Sean Payton Wasn’t The Denver Broncos’ First Choice: The Anatomy Of An NFL Coach Hiring And Its Spin | Glenn Guilbeau

Videos by OutKick

We may never know for sure until the book comes out.

And if that is made into a movie, it cannot be worse than “Home Team.” That was the 2022 Netflix film inspired by former New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton’s life during his 2012 NFL suspension for letting his players put bounties on opposing players from 2009-11.

And it may depend on who writes the book – Ian Rapoport of NFL Network or Adam Schefter of ESPN. Or maybe Payton himself. But it surely looks like Payton was not the Denver Broncos’ first choice to be their new head coach last week.


In fact, Payton may have been third behind Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh at No. 1 and San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans at No. 2.

Denver Broncos’ Coaching Search Saga

Harbaugh stayed at Michigan despite a widely reported (first by Schefter) and not-disputed story of a John Elway-like, two-minute offense attempt by Broncos brass just last week in Ann Arbor. That after Harbaugh had already taken his name out of consideration.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was believed to be Denver’s first target before hiring Sean Payton last week. (Getty Images)

Ryans accepted the Houston Texans head coaching on Tuesday a week ago (Jan. 31) after a slimly reported (first by Rapoport) and disputed story of a last-second Hail Mary by Denver on the same day it moved on Payton.

Rapoport has long been one of the best in his field, but the above tweet is what sounded more unbelievable.

And just 11 minutes later, Schefter, who is also among the best in his field, tweeted this:

That’s two extremely well-sourced reporters with two diametrically opposed stories – Denver talking to Ryans on that day as opposed to Denver not talking to Ryans on that same day or the day before.

“The Ryans ship had sailed,” one Denver Broncos writer at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, said that Tuesday night. “But DeMeco is going to be a great coach.”

Pretty timely coincidence, though, no?

And Schefter did get his start in Denver at the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. Was he helping his Broncos boys spin the narrative? Then again, when Rapoport was getting started at the Birmingham News, he had West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez becoming Alabama’s coach after the 2006 season. Never happened. Miami Dolphins’ coach Nick Saban got the job.

Full disclosure – I had Dave Aranda and Billy Napier as finalists for the LSU job in 2021. Neither was close.

Whom do you believe?

Denver ‘Locked In’ With Sean Payton More Than A Week Ago

At Payton’s introductory press conference in Denver on Feb. 6, a reporter asked Broncos CEO and Walmart chairman Greg Penner (grandson-in-law of Walmart founder Sam Walton) about Rapoport’s claim.

“Yeah, that wasn’t the case,” Penner said. “We met with a number of great candidates. But once we locked in with Sean about five or six days before we got the trade done with the Saints, our focus was entirely on him and closing that.”

That would fall in line with Payton wearing the Broncos’ orange tie on Sunday, Jan. 29, during his former gig as an analyst on FOX’s NFL coverage.

Will Sean Payton coach again? (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
New Denver Broncos coach Sean Payton won Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7, 2010, with a victory over the Indianapolis Colts. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“It did,” Payton said when asked if his wardrobe choice had something to do with him already having the Denver job. “It did. Some of you caught it.”

Denver Took Its Time With Interviews

Unlike all the other candidates for Denver, Payton came with a price. In addition to his salary of $18 million a year for five years that is second only to New England’s Bill Belichick, there were draft choices. Since Payton still had three years left on his contract when he “retired” from the Saints after the 2021 season, the team that hires him before the contract ends in 2024 had to first trade draft choices to his previous team.

The Broncos sent New Orleans a first-round pick (No. 29) in the upcoming draft and a second-round pick in 2024. The Saints sent a third-round pick in 2024.

Payton did interview face-to-face with Penner and general manager George Paton much more often than did Harbaugh or Ryans. But Denver sure took its time after Payton’s first interview on Jan. 17 and interviewed several others. Those included Harbaugh first on a Zoom before last week, Ryans, former Stanford coach David Shaw, former Atlanta coach Dan Quinn, former Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris, and former Detroit coach Jim Caldwell.

Sean Payton Trade And Hire ‘Complicated’

That could have been due diligence. Or, the Broncos knew they could get Payton, put him in their back pocket for later. Then they tried to get somebody else as good or almost as good – but without having to lose draft picks.

“I would just say Sean was more complicated than the others, obviously,” Paton said yesterday. “We would’ve had Sean done earlier if we didn’t have that other layer of the trade.”

OK, but why did you and Penner fly to Ann Arbor last week? Probably because Harbaugh, 59, is as good or better than Payton, 59, and you could’ve kept your draft picks, if Harbaugh had said yes. And Denver did just send its first- and second-round picks of 2022 and 2023 to Seattle for quarterback Russell Wilson in March of a year ago.


After the press conference yesterday on the side with a group of reporters, Payton was asked if he was the first choice.

“At a time, I probably wasn’t,” Payton said.

But by last Tuesday, he says he was No. 1.

“I think DeMeco was probably talking with Lewis Hamilton or something,” Payton cracked in reference to the seven-time Formula One champion driver who is part owner of the Broncos. “Because I was on the phone with these guys (Penner and Paton) the whole time (Tuesday).”

In the end, I’ll say Payton was No. 2 behind Harbaugh. The 38-year-old Ryans, a former Alabama linebacker, has coached defense his entire career. And Penner prioritized offense shortly after firing previous coach Nathaniel Hackett after one 5-12 season on Dec. 26. That was Denver’s sixth straight losing season.

