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After no deal with Harbaugh, Broncos' 'big' move should be to hire Sean Payton

Payton boasts Super Bowl ring, seven division crowns, history of great offenses
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Posted at 6:56 PM, Jan 30, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-31 11:38:00-05

DENVER — The Broncos' coaching search remains methodical, deliberate, and unpredictable.

The secrecy of not announcing interviews or follow-up discussions with candidates has made it unlike previous pursuits that lived organically through media leaks and social media posts.

Three weeks since the season ended, the Broncos do not have a coach, but seem remarkably comfortable where they stand in the process. And multiple sources insist they are poised to make a major move.

With time to digest the moving parts after countless phone calls and texts, it's time to take stock. The Broncos have interviewed eight candidates — nine if you count interim Jerry Rosburg's exit discussion.

As names slowly trickled out, experience was a common theme save for the brief lean towards 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans last Thursday before he shifted his preference to Houston. What I tweeted with belief on Saturday proved correct as Denver's owners traveled to Ann Arbor to talk in person with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

Whether there was an offer or not last Monday — I am not certain — they left without a deal.

So where does it stand? As of Monday night, the Broncos have not widened their search, and they made no requests to interview candidates even as other teams pursued Eagles defensive boss Jonathan Gannon, Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and Giants offensive boss Mike Kafka.

What does this say? I believe the Broncos next coach will come from the initial list. If the Broncos are going to "swing big," as ESPN's Adam Schefter said on Pat McAfee's show Monday, and go for a "big, big, big candidate," as NFL Network's Ian Rapoport said on 850 KOA, one name stands out: former New Orleans coach Sean Payton.

Dan Quinn announced last week he was staying in Dallas because of "unfinished business." Harbaugh took a second meeting with the Broncos in Ann Arbor, showing mutual interest even after the school president said he was staying at Michigan several days prior. It left the door slightly ajar, but again, no deal was struck.

That brings me back to the name that fits with where we are now in this search: Sean Payton.

Payton boasts the best resume, and aligns with CEO Greg Penner's stated desire to have a coach who creates a culture, accountability, discipline, and an offensive identity. Landing Payton requires a trade, likely costing a first-round pick and potentially a third or better.

However, Payton won a Super Bowl, seven division crowns in 15 seasons in New Orleans, and his offense routinely ranked in the top 10 in scoring. There's no one like him on this list, meaning with Harbaugh not budging, Payton is the one coach left who fits the "big swing" mantra.

I wrote and discussed on air earlier in the process that it seemed like it was the Broncos or FOX for Payton. Payton, 59, hinted of an upcoming resolution on FOX's Sunday pregame show.

“I think in the next week we’re going to know a lot more... There’s a handful of things that still are taking place for these coaches, and myself. It’s been a busy week, a great week,” said Payton, who also interviewed in person with Carolina, though the Panthers hired Frank Reich.

“We’ve had a chance to visit with a lot of great owners, a lot of outstanding organizations. They’re obviously looking for a reboot. I think with the way the coaching hiring process has changed this year, we’re seeing it play out a little longer for these clubs. And I think there’s more pressure on everyone who’s covering it. And I think it’s a good thing because they’re allowing teams to get to the right candidates."

It's been an eyebrow-raising pursuit because of mixed media messages. Payton described his initial Broncos meeting on Jan. 17 — where he was interviewing ownership as much as they were interviewing him — as great, showing appreciation for the ownership group.

Then, Washington Post reporter Mark Maske reported Payton had issue with a controlling owner regarding a "power struggle," something Payton quote tweeted and denied, calling Broncos ownership "fantastic!" National radio host Colin Cowherd, who had been pushing the connection between Payton and the Broncos and is friendly with Payton, opined that it didn't make sense because of quarterback Russell Wilson.

Still, the door on Payton has never closed in Denver, even without a known second interview.

Also, there's been no talk of former Lions and Colts coach Jim Caldwell, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris or former Stanford boss David Shaw gaining momentum. This search has a never-say-never quality to it, but nothing about their resumes suggests a big quality.

That's why, for me, it comes back to Sean Payton.

Yes, the Harbaugh rekindling was fascinating. Maybe he took the second interview with the Broncos because of his relationship with the Penners, the siren call of the NFL or simply contract leverage. Yet, the Broncos left without an agreement. The Broncos do not appear to be competing with any team for Payton, only a TV network. He interviewed for Carolina, a job landed by Frank Reich, and Arizona, where Brian Flores remains the favorite and the team requested interviews Monday with Callahan and Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.

With teeth grinding, Broncos Country remembers that Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and Hackett were first-time head coaches. While first-time hires have worked recently with the Giants, Vikings, and, most notably the Eagles, they were disasters in Denver. The Broncos' past three coaches posted a 35-63 record, including a 5-16 mark in their past 21 games. In Payton's last six years coaching, as said in my Renck&File report two weeks ago, he went 65-32.

Penner can still conceivably hit a home run with this hire.

When I look at where the search stands and the desire for a big swing, I suggest the Broncos hire Sean Payton.