Will Jim Harbaugh or Sean Payton force Broncos to pay $15-$20 million?


Greg Penner hasn’t said much on the subject. But the decision by the Broncos CEO to pay coach Nathaniel Hackett to go away after just 11 months on the job? That told NFL insiders plenty.

Namely, when it comes to organizational expectations, the Broncos’ new owners, the Walton-Penner group, aren’t messing around.

“I expect them to spare no expense for the right guy (at coach),” former NFL agent and CBS Sports analyst Joel Corry told The Denver Post. “You made the commitment for (quarterback) Russell Wilson where you’re stuck (financially) through at least 2023, probably 2024, and that’s assuming (Wilson) doesn’t turn it around. (The next) coach is going to have to stand up to (Wilson) in a way that the last one didn’t. I would imagine those (Wilson) perks are going to be curtailed.

“(The owners) should be swinging for the fences.”

By all indications the Broncos’ new owners won’t be afraid to grip it and rip it in an effort to land a coach who can a) revive the 34-year-old Wilson, who signed a five-year contract extension worth a reported $161 million guaranteed in September and proceeded to have the worst season of his career; and b) return the Broncos to the postseason for the first time since the winter of 2015-16, when the franchise won Super Bowl 50.

“There’s likely going to be a bidding war,” FOX Sports football analyst Brock Huard told The Post. “There are certain things you can’t control in the NFL. As an owner, you can’t control the week-to-week. You can’t control the outcome. But you can control this (coaching) contract and how you want to execute it to be able to get it done and to not let this guy say, ‘No.’”

By all accounts, the Broncos aren’t messing around when it comes to planting a flag, either.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and former Saints coach Sean Payton are believed to be among the Walton-Penner group’s top targets to replace Hackett. But those two targets won’t come cheaply.

Payton, 59, is under contract with New Orleans until 2024, and a team wanting his services will need to compensate the Saints with players or draft picks, or both. He reportedly made around $10 million coaching the Saints in 2021 and according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, found himself “walking away from” at least $45 million left over the final three years of his deal (’22, ’23 and ’24). Longtime NFL voices, most notably Yahoo’s Charles Robinson, estimate that Payton will command roughly $20 million per season to return to an NFL sideline.

The 59-year-old Harbaugh, meanwhile, collected more than $10 million from Michigan this past season after bonuses and incentives for winning the Big Ten and reaching the College Football Playoff, where the Wolverines were upset by TCU in the semifinals, 51-45.

“This is what one calls a ‘matching’ market — very specific skills and very special needs,” said Rodney Fort, sports economist and emeritus professor of sport management at the University of Michigan. “Unless there is a college coach with a buyout requirement dying to make the NFL, then (the likely salary) will be $11 million-$12 million, minus the buyout.”

“You pay them for a reason”

An A-list coaching resume — with an A-list salary — would be something unseen at UCHealth Training Center since franchise icon Mike Shanahan was let go after 14 seasons in December 2008.

According to Sportico.com, the six-highest-paid coaches in the NFL all make at least $12 million annually, a group that includes the Patriots’ Bill Belichick (an estimated $20 million), the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll (an estimated $15 million) the Rams’ Sean McVay ($15 million), the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin ($12.5 million) and the Chiefs’ Andy Reid ($12 million).

Shanahan was believed to be the last coach to touch the $7 million mark annually with the Broncos, and that was 15 years ago. The Broncos never disclosed the terms of Hackett’s contract, but the coach was reportedly in line to take home roughly $4 million in 2022, even though he didn’t even make it all the way through Year 1 of a four-season deal.

His predecessor, Vic Fangio, another first-time head coach, was on a contract reportedly worth an average of $5.5 million per season, including the one after he was fired. Which means the Broncos could have paid out close to $10 million, combined, during the last calendar year to a former coach and a coach who went 4-11 and had fans counting down the play clock for him during his home debut.

The coach Fangio replaced, Vance Joseph, was believed to be earning a salary in the Hackett neighborhood, between $3 million-$4 million as the first of what would be three first-time head coach hires in a row from 2017-2022.

Of those, only Fangio lasted more than two seasons.

“Once you figure out what are your most critical jobs for any company — for companies, there’s like 50-100, for many sports teams, it’s less than 10 — then (the question) becomes, ‘Do you have your best people in your most critical jobs?’” asked Boris Groysberg, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School and author of several articles on the parallels between sports and corporations.

“For the NFL, that would be quarterback and coach. So I tend to believe that it’s OK to pay premium (wages) for the most critical jobs.”

According to 2019 research published by Groysberg, Evan M.S. Hecht and Abhijit Naik in the Harvard Business Review, a study of four “leader variables” over 38 NFL seasons found that quarterbacks carried the most weight in determining a franchise’s team performance (37.37%), followed by head coach (29.08%), then general managers (22.43%) and owners (11.12%).

So in layman’s terms, the academics can confirm what Broncos Country has already seen up close — that Wilson and his 37.37% impact has to either be “fixed” or replaced, and that the Broncos can’t afford to get that next 29.08%, the relative value of a head coach to franchise success, wrong again.

“You pay them for a reason,” Groysberg said. “Unless you get someone (who) says, ‘This is my opportunity, I’m taking that job (regardless),’ you’re going to be going after somebody who has options …

“It seems to me that Russell Wilson plays a certain type of game. So you have to be thinking about a coach that kind of fits that.”

There will be options, too, with Payton and Harbaugh likely pursued by other NFL teams, with Carolina and Indianapolis among those looking, and more firings to come once the regular season ends Sunday.

“You have to go big”

Huard can name one coach who fit DangeRuss perfectly, at least for a while: Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, under whom Wilson initially thrived and eventually clashed.

The former NFL quarterback turned TV analyst also sees more than a few parallels between the Seahawks during the winter of 2009-10 and the Broncos of today. Especially when it comes to Harbaugh, who was one of Carroll’s old coaching rivals in the Pac-12 when Harbaugh was at Stanford and Carroll was at USC — and again in the NFC West while Harbaugh was leading the San Francisco 49ers.


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