NCAA Football

The Broncos hired Sean Payton and left Russell Wilson with no excuses next season

The Broncos hired Sean Payton and left Russell Wilson with no excuses next season

About an hour after the worst season of his professional career officially ended on Jan. 9, Broncos defender Russell Wilson stood behind the podium and sent a clear, unmistakable message about who he thought could help solve the problems dragging down the quarterback and his new team.

When asked about the upcoming head coaching search that opened after freshman Nathaniel Hackett was fired 15 games into a disastrous 2022 season, Wilson made brief remarks about then-notable candidates such as Dan Quinn, Jim Harbaugh and Ejira Ever.

Notes on his obvious preferred candidate, Sean Payton? These were much more offensive.

“He’s obviously one of the best in the world, the guy who coached (future) Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees,” Wilson said of Payton. “He’s competitive as can be, he’s a winner and he’s obviously won a Super Bowl at the highest level. I was able to be around him at the Pro Bowl and the magic you could have on the field was just wonderful. It was just exciting to be around him and just Alvin Kamarai Michael Thomas. Those guys, we just talked about the ball and how (Payton) saw the game.”

Wilson, 34 and facing a career crossroads after his first season in Denver went off the rails from the start, has the new mentor he wanted. The Broncos agreed Tuesday trade two draft picks for Saints — a first-rounder this year and a second-round pick in 2024 — and returned a 2024 third-round pick and the right to hire Payton as their next head coach, a league source familiar with the deal confirmed.

“Great fan base. A great tradition. The ownership group is fantastic and I love how they competed last year.” Peyton said longtime New Orleans reporter Jeff Duncan in a phone interview shortly after the trade was announced. “It’s a great football town, like we have in New Orleans.”

The Broncos now have a head coach who has won 152 games in the NFL and, like Wilson, is a past Super Bowl champion. Between 2006 and 2021, Payton and Brees put together one of the most explosive offenses in modern NFL history. New Orleans has scored more touchdowns than any team in that span of 16 seasons, and only Patriots scored more points overall.

Payton did it with a quarterback in Brees, who also had just arrived in New Orleans in 2006, coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder, and was surrounded by doubts about whether he could become an elite quarterback. All he did from that point on was become one of the top pass rushers in league history.

Wilson is a nine-time Pro Bowler who, like Payton, has won countless big games in his career, but he also faces doubts. As he enters his 12th NFL season, with his mobility seemingly in decline and his reputation as an elite signal caller following a season in which he posted career lows in completion percentage, touchdowns and passer rating, Wilson needs a major rebound. He believes he now has a coach who can help him with that.

“He knows how to push guys at the highest level,” Wilson said.

Like Russell Wilson now, there were doubts about Drew Brees when he first joined Sean Payton in New Orleans. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

The Broncos know all too well where the powerless offense is in the division Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert leaves you – down looking up. After years of tweaking arguably the two most important spots in the franchise — Denver had a dozen starting quarterbacks and four different head coaches from 2016 to 2021 — the Broncos are betting they have the combination to create a more explosive and consistent offense.

And this there is a big bet. The Broncos lost three first-round picks and three second-round picks combined in three straight drafts — plus three players — to get the pieces to create something functional on offense.

A big swing? This is an attempt to launch the ball into a new stratosphere. Fixing an offense that finished last in scoring in 2022 and hasn’t finished higher than 22nd since 2014 might not be too much of a price to pay.

“We need an identity on offense,” said Broncos general manager Greg Penner, who led the search that produced one of the league’s winningest active coaches when the process began.

Simply put, Wilson, who signed a five-year, $245 million contract with the Broncos last September, needs to make the 2023 season a success. Everything he theoretically needs to get back on track is in place. He has a favorite coach, the one who helped the quarterback he most admires create a Hall of Fame trajectory. He should benefit from returning key offensive pieces at wide receiver Tim Patrickran back Javonte Williams and left tackle Garrett Boles. He will work behind what will almost certainly be a retooled offensive line. He has the benefit of chemistry with those types of players Jerry Jedi and Courtland Sutton it seemed to increase as the stretch of the season wore on.

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Broncos general manager George Patton, the architect of the Wilson trade 11 months ago, made it clear when the Broncos began looking to replace Hackett that the search for a new head coach wasn’t just about finding someone who could “turn Russ around.”

“It’s about the whole organization,” Patton said. “It’s about the whole football team. It’s not just one player.”

That was part of the appeal with Peyton. His consistent success in New Orleans — 10 or more wins in nine seasons — was greater than Brees’ excellence. In the NFL, it should always be about more than one player, even the one at the most important position in the game. The Saints continued to win amid personnel and personnel changes. Amid their missteps in the Bountygate scandal, which led to Payton’s suspension for the 2012 season. Against a backdrop of defenses constantly looking for ways to disrupt an offense that spawned copycat attempts around the league during Payton’s tenure.

Payton won a Super Bowl with New Orleans in 2009, but he also helped the Saints to the NFL’s best record (49-15) from 2017-20. The Broncos believe the foundation that made it all happen is that Payton still has the passion and energy to build again in Denver. His experience makes him a stark departure from the last three head coaches hired by the Broncos — Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and Hackett — none of whom worked elsewhere before arriving in Denver.

Although the Broncos had productive one-on-one conversations with all eight candidates they interviewed in person, their focus was on Payton by Sunday, according to a league source. It was a complex process that had two parallel tracks. Paton and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis began talking about potential compensation days after Payton’s first meeting with the team on Jan. 17. All the while, members of the organization continued to have a productive dialogue with Peyton while continuing to work through the interview process with other candidates.

Ultimately, the chance to hire a coach with a consistent track record of success was worth the price of two draft picks. The Broncos see it as a long-term fix after a series of coaching staff changes that defined this losing era for a franchise with championship expectations. They hope the hire will instantly revitalize their offense.

That will require a smooth transition between Wilson and a coach he has long admired. It will take Wilson and Payton teaming up in the second act of their careers to create the kind of “magic” that took so long to create elsewhere.

“I’m looking forward to winning here,” Wilson said after Denver finished the season 5-12. “That’s what we came here to do, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

With the help Wilson now has, there’s no excuse for doing anything less.

(Top photo: Jane Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

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