Denver’s Dud Offense Needs Sean Payton

“We need an identity on offense,” Penner said.

They have that in a way. Denver finished last in the NFL in scoring last season with 16.9 points a game.

Wilson also badly needs to be rehabilitated to his former Seattle self. He had career lows in completion percentage (60.5), quarterback rating (184.4) and touchdown passes (16) last season. Harbaugh and Payton – particularly – can fix him. Ryans cannot.

Denver perhaps liked Harbaugh over Payton because of less baggage, and I’m not talking draft choices. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Payton for the entire 2012 season in an unprecedented move because Payton was warned multiple times to stop the bounties and didn’t. Payton had some immaturity and some rebel in him at the time. There were also reports of Vicodin misuse by Payton and his staff in 2010. He has since matured and is not as arrogant.

Sean Payton Will Be Best For Russell Wilson

When Wilson called Payton well before Payton had the job (whenever that was), Payton cut the call short as it could have been tampering.

“I’m the last person that needs to get in trouble with the league,” he said amid laughs.

So he delegated Wilson’s questions about the offense to former Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who has a home close to Wilson’s in Del Mar, California, near San Diego.

“And Drew was like, ‘Man, Russell is wearing me out,'” Payton said.

Yes, Wilson knows Payton will be best for him. Payton certainly turned around Brees’ career.

Sean Payton broncos
The Broncos hired Sean Payton after considering Jim Harbaugh and DeMeco Ryans. (Getty Images)

People who like to say Payton is overrated forget that. Yes, Payton found virtually all of his success in New Orleans with the first-ballot Hall of Famer Brees. They arrived in 2006. Brees left after 2020, Payton after 2021. But Brees was no any-ballot Hall of Famer at San Diego as its starter from 2002 through 2005. The most he ever threw for was 3,576 yards, and the Chargers wanted 2004 first round pick Philip Rivers to be their guy.

At New Orleans under the genius offenses of Payton, Brees threw for 5,000 yards or more an NFL-record five times and 4,500 yards or more an NFL-record eight times. Under Payton and Brees or Brees and Payton, the Saints finished in the top five in the NFL in scoring nine times and in the top five in total offense 10 times. That’s a lot of Orange in the end zone.

Payton also continued to win when Brees missed several games in the 2019 and ’20 seasons with thumb and multiple rib injuries, respectively. Backup Teddy Bridgewater went 5-0 in 2019 as the Saints won the NFC South at 13-3. They still finished 12-4 and won the division in 2020 with Brees a shell of himself with a weakening arm even when he was healthy. Payton expertly used versatile tight end, running back and special teams ace Taysom Hill as an ersatz quarterback with success.

Denver Liked The Sean Payton Consistency

Just one Super Bowl title in the 2009 season, but Payton was a consistent playoff contender with three berths in the NFC title game. And it would have been two Super Bowls without the worst call in NFL playoff history in the NFC title loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the 2018 season.

He was just 9-8 in the playoffs, but Payton reached the playoffs nine times from 2006 through 2020 and advanced seven times. His best team may have been in 2011 when the Saints went 13-3 with one of the most dangerous offenses in NFL history. The Saints’ 7,474 total yards that season is still the NFL record. Brees threw for a then-NFL record 5,476 yards, and back Darren Sproles set the mark for all-purpose yards with 2,696 that remains.

A narrow loss at San Francisco stopped New Orleans from hosting the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the dome for a second Super Bowl in three years, and the Saints owned the Giants at the time.

Through 15 seasons, Payton won 10 or more games nine times and was Coach of the Year in his first season in 2006 and in 2009. He inherited a 3-13 team from 2005 after Hurricane Katrina and took the Saints to a 10-6 finish and reached the NFC title game. The 16-3 Super Bowl title season of 2009 followed 7-9 and 8-8 marks. After three 7-9 seasons from 2014-16, Payton again rebounded to go 11-5, 13-3 twice and 12-4 with four straight NFC South titles and another NFC title game.

“The turnaround expectation was certainly helpful,” Penner said. “But for us, it was more around the fact that he put a winning football team on the field just about every year for 15 seasons. We called around, and it’s the attention to detail.”

Jim Harbaugh Has Impressive Credentials

Harbaugh won big at San Francisco quickly, too, turning around 6-10 team into a 13-3 power that reached the NFC title game in his first season in 2011. Then he went 11-4 and reached the Super Bowl before a 12-4 season and another NFC title berth. After an 8-8 season in 2014, he went to Michigan, where he reached the College Football Playoffs the last two years.

But he doesn’t have as much NFL winning and turnaround experience as Payton over the long haul.

“It was like getting a PH.D. in football,” Saints offensive assistant Declan Doyle said after a Senior Bowl practice last week about coaching under Payton. “It’s like going to Harvard for football. I got exposed to the highest level of scheme, the highest level of coaching detail. It changed my life is what it did.”

Not first choice, but from what was out there and what has been out there in recent years, Payton is the best NFL hire … since the Saints hired Sean Payton on Jan. 18, 2006.

“In the end, it worked out exactly as I had hoped, and I think exactly as the Broncos ownership had hoped,” Penner said.

Well, not exactly.

But Payton is certainly a sexy bridesmaid hire.

“Look, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I was the first choice or not, I got the job,” Payton said. “In a nutshell, it’s who gets the job in the end.”

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply