DENVER — A day after Christmas, the Broncos posted a head coaching vacancy. A month later they are still searching for their fifth coach in eight years. Given the nature of this pursuit, it feels like anything could happen next.
Jim Harbaugh's name lingers over the process after an eventful week. And until he's completely out and armed with a new contract from Michigan, he remains a fascinating prospect.
The Broncos, however, could add names to their list.
Some to keep in mind if a plan doesn't materialize: Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka and Bengals offensive boss Brian Callahan. No interviews have been officially requested.
Gannon and Callahan interviewed with the Broncos last season — Callahan worked with the Broncos when Peyton Manning played, so that would be a nice recommendation — and Kafka spent five years in the AFC West with the Kansas City Chiefs, last as a quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator in 2021.
The Broncos centered on San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans last Thursday, but it became clear Friday afternoon that Ryans was leaning towards Houston, where he’s the favorite to be hired, per sources.
Ryans’ decision came after the Broncos’ midweek trip to Ann Arbor where there was mutual interest in Harbaugh re-engaging in the process with Denver. Will it create leverage in contract talks to stay in school? The fact that the Broncos' owners spent time with Harbaugh after his commitment to Michigan two weeks ago suggests that he remains intrigued by the Broncos.
Harbaugh began this search as the frontrunner but appeared to remove himself from consideration after the school president publicly backed him. However, CEO Greg Penner, who has known Harbaugh for nearly two decades dating to their Stanford ties, and members of the ownership group traveled to Michigan to talk to Harbaugh in person after the initial interview was on zoom.
In the end, Harbaugh remains in college — but the looming NCAA violations, lack of new contract and Harbaugh's intrigue in Denver keep the door ajar. Interestingly, National Signing Day is Feb. 1, which could also help create some clarity.
Other interviewed candidates – defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, former Lions coach Jim Caldwell, ex-Stanford boss David Shaw and Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris – no longer appear to be gaining traction. Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is not in the mix after announcing he was staying in Dallas because of “unfinished business.”
It’s unclear if the door has closed completely on Sean Payton, but there’s no indication he will receive a second interview – issues of control, length of contract and draft pick compensation have existed since the outset – so it is hard to elevate his candidacy. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, according to multiple reports, wants a pair of first-round draft picks for Payton. This, after Payton announced that his price would be a mid first-rounder. Payton kept his options open on the Fox pregame show Sunday.
"I think in the next week we’re going to know a lot more. . . . There’s a handful of things that still are taking place for these coaches, and myself. It’s been a busy week, a great week,” said Payton, who interviewed in person with Arizona and Carolina, though the Panthers hired Frank Reich. “We’ve had a chance to visit with a lot of great owners, a lot of outstanding organizations. They’re obviously looking for a reboot."
“I think with the way the coaching hiring process has changed this year, we’re seeing it play out a little longer for these clubs. And I think there’s more pressure on everyone who’s covering it. And I think it’s a good thing because they’re allowing teams to get to the right candidates."
So, what now for Broncos? They keep moving forward.
Some more background on potential candidates.
The Broncos could request interviews with Gannon, who worked in Minnesota when Broncos GM George Paton was there, and Callahan, a Broncos assistant from 2010-15. But if their teams advance to the Super Bowl, Denver cannot talk to them for two weeks. It’s unclear if the Broncos would wait since such a delay carries increased risk in a pursuit that has been a seatbelt-required ride. The issue is whether first-time coaches – the case with the 40-year-old Gannon and 38-year-old Callahan – can put together a staff that late in the process.
Gannon has also been a candidate with Houston and Arizona during this cycle. The Eagles' defense leads the NFL in sacks and has improved dramatically since the middle of last season. Callahan, whose father Bill coached the Raiders and the University of Nebraska, worked for the Broncos during the Manning years when Denver reached its offensive zenith. The Bengals’ offense has morphed into one of the league’s best over the past two seasons, showing balance and maximizing weapons with elite quarterback Joe Burrows and receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd and running back Joe Mixon.
The Giants' Kafka cannot be dismissed if it gets to that point. Kafka, 35, has interviewed with the Texans, Colts and Panthers over the past few weeks. He called plays for first-year Giants coach Brian Dabol, helping resurrect quarterback Daniel Jones' career.
Eagles offensive boss Shane Steichen and Rams assistant head coach Thomas Brown are other names to file way if this search expands. At this point, it is fair to wonder if the Broncos will keep interim coach Jerry Rosburg on speed dial as they work down their revised list. He outlined his plan for the team in his exit interview but was not considered a candidate and would still be an extreme longshot.
This is the biggest decision for Penner, who is leading the search. For a team strapped with six straight losing seasons, the Broncos can’t afford to miss even if it’s uncertain what comes next.