A head coach with a Super Bowl resume is coming to Dove Valley.
The Broncos are finalizing a deal with Sean Payton to be the franchise’s next head coach, with the hope that the former Saints boss can turn around a stagnant offense, revive quarterback Russell Wilson’s career and snap the franchise’s seven-year playoff drought.
Here’s a look at the road Payton, a former Eastern Illinois quarterback, took to become Denver’s 19th head coach.
FCS star turned coach
Payton was Eastern Illinois’ quarterback from 1983-86 — a three-time All-American who led the Panthers to the FCS quarterfinals in his final season. He finished his college career as the school’s career leader in passing yards (10,655), completions (758) and TDs (75).
After going undrafted, Payton played or tried out for five professional teams in under two years. Self-described as an undersized quarterback with an average arm, he had a one-day tryout with the Chiefs, and also spent time with the Leicester Panthers in England, the Chicago Bruisers in the Arena Football League and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League.
Payton then landed with the Bears as a replacement player during the 1987 strike. He appeared in three games, completing 8 of 23 passes for 79 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. His final game came against the Saints, when he posted a 1.7 quarterback rating while struggling in a loss at Soldier Field.
“I wasn’t good enough,” Payton recalled in 2007. “I knew somewhere in the middle of Canada and the Chicago Bears that I was going to get into coaching.”
Payton got his start in coaching spending two seasons as a graduate assistant with San Diego State in 1988-89, but he didn’t get out to California from Naperville, Illinois, without a little adversity first.
“I had a (Chevrolet) Cavalier, and it broke down in Denver (on the way to San Diego in 1988),” Payton said in 2007. “I was going up one of these mountains and the car just said, ‘No.’ A guy came and kind of fixed it to where I could get to San Diego, but the car wasn’t fixed yet.”
Payton’s NFL rise
Payton jumped to Indiana State (running backs coach 1990-91), back to San Diego State (running backs coach 1992-93), to Miami of Ohio (offensive coordinator 1994-95) and then Illinois (quarterbacks coach 1996). He got his start in the NFL in 1997, coaching the Eagles’ quarterbacks, a post he held for two seasons before going to the Giants for the same position in 1999.
From there, Payton was on the fast track to a head coaching job.
He became New York’s offensive coordinator in 2000, then served as the Cowboys’ assistant head coach from 2003-05. He flirted with the Raiders’ head coaching job along the way and got passed over for the Packers’ head job in favor of Mike McCarthy in the same time frame he was hired by the Saints in 2006.
“Our two finalists for head coach of the Packers in 2006 were Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy,” former Packers VP Andrew Brandt tweeted. “Mike had been with the Packers before, got the nod due to familiarity. Sean went to the Saints, and did ok.”
In New Orleans, Payton inherited an even worse situation than he will in Denver. The Saints were coming off a 3-13 season the year before. But Payton said he embraced those challenges.
“The idea of coming in and building something from the ground floor up (was appealing),” Payton said in 2007. “As challenging as it may have seemed or appeared, there were some things about it that excited me.”
There was also a similar question mark at quarterback. Drew Brees played his first four seasons with the Chargers and at the time of his arrival in New Orleans, he had just had shoulder surgery some thought might derail his career. The Saints signed him anyway, the beginning of a partnership critical to Payton’s success.
Super Bowl, Bountygate
Payton went 152-89 in his 15 seasons with the Saints. New Orleans made it to the NFC title game in his first season, losing to the Bears, and that performance netted Payton coach of the year honors. He led the Saints to the franchise’s first Super Bowl three years later, beating Peyton Manning and the Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV.
The Saints had nine playoff berths and won seven NFC South titles during Payton’s tenure, but it didn’t come without a black mark. He was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2012 season for his role in “Bountygate” — a system where Saints players were paid bonuses for hurting players on opposing teams.
During his suspension, Payton served as the offensive coordinator for his son’s middle school football team in Texas, a detour later turned into a movie starring Kevin James. Payton returned to the New Orleans sideline in 2013, but he and Brees never got back to the Super Bowl before Brees retired after the 2020 season.
Even when Payton officially stepped down as the Saints’ head coach in January 2022 — heading to FOX to serve as a TV analyst — he left the door open for a return.
“Retirement, I don’t think is the right word today,” Payton said. “I don’t know what’s next and it kind of feels good.”
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