Round and round, this crazy coaching carousel careened out of control for 35 days, with the Broncos chasing their tails until CEO Greg Penner finally stepped off, came to his senses and hired Sean Payton, the candidate most qualified to teach quarterback Russell Wilson how to ride again.
I will stand up and cheer this move by the Broncos, just as soon as my head stops spinning.
As Penner discovered the hard way, it’s way easier to sell 1.5 billion pounds of bananas at Walmart in a year than acquire one solid pro football coach within a month.
But once the dust settles and heads clear, while DeMeco Ryans makes his wife happy by taking a gig in Houston and Jim Harbaugh continues his endless game of footsie with NFL suitors, two things will become obvious at the end of this bumpy, often circuitous route traveled by the crazy-rich Waltons to hire a veteran coach with a Super Bowl ring to end to seven long years of misery in Broncos Country.
No. 1: It’s never too late to do the right thing.
No. 2: Payton was the best man for the job from the jump.
So what took so dang long?
I blame Broncos general manager George Paton, the knucklehead who foolishly gave Wilson a $245 million contract extension before the quarterback threw his first bad interception in a Denver uniform.
Had the price for acquiring Wilson from Seattle in a trade not been so high, with a treasure trove of future draft picks shipped to the Seahawks, hiring Payton would have been a no-brainer. Instead, the Broncos dillied and dallied, balking and dithering when New Orleans suggested it would require not one, but two first-round draft picks to free Payton from his contractual obligations to the Saints.
So the Broncos pursued Harbaugh all the way to Michigan, wooing a diva who would rather be chased than caught. Let’s all breathe a sigh of relief that Harbaugh didn’t say yes-no-maybe to Penner because those sorts of commitment issues are the last wishy-washy things needed by a Broncos franchise that has been tough to love of late.
The flirtation with Ryans, whose star skyrocketed as this year’s hot young coordinator, was far more intriguing, but even perhaps riskier, than the conversations with Harbaugh. If the Broncos were willing to take a chance on a former linebacker with no head-coaching experience, Ryans must have aced the interview with Denver brass like no candidate since Josh McDaniels. (How did that turn out, anyway?)
So count me as happy with how this twisted tale ended. The ransom of two draft picks (a first- and second-rounder) to the Saints in return for Payton, a 59-year-old coach who has fashioned a 161-97 record in the NFL, is a reasonable price to pay.
In essence, the Broncos traded Bradley Chubb and a player to be named later for Payton, who took a Saints team that finished 3-13 in 2005 to the playoffs during his first season in charge. There is no prospect Denver could’ve selected with the 29th pick in the first round of this year’s draft with any chance of leading that kind of turnaround.
Yes, I’ve heard the whining in some corners of Broncos Country that Payton only won the Super Bowl once during 15 seasons with New Orleans, despite the blessing of Drew Brees as his quarterback. Really?
Newsflash: Winning the Super Bowl is hard. Mike Tomlin has done it once in 16 seasons with the Steelers; Dan Reeves never raised the Lombardi Trophy in Denver despite being blessed with John Elway as his quarterback.
While sometimes there seemed to be little rhyme and zero reason to the hiring process of Penner, let there be no mistake that the new ownership group made a major commitment in hiring Payton, who knows it requires more than hugs to build a winning culture.
A year ago, full of the false hope that Nathaniel Hackett might help lure quarterback Aaron Rodgers from Green Bay, the Broncos hired a goofball to coach the team. Payton is a serious football man, with skins on the wall, as our buddy John Fox likes to say.
A quarterback is more essential to championship contention than the coach. The Broncos are going nowhere unless they can fix Wilson, and none of the eight candidates interviewed for this gig was as well-suited for that challenge as Payton.
Unlike Hackett, Payton has the gravitas to demand Wilson’s respect rather than serve as his wingman. Wilson has long admired Brees and now is blessed with a coach capable of getting his career back on the road to Canton.
With the contractual commitment given this coach by ownership, Payton has the power to lead the franchise in a new direction should Denver decide Wilson really is washed up and needs to dump him after another rough season.
Since 2017, the Broncos wasted too many years of our lives hoping and praying Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio or Hackett could lead the team back to championship contention.
By hiring Payton, the Broncos finally invested in a football coach that already knows the way to the top.
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