USA TODAY Sports Weekly
Payton challenged to prove he can revive another team
For his next act as an NFL coach, Sean Payton is confronted by a Rocky Mountain range of challenges.
His new quarterback, Russell Wilson, needs to be “fixed” as he comes off the worst year of his career.
His cupboard of draft picks is depleted, with premium picks traded away last year to land Wilson and now himself.
The Denver Broncos, in making Payton their fourth coach in seven years, have floundered with six consecutive losing seasons.
And he’s joining a division ruled by the Super Bowl-bound Kansas City Chiefs, who have won seven consecutive AFC West titles.
Payton has seen worse – and thrived. Remember when he took over the New Orleans Saints in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?
The quarterback that Payton enlisted in 2006, Drew Brees, was also a major question mark. And that worked out to Hall of Fame-worthy proportions for the quarterback.
Payton took over a Saints team that was 3-13 in 2005 and guided them to the NFC championship game in his first season. He won a Super Bowl in his fourth season. And with Brees triggering one of the league’s most prolific offenses, the Saints won seven division titles and claimed nine playoff berths under Payton’s watch.
Even with the blemish of a one-year suspension from the NFL in 2012 for the Saints bounty scandal, Payton established himself among the NFL’s coaching elite.
Can he produce that type of sustained success again?
Denver’s new ownership group, headed by Walmart heir Rob Walton, is banking on it. For better or for worse. And boy are they banking. Payton is pegged to become one of the NFL’s highest-paid coaches, earning at least $17 million per year – and perhaps as much as $20 million annually – according to a report from 9News.com.
The Broncos officially announced their hiring of Payton last week.
It is believed that Payton sought a deal in the $20 million-per-year range, which might have been a turn-off for some teams pondering current or perhaps future options in their coaching ranks. And Denver’s hefty price, according to reports, includes sending a 2023 firstround pick and 2024 second-round pick to Payton’s former team as compensation, while obtaining a third-round pick in 2024 as part of the exchange.
Money apparently is not an issue with the Broncos, whose new ownership group includes Greg Penner, Walton’s son-in-law, serving as the team’s CEO. After paying a record price of $4.65 billion for the franchise and signing Wilson to a five-year, $245 million extension that guarantees $165 million, adding the biggest prize on the coaching market sends a distinct message of aggressiveness from the Broncos ownership.
The new Broncos owners didn’t pick Hackett, who flopped in his first year as a head coach and was fired after 15 games. Like Wilson – who cost the Broncos two first-round picks, two second-round picks, a fifth-round pick and three players sent to the Seattle Seahawks – they inherited Hackett.
Payton is undeniably their choice after an exhaustive search. And whether he can revive a stagnant offense around Wilson – who had career worsts for passer rating (84.4), touchdown passes (16) and sacks absorbed (55) – will serve as quite the barometer.
At least he has a track record on the job ... and inherits one of the NFL’s best defenses.
Of course, these types of jobs generally don’t come open unless there are fires to fight. The Broncos, 5-12 in 2022, have finished in last place in the AFC West for three years in a row and haven’t been in the playoffs since winning Super Bowl 50 in Peyton Manning’s final game at the end of the 2015 season. They have cycled through Vance Joseph (11-21), Vic Fangio (19-30) and Hackett (4-11) as coaches but in this case won’t rely on the uncertainty that comes with a first-time head coach.
No, the uncertainty now revolves around whether Payton can prove that he is worth the price by ultimately duplicating the type of success he enjoyed with the Saints.