ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Since Sean Payton took over the Broncos, he has operated with freedom worthy of a Super Bowl champion. He is demanding and opinionated, but he recognized that his criticism of the Broncos' 2022 season in a USA Today article Thursday crossed the line.
Following Friday's first public practice before 3,000 sun-baked fans, Payton admitted he made a mistake in some of his comments after he ripped former coach Nathaniel Hackett and current Broncos management, specifically the team president and general manager, for their role in last year's meltdown of the team in general and Russell Wilson, specifically.
Sean Payton calls Hackett's performance one of 'worst in the history of the NFL'
Payton made national headlines for calling Hackett's performance "one of the worst in NFL history" after he demanded his players function as anonymous donors to facilitate a rebound.
"Listen, I had one of those moments where I still had my Fox hat on and not my coaching hat on. I said this to the team, that we have had a great offseason relative to that, and here I am the veteran stepping in it. And you know it was a learning experience for me. It was a mistake, obviously. I needed a little bit more filter,” Payton said.
“There’s a pound of flesh for these guys. As a coach, you stick up for them. And after awhile, we are past that season last year. I said what I said. Obviously, I needed a little bit more restraint, and I regret that. That being said, what I told the team, if it can happen (to me) — and I think I am pretty good with the media, pretty savvy. Jarrett (Bell) is a good a friend and good at his job. (It was) two lattes in the morning, he's the first person I see. And 40 minutes later, I am regretting it.”
The coaching ranks are close, and Payton skewering Hackett by name was considered a violation of the fraternity by many around the league. He also called out the Jets for going on "Hard Knocks,” even though they were forced to do it by the league. Payton said he would consider reaching out to Jets coach Robert Saleh at some point in the future.
Where Payton really raised eyebrows was when he mentioned that upper Broncos management, including “the president and GM” all played a role in Wilson’s lack of guardrails and career-worst performance. This did not go over well with some in the organization, even if those were conversations he’s held previously face-to-face behind closed doors.
“The front office and the ownership are the two reasons I came here. So, George (Paton) and I are close. He was one of the big attractions, he and ownership. My point was it was just across the board organizationally. It wasn't one person," Payton explained.
Payton did not walk back his support of Wilson. He is known as a calculated coach, so building up Wilson follows his blueprint.
“I told the team, ‘You guys deserve the best teaching in the world, and we are going to give it you.' They really do. They are the best players in the world,” Payton said. “They deserve a chance. (But) it’s not a going to be easy.”
One thing Payton was hired to do was change the culture. There has been a seismic shift in discipline, and Payton believes the Broncos are contenders. He’s not backing off, seeing this as a playoff team despite last year’s 5-12 finish.
“Listen, I am not afraid of the expectations. I have talked to several people about being used to contending for the postseason. You don’t take it for granted. That mindset needs to be present here,” Payton said. “I see this as a team that has that ability, and it's our job to bring it out of them.”