After a one-year hiatus, Sean Payton is returning to the sideline. The Denver Broncos finalized a trade on Tuesday to acquire Payton from the New Orleans Saints.
Payton had been the Saints’ head coach since 2006 before quitting after the 2021 season. Since he still was under contract to the Saints, the Broncos had to give New Orleans compensation so they could hire him. The Saints will receive the Broncos’ first-round pick this year and their second-round pick in 2024. The Broncos will receive the Saints’ third-round pick in 2024.
Payton replaces Nathaniel Hackett, who was fired in late December after a 51-14 Christmas Day loss to the Los Angeles Rams, with two games left in the season. Hackett was just the fifth coach since the AFL-NFL merger not to last a full season before getting canned. The Broncos were 4-11 under Hackett and finished 5-12.
Payton is the Broncos’ fourth head coach in the past six years, and sixth in the last 10. Hackett had replaced Vic Fangio, who was fired after three losing seasons.
Payton takes over a Broncos team that has had six straight losing seasons and hasn’t made the playoffs since winning the Super Bowl in 2015.
|Season||Coach||W-L (Div. Finish)|
|2021||Vic Fangio||7-10 (4th)|
|2020||Vic Fangio||5-11 (4th)|
|2019||Vic Fangio||7-9 (2nd)|
|2018||Vance Joseph||6-10 (3rd)|
|2017||Vance Joseph||5-11 (4th)|
|2016||Gary Kubiak||9-7 (3rd)|
|2015||Gary Kubiak||12-4 (1st, won Super Bowl)|
There are conflicting reports about whether the Broncos made one final run at San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans before offering the job to Payton. Ryans was hired as the Houston Texans’ head coach Tuesday.
What isn’t in question is that Broncos owner and CEO Greg Penner flew to Ann Arbor, Mich., last week to meet with University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.
In the end, the Broncos ended up with one of the NFL’s top coaches, though he almost certainly didn’t come cheap. There is a very good possibility that Payton’s deal with Denver makes him the highest-paid coach in the league.
Payton had nine double-digit win seasons with the Saints and won the Super Bowl in 2009. The Saints made the playoffs in four of Payton’s last five seasons in New Orleans.
“He’s a great fit there,” said former NFL executive and The 33rd Team analyst Joe Banner, who worked with Payton in the late ’90s when both were in Philadelphia and Payton was the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach under Ray Rhodes. “He has demonstrated the ability to hire a really good defensive coordinator and then give him space. He has the ability to complement that defense with how he runs an offense. And if there’s anybody out there besides Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan that could make that offense the best that it can be, his name is Sean Payton.
“Now, no coach guarantees you success. But if you’re looking for good fits, Sean’s background – how he’s been successful, where he’s been successful, how he plays the game – the way that team is built right now, this always seemed like a very easy decision for the Broncos.”
The Broncos have a very good defense. They finished third in the league in points allowed in 2021 (18.9 per game) and were giving up just 18.1 points per game this season before allowing 106 points in their final three games.
Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero also interviewed for the team’s head-coaching job, as well as the still-vacant jobs with the Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals. It’s not known whether Payton would ask him to stay if he doesn’t get the Colts or Cardinals job. Evero isn’t considered one of the favorites for either one of those jobs.
Payton’s biggest challenge will be improving an awful Broncos offense that finished last in scoring this season (16.9 points per game). They traded for nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson after the 2021 season. But he struggled mightily.
Wilson’s plus-5 touchdowns-to-interceptions differential was the lowest of his career. So was his 60.5 completion percentage and 16 touchdown passes. He was sacked a career-high 55 times, including 18 times in his last four starts.
The Broncos owned the worst third-down offense in the league this season, converting just 29.1 percent of their third downs. Wilson had an 81.5 third-down passer rating. Twenty-four of his 55 sacks came on third down.
“They’re close,” Banner said. “I hate to use that cliché. But their defense is undeniably good. And I don’t believe Russell Wilson suddenly became a complete disaster. I do believe he’s a descending player. I do believe he’s been that for a couple of years. But I think he’s still at a level where he can run a successful offense.
“You can’t do it behind that offensive line calling the plays Hackett was calling for him. I don’t expect the Broncos to look back and say, ‘Wow, were we smart to make this trade (for Wilson) and give him all of that money.’ But I do expect we’re going to see a Russell Wilson next year that looks nothing like the Russell Wilson we saw this season. Sean Payton will make sure of that. Combined with the defense, it will give them a chance to improve quite a bit pretty quickly.”
Payton has an impressive track record of helping offenses — and quarterbacks.
In 2005, the year prior to Payton’s arrival, the Saints scored 235 points, second fewest in the NFL. One year later, they finished fifth in scoring. Two years later, they led the league. They only finished outside the top 15 once during the rest of Payton’s tenure.
Drew Brees wasn’t a widely heralded free-agent signing in 2006 because of a shoulder injury. Then he teamed up with Payton and his narrative changed to probable Hall of Fame quarterback. In his Saints first season, Brees set a career-high in passing yards (a league-leading 4,418). In Year 2, he set a career-high in touchdowns (28). And in Year 3, he reset both marks while leading the league with 5,069 yards and 34 touchdowns.
How did Brees and Payton top that feat in their fourth season together? With a Super Bowl victory, the first and only in New Orleans’ history.
Paul Domowitch covered the Eagles and the NFL for the Philadelphia Inquirer for four decades. You can follow him on Twitter at @pdomo.