'We have a lot of work to do': Broncos owners apologize for dismal season, GM Paton admits, ‘it’s all on me’

Greg Penner, George Paton
Posted at 1:43 PM, Dec 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-27 15:43:44-05

DENVER — A confluence of factors led the Broncos to fire coach Nathaniel Hackett's on Monday.

The reasons revealed themselves on Tuesday at a press conference with CEO Greg Penner and general manager George Paton. Penner, simply put, had enough. Sources told Denver7 his frustration in the owner's suite at SoFi Stadium was on full display as he watched his team melt down on the field and off it, an odorous performance stained by players fighting on the sideline and another throwing a punch after the game.

So at 4-11, saddled with the lowest scoring offense in franchise history through 15 games, Penner let Hackett go. Tuesday became a humbling mea culpa for both leaders.

“The loyalty and support of Broncos Country through these difficult seasons has been incredible," said CEO Greg Penner. “I want to personally apologize to our fans and all Broncos Country. We know that we need to be better. And we will.”

While calling Hackett "a very good football coach and an even better person," Paton that it was best for the team to part ways with Hackett who was fired on Monday with two weeks remaining in the season and three years remaining on his contract.

“As I told the players yesterday, I take full responsibility for where we are as a football team," Paton said. "I brought in the head coach, I brought in most of the players. Those are my decisions. And there's no one to blame but me."

He added that the Broncos' issues this season aren't solely rooted in the coaching staff.

"This isn't just about Nathaniel — this isn't about the entire football operation," he continued. "This is about the personnel, the players, the staff, everyone involved with our football team. It has to be better across the board. I have to be better. We have a lot of work to do.”

Broncos GEO, GM discuss search for new head coach after firing Nathaniel Hackett

While Monday's decision was impulsive, it was coming after the season. Penner dismissed Hackett after looking at the full body of work.

Aside from a Dec. 18 win against the Arizona Cardinals, the Broncos haven't won a single game in the United States since Sept. 25 and have not won a road game on American soil since last Nov. 7 at Dallas.

Paton said it was unacceptable and embarrassing to everyone associated with the team. That included not only those on the team, but their fans, too.

The frustration from a number of losing seasons is high, but it was amplified this season because of the reframed expectations following the acquisition of quarterback Russell Wilson.

The team saw a rash of penalties and injuries during the season after Hackett's decision not to play starters in preseason backfired.

"Maybe we do need to practice harder," Paton said. "But this has been ongoing in Denver — the injury problems — and we've had a number of head coaches. And it's up to us to fix the problem and do a deep dive in our entire wellness, in our training, our strength and conditioning, our nutrition."

That will be part of the discussions with future candidates, he said. The team will begin making those necessary charges ahead of the next head coach hire.

The new coach will report to Penner, which is a more typical structure in the NFL, but Penner added that Paton still plays an important role in the search, though it was clear Tuesday that some of Paton's power has been usurped.

"Obviously, the relationship between the general manager and the head coach is a critical one. And George is going to be intimately involved with this process of looking for a new head coach, and we'll make sure that there's a good fit there," he said.

Penner said the main quality he will search for in a new head coach is leadership.

"We need a strong leader for this organization that's focused on winning, that starts with culture," he said. "It's instilling a sense of accountability, discipline, and, and we need an identity on offense. But at the starting point, it's got to be about culture and leadership."

The elephant in the Zoom or room is simple: will it matter who the Broncos interview or select as their new coach if Wilson is washed? A nine-time Pro Bowler, Wilson has careened into a ditch in his first season in Denver, on pace for career-lows in passing touchdowns and completion percentage after the Broncos acquired him with a combination of four draft picks and three players.

Penner and Paton, working together, signed Wilson to a $242.5 million contract extension before the season after being put on a deadline by the quarterback. It included $161 million in guaranteed money and essentially precludes the team from moving on from Wilson after this season, if not next, because of the calamity of the salary cap hit.

When asked why they have faith in Wilson, Penner admitted that the season has not been up to his own standards, even though there were "flashes" of strong performances.

"He knows he can play better, we know he can play better and we know he'll do the right work in the offseason (and) be ready for next year," Penner said.

"I don't think we made a coaching move based on Russ," Paton said. "You know, that wasn't what it's all about. That's why that's not why we're getting a new coach to turn around Russ. It's about the entire organization. It's about the entire football team. It's just not one player. It's not whether Russ is fixable or not. We do believe he is. We do."

The Broncos named veteran coach Jerry Rosburg the interim coach on Monday.

The search for a new Broncos head coach

The Broncos have now employed and dismissed three consecutive first-time head coaches in Vic Fangio, Vance Joseph and Hackett. Still, Paton and Penner said Tuesday that experience isn’t necessary for Hackett’s successor. Paton said the team hopes to interview current defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero for the job.

Evero was offered the interim head coaching job and turned it down, Denver7 Broncos insider Troy Renck confirmed. Evero is expected to be on the list of candidates for other head coaching vacancies this off-season.

Special teams coach Dwayne Stukes and Offensive line coach Butch Barry were also let go on Monday, the team announced. Mike Mallory will coach special teams and Ben Steele will coach the offensive line.

Penner indicated that the ownership group will be involved in choosing the next coach, including Condoleezza Rice, who helped with the selection of Stanford's past coach recently.

Some of the candidates who will be connected to the Broncos' job include Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn — he was a finalist last year in Denver and could bring in Brian Schottenheimer to work with Wilson — former Saints coach Sean Payton — he requires draft pick compensation — Michigan boss Jim Harbaugh, ex-Colts coach Frank Reich, Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and former Stanford coach David Shaw.

"I tend to be impatient," said Penner, clearly revealing his personality on Tuesday in ways not seen before when talking about the Broncos.

"I am a big believer that if start with the right culture, right people, right resources and expectations, we can build a winning team. And I don't think it takes a number of years. The focus will be turning it around next year."