Pro Bowls and former Saints All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees. Payton is known for inspiring offensive schemes and adapting to his quarterback. And while 14 years of his success was tied to Brees, he also won games with Teddy Bridgewater (5-0), Jameis Wintson (5-2) and hybrid tight end Taysom Hill.
"I am excited just from what I've heard from his former players," Broncos receiver Kendall Hinton said. "He's a proven guy."
Payton’s arrival sets up an interesting dynamic. Sources believe he will want power, and it’s unclear what that will look like. Will he ask to bring in front-office executives he’s worked with in the past like Ryan Pace and Jeff Ireland? And will he have final say over the roster instead of current GM Paton? Paton, however, became critical to ownership during this roller-coaster hiring process, something to be mindful of moving forward.
The reality is that Payton was the biggest prize on the market based on his credentials. While surrendering draft picks stings, Payton is viewed with a wider lens as a solution to long-term success.
Denver has not been a contender since winning Super Bowl 50, failing repeatedly to address the leadership void left by Kubiak’s exit due to health reasons and the retirements of Hall of Famer Peyton Manning and future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware.
Payton has said in interviews that a coach can change a culture “immediately.” The Broncos need Payton to deliver offensively after Hackett’s disastrous run. Denver ranked last in points per game (16.9), third-down conversions (29.1 percent) and sacks allowed (63).
Payton’s offense ranked outside the top 10 in points scored only three times in New Orleans. The Saints finished in the top five nine times, leading in 2008 and 2009, and averaged 27 points per game during his tenure. And Payton, with an aging, compromised Brees, went 49-15 over his final four seasons.
"I think it's great. He's proven that he's been able to win consistently and win big games," Broncos center Graham Glasgow said. "(It's) definitely exciting."
It’s likely his offensive staff will feature more experience – Joe Lombardi, fired by the Chargers, is a potential candidate for the offensive coordinator job – than last year’s staff. Payton inherits a strong defense, though it’s unclear if boss Evero will stay. Fangio, mentioned as a candidate for Payton’s staff, was weighing offers with Miami and San Francisco as of Tuesday afternoon.
The Payton hiring represents Penner’s biggest decision, and a chance to revive an iconic franchise. The search was methodical, and from the outside looking in, appeared awkward. But Penner reached the finish line with the biggest name.
Penner has made it clear the owners want a model organization. But, they bought the team “to win.” Payton has done that, now he will be asked to pull it off again.