DENVER — On Monday, as players cleaned out their lockers, several walking out with trash bags full of gear, the Broncos quietly interviewed Michigan's Jim Harbaugh as they seek to find a coach to clean up this mess.
Following their seventh consecutive season without a playoff berth and sixth straight losing record, the Broncos are aiming high in their coaching search, eyeing leaders with previous NFL coaching experience, if not Super Bowl appearances on their resume.
Denver talked to Harbaugh virtually, a source told Denver7, confirming NFL Network's report. CEO Greg Penner is leading the search, joined by his wife Carrie Walton-Penner, Condoleezza Rice and general manager George Paton, among others. As of Sunday, the plan was to interview Harbaugh later in the week because of his schedule, but it was moved up, leaving him the first to conduct a formal session with Denver's brass, casting him as the early leader in the derby.
Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero interviewed in person with the Broncos' on Tuesday, finishing up a little after the lunch hour. He has received high praise from players with Pro Bowl cornerback Pat Surtain II telling Denver7, "I just believe he has what it takes. He's a great leader vocally. He leads by example. He gets his guys going, you can tell by the way we play defense. He establishes the identity. He would be a great coach here or somewhere else."
Added Dre'Mont Jones of Evero, who led the Broncos to top-10 rankings in interceptions and third down conversions, "How he approaches the room and prepares you don't often see that from a young coach. If he's a head coach here it would be a lucky program."
The Broncos spoke to former Saints coach Sean Payton recently, and can interview him in person as soon as Jan. 17. Denver has also requested permission to interview Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, 49ers defensive boss DeMeco Ryans and Rams assistant Raheem Morris. Morris is scheduled to interview on Jan. 17.
"Anybody asks you, it's flattering," said Quinn on Monday. Quinn was a finalist for the Broncos job a year ago, but Nathaniel Hackett won the interview in an offseason when Denver leaned toward an offensive-minded head coach following the firings of Vance Joseph and Vic Fangio.
Speaking on Shan & RJ on Audacy's 105.3 The Fan in Dallas, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, “Obviously we think world of Dan Quinn and we all understand the contributions he made and they interviewed him last year, so it doesn’t surprise me they are interviewing him.”
Harbaugh brings a spangled resume, making him a fascinating candidate, if not a favorite in some circles if he decides to leave college a year after interviewing with the Vikings. Minnesota never offered the job, going with Kevin O'Connell, and Harbaugh returned to Michigan, leading the Wolverines to a second straight appearance in the College Football Playoff.
When Penner described what he was looking for in the next coach last month, he mentioned several traits connected to Harbaugh — accountability, discipline and offensive identity. Harbaugh is known for working as the CEO of the team, creating an environment of intensity and physicality, while surrounding himself with a terrific staff. There's been speculation he might try to bring Baltimore's Greg Roman in as his offensive coordinator, lending to the idea the Broncos would attempt to bulk up their running game. It's possible Evero could remain on staff with Harbaugh. The pair worked together with the 49ers, and Evero runs the scheme designed by Fangio, who could be another target to join Harbaugh.
"First and foremost, I care about the alma mater. I am most loyal to the alma mater. It would be great to see him here, but I would be sad if he left," said Broncos center Graham Glasgow, who played for Harbaugh at Michigan. "He's pretty intense. He has a way he likes things done, whether it's on the practice field, in games or in the meeting rooms. I feel like he has a particular brand of football he likes to play and he does a good job of coaching for that."
Harbaugh issued a statement last week saying that he expected to coach Michigan in 2023, but admitted he does not know what "the future holds." It left some college football analysts predicting he would bolt to the NFL, where he experienced great success with the 49ers, taking over a team with eight straight non-winning seasons and leading San Francisco to a 13-3 record in his first year in 2011. Others believe he might be flirting with the NFL to receive a new contract at Michigan. But, as one former Michigan player who played for Harbaugh told Denver7, "He will win (if he goes to the NFL). He's a phenomenal coach."
Harbaugh, 59, also runs hot-and-cold, and has a history or rubbing some people the wrong way. Even some Broncos on Monday bristled at the idea of Harbaugh coming to Denver. But after a season littered by penalties and dysfunction — a word used by a few players to describe the 5-12 campaign — it is easy to connect the dots on why the Broncos would be interested in a coach who has revived the University of San Diego, Stanford, Michigan and the 49ers.
"Having a consistent coach is going to be vital for us. Somebody that’s disciplined, somebody that has accountability and doesn’t break their rules. That’s what we need," said left tackle Garett Bolles, who will attempt to return from a Maisonneuve fracture of his leg and ankle suffered in Week 5 against the Colts.
"We need a tough guy who can come in here and lead this ship to victory."