DENVER — The next Broncos coach will be their fifth in eight years.
CEO Greg Penner can't afford to miss on this choice. He did not create this mess, but another strikeout will set this franchise back years.
It has already been seven seasons since the Broncos reached the postseason — the second longest active drought in the NFL — and six since they posted a winning record.
From Vance Joseph to Vic Fangio and Nathaniel Hackett, every iteration of the past three field bosses had one thing in common: zero previous head coaching experience. Over the past six seasons, the Broncos have posted a 35-63 record, including 5-16 over their past 21 games.
While prepping for much longer, Penner launched the search two weeks ago. He has been joined by owner Condoleezza Rice and general manager George Paton for six interviews, with two remaining Thursday night with San Francisco's defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and Friday afternoon with Cowboys defensive boss Dan Quinn.
After huddling this weekend, finalist interviews are expected to begin early next week with the Penner-Walton ownership group heavily, if not exclusively, involved in the last stage.
Payton appears the front runner based on his positive interview on Tuesday — the Broncos were selling themselves to him as much as he was to them — and the latest snippet from Colin Cowherd's show Thursday that Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson has contacted Payton and that "he wants Sean Payton."
Cowherd revealed this after saying he had dinner with Payton. The Broncos are not making decisions based on Wilson's desires, not after last season's team and personal abyss. But it adds another reason to believe Payton believes he fits with Broncos ownership and can fix Wilson.
Hiring Payton requires a longterm vision because the Broncos would have to surrender their first-round pick acquired in the Bradley Chubb deal to Miami and potentially a third-rounder or something of the like. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis will ask for more, and is considered a skilled negotiator, but there is a point where he might have to take the best offer for his good friend. Why? Payton doesn't have to go to any team. He can fall back to FOX.
Payton, 59, won a Super Bowl, seven NFC South crowns and had only four losing seasons in 15 years with the Saints. He went 7-9 three straight years from 2014-16, but posted a 58-23 mark over his final five seasons.
Payton is scheduled to interview with Panthers owner David Tepper on Friday night. While Carolina can make a great pitch with a team on the cusp of winning, multiple sources believe Payton will end up with the Broncos or back on TV.
Payton would likely want control, and while Penner gave GM George Paton a vote of confidence after the firing of Hackett, it brings into question what the power structure would look like moving forward. Penner has already said the next coach will report directly with him, same as Paton.
Quinn, as noted on Wednesday, brings experience, a Super Bowl appearance and a 43-42 winning record as the head coach of the Falcons. His Cowboys defense the past two seasons has drawn rave reviews, leading the NFL in 2021 (34) and 2022 (33) in takeaways with 67.
If not Payton or Quinn, and believing experience will win the day, David Shaw and Jim Caldwell must be kept in mind. Shaw, the former Stanford coach, posted a 96-54 record in 12 seasons with eight bowl berths. Penner, his wife Carrie Walton-Penner and Rice have strong ties to Stanford and know Shaw well. In 2019, Shaw to the NFL, especially as he was part of the network draft coverage, would have been an easy sell. However, he resigned in November after going 14-28 over his final four college seasons.
It's why this search circles back to Payton, and if not him, Quinn. With three straight missteps, there is little margin for error, and the luxury of patience from Broncos Country long ago vanished.
More will crystallize over the next two nights. Will Ryans make the Broncos think twice about experience? Will Quinn show he should have been the choice a year ago? And will it matter if Payton wants the job and gets an offer?
The search for the fifth coach since Super Bowl 50 continues with importance that cannot be overstated on the franchise's road to redemption.