In Hiring Sean Payton, the Denver Broncos Double Down

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The Denver Broncos’ long and haphazard search for a new head coach finally came to an end Tuesday, as NFL insiders reported that the team had come to terms with the New Orleans Saints on a deal to acquire Sean Payton.

This has been a convoluted process, and it ends with a rare trade for a coach. Let’s start with the most simple reality and work out from there.

Payton is a great coach. He’s a Super Bowl–winning coach. It is often framed as a disappointment that Payton won only one Super Bowl in his time with the Saints, especially considering that he had a Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees almost the entire time. But it’s worth remembering that Andy Reid and Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher and Pete Carroll and John Harbaugh and Mike Holmgren and Sean McVay and Tony Dungy each have only one championship, too (though that may soon change for Reid). It’s hard enough to get to the big game; it’s even harder to win it; it’s doubly harder to win it twice.

But Payton won the big game, and for 15 years he kept the Saints offense humming even as Brees aged and personnel changed over. (He was even going for it on fourth down before it was cool.) Payton is a great coach, and the many teams who pursued him this season serve as a testament to that. Denver won the sweepstakes and, in doing so, got a great coach into the building.

That’s the most simple reality. Everything out from there? That gets a little dicier.

Coaches like Payton don’t often make it to the open market, and Payton was available for hire only because he retired from the Saints last season. When he decided to unretire, the Saints still had Payton under contract, and the Broncos had to trade for him to get him out of his Saints contract. This didn’t come cheap:

Notably, the Broncos’ 2023 first-round pick isn’t actually their 2023 first-round pick. Their original pick (fifth overall) belongs to the Seahawks as a result of the Russell Wilson trade. The 2023 first-rounder they have is 29th overall, which first belonged to the 49ers and then to the Dolphins, who sent it to Denver in the midseason trade of Bradley Chubb.

So the Broncos have paid a first-round pick and a future second-round pick for a future third-rounder and the rights to have Payton as their head coach—and they still have to pay Payton, who expected to sign a deal worth $20-$25 million per year. Most of the time, when teams hire coaches, they just have to pay a lot of money. Here, the Broncos had to pay a lot of money and send some draft picks. Not just any picks, either—really good picks. The Raiders traded a first and a second for Davante Adams last offseason; the Dolphins traded a first, a second, and some change for Tyreek Hill. This is a big trade package.

The history of trading picks for coaches shows this strategy to be surprisingly effective. The Seahawks traded a second-round pick to the Packers for Mike Holmgren and made a Super Bowl with him. The Buccaneers sent two firsts and two seconds to the Raiders for Jon Gruden and won a Super Bowl with him. The Patriots sent a first, a fourth, and a seventh to the Jets for Bill Belichick (and some change) and won a lot of Super Bowls with him.

But we haven’t seen many head-coaching trades recently, and there’s an easy explanation for that: It’s better to get a good head coach without sending picks than to get one with sending picks. And the Broncos investigated those options. They spent a long time trying to pull Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh back to the NFL—they even visited him this week in Ann Arbor in a final last-ditch effort to convince him to take the job after he removed his name from consideration. They identified DeMeco Ryans as their desired candidate and even spent time Tuesday trying to pull Ryans away from the Texans before accepting defeat and pivoting to Payton.

This is where the dicey-ness comes in. The Broncos traded away picks for a new head coach after they were already short on picks because of the picks they traded to acquire a new quarterback last offseason. And they traded those picks away to hire a coach who looks to be somewhere between their second and third choice for the job. Payton is a great coach, and getting a great coach on your team is definitely a win. But we got to see the Broncos make this sausage, and it wasn’t pretty.

The scrutiny of the decision-making process has created conflicting reports. Minutes after NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport tweeted out his summary of the Broncos careening from one coaching candidate to the next, ESPN’s Adam Schefter came out with a completely contradictory report: one that insisted the Broncos had moved on from Ryans this past week and were completely focused on Payton.

Anytime a well-sourced reporter like Rap says, “Wow, these guys kinda messed up” and then, moments later, there’s a separate report from a second well-sourced reporter saying, “Actually, these guys didn’t mess up at all!” it’s a good sign that these guys really did mess up and are doing damage control. It is not hard to see that, while the Broncos might have ended up with a good coach, their process was poor. Trading picks for a good head coach is simply unnecessary—especially when that trade is unlikely to solve all of the problems with your team.

For this entire hiring cycle, the Broncos seemed absorbed in the idea of making a big, splashy move. With new ownership running the show, a hypercompetitive division, a quarterback in need of new life, and an extremely frustrated fan base, it was an understandable urge. But that fan base was frustrated for a reason. This is the second offseason in which the Broncos have looked to make a big splash, as they traded multiple future picks for Wilson in what quickly became one of the most spectacularly failed trades in league history. I’d call it a belly flop if not for the fact that belly flops still do make splashes—more accurately, the Broncos very publicly slipped off the ladder climbing up to the diving board.

The issues with this process create long-term concern for the health of the Broncos organization. They have no picks in the first or second rounds of this draft, and next year’s second-rounder now belongs to the Saints, too. They have a great coach now, yes—but that coach retired in New Orleans shortly after his longtime star quarterback did. Payton will be responsible either for revitalizing Wilson, who played such poor football last year that his teammates were visibly angry with him on the sideline, or for building up a new quarterback when the team moves on from Wilson. That new quarterbacking project will not be easy because of both the aforementioned lack of draft capital and the dead cap hit that would accompany Wilson’s release. The earliest semi-reasonable escape from Wilson’s contract is in 2024, when cutting him would incur a $35.4 million dead cap hit in 2024 and a whopping $49.6 million dead cap hit in 2025. That’s debilitating stuff for a team that has to try to retain all of its championship-ready talent, with few picks available to buttress the roster with cheap, quality rookies.

Denver is in a hole. If ownership believed that one perfect hire, one big splash, could catapult them out of the hole, they were on a wild goose chase. Payton’s as good a bet as any to get them out of the hole, but I’m not sure he can. The challenge of fixing Wilson, with all of the existing frustration among his teammates and his historic reticence to run the offense his coaches ask of him, is as difficult of a coaching job as there is in the NFL. This tough reality is likely part of the reason why the Broncos struggled to nail down coaches like Harbaugh and Ryans. Those candidates didn’t want to hitch their wagons to this horse.

If Payton manages to drag Wilson’s play from debilitating to mediocre, the Broncos do have a great roster around him that can enjoy some short-term, moderate success. But that still doesn’t pull the Broncos out of the hole—moderate success won’t do when you share a division with the Kansas City Chiefs. At this time last year, the Broncos considered themselves a true contender—even now, after hiring Payton, they are clearly far from that mark.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: Sean Payton is a great coach, and he’s now the head coach of the Denver Broncos. He may not have been their first choice, but hey, a lot of teams miss out on their first choice and are better off for it. The Broncos hired Nathaniel Hackett when they did so that the Jaguars wouldn’t steal him away—one year later, and the Broncos have fired Hackett, while the Jaguars’ consolation hire of Doug Pederson directly led to a playoff win. Payton might have cost multiple draft picks, but hey, so have several good coaches over the history of the NFL, and there aren’t many regretful buyers. He might cost $25 million, but hey, the Walmart family is footing the bill.

The context around the Broncos job was never going to be good. But by getting Payton into the building, the Broncos have made the hole a little smaller and the future a little brighter. Now, they can begin the long, arduous process of climbing up and out.

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