DENVER — When the Broncos bathed in confetti at Levi's Stadium, they never imagined their next step would be off a cliff.
Denver is looking for its fifth coach since winning Super Bowl 50 following the health exit of Gary Kubiak and the firings of Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and Nathaniel Hackett. The last three shared a common trait — all were first-time head coaches.
So as Broncos CEO Greg Penner aggressively spearheads this coaching search, experience remains important as he swings for the fence. The Broncos have received permission to speak with Sean Payton for their coaching vacancy, something the coach confirmed on Fox Sports on Sunday morning.
Payton cannot be interviewed in person until Jan. 17 per an NFL ruling, and Denver has decided to wait until then. Last week, the Broncos made it known they are interested in talking with Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who is expected to conduct a virtual interview with the Broncos this week.
Payton said Sunday on the Fox pregame show that the Broncos were the first team to reach out to him.
"I was able to have a conversation with their owner," Payton said. "The interview process cannot begin until the 17th so that's where it's at."
Denver7 reported two weeks ago that Payton, Harbaugh and Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn would be top targets for Denver. All have reached the Super Bowl with Payton winning Super Bowl XLIV over the Colts following the 2009 season.
In-house candidate Ejiro Evero, the team's terrific defensive coordinator, will interview in person with the Broncos this week, making him first, followed by Harbaugh.
Payton boasts a 152-89 record in 15 seasons. His playoff record is 9-8. The Saints reached the postseason nine times under Payton, including four of his final five seasons.
Payton stepped away after last season, but is not a free agent because he remains under contract with the Saints through the 2024 season. It means landing him will take draft pick compensation — likely a first and a third-rounder? — and likely a monster contract. If the Broncos are willing to hypothetically offer a 10-year, $200 million deal to Payton, they would be taking a long-term view, meaning the draft picks would likely not be viewed as a dealbreaker. The Broncos' possess the 49ers' first-round pick, acquired from Miami in the Bradley Chubb trade, but no second-round pick because of the Russell Wilson acquisition.
There is a thin history of teams trading for coaches dating back to Don Shula, Jon Gruden and Bruce Arians.
Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees served as Payton's quarterback for 14 of his 15 seasons in New Orleans, something likely not lost on Penner and his search committee — GM George Payton, Carrie Walton-Penner and Condoleezza Rice among others — as the Broncos look to revive Wilson after his regression to career lows in 2022. Payton won 144 games with Brees, tied for the second most among a quarterback and coach duo in NFL history.
Payton was asked if the quarterback position was "everything" to him regarding his next NFL stop?
"I love my job here (at Fox Sports). The roster here is pretty good," Payton said. "I have a lot of pieces here. It's really about the triangular relationship — ownership, front office, and coach. When we went to New Orleans — and I say we because there were a lot of people involved — the quarterback position was unsettled at that time. I think ownership and the functionality of the front office are the most important."
Payton is considered the top target on the market after spending this past season working as a studio analyst for Fox Sports. The 59-year-old has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Arizona Cardinals, who are expected to move on from Kliff Kingsbury, and the Los Angeles teams if Sean McVay retires or if the Chargers move on from Brandon Staley, though that is less likely since they qualified for the postseason. The Dolphins had previous interest in Payton with a reported four-year, $100 million offer, but it's unlikely Miami rekindles interest with Mike McDaniel guiding the team to the playoffs in his first season.
Earlier this week reports surfaced that the Carolina Panthers spoke with Harbaugh, though not as a formal interview. Harbaugh issued a statement saying he expected to return to Michigan for the 2023 season, but admitted he did not know what the future holds. Harbaugh has a history of executing turnarounds, something needed for the Broncos who have missed the playoffs seven straight years — the second longest active drought to the Jets — and posted six consecutive losing seasons. The Panthers and Colts also will likely pursue Harbaugh.
Harbaugh delivered at the University of San Diego, Stanford and went 44-19-1 in San Francisco with three playoff berths in four seasons. He owns a 74-25 record at Michigan, including back-to-back berths in the college football playoff. Multiple former Michigan players who played for Harbaugh told Denver7 this weekend that they believe Harbaugh will win in his return to the pros if he elects to move on. Harbaugh carries a Stanford connection shared by the Penners and Rice.
Other possibilities could include San Francisco's DeMeco Ryans, Rams assistant coach Thomas Brown and former Stanford coach David Shaw.
A quick rundown of those candidates:
Evero: In his first year as a defensive boss, Evero has shined. He took Fangio's scheme and gave it fangs. The Broncos have been proficient on third down, in the red zone and produced 21 takeaways. Evero said this week he desires to be a head coach. "You never know if you are ready until you do it."
Ryans: The 49ers defense is gnarly, almost impossible to run on, while featuring the NFL sacks leader in Nick Bosa (17.5), who is the favored candidate for Defensive Player of The Year honors. Ryans brings energy and is beloved by players.
Brown: When looking for coaches, the Rams operation draws immediate interest. Brown was promoted to assistant head coach for a reason. He's considered a tremendous leader in a league where a head coach needs to be a CEO. Brown is known as a strong communicator. He interviewed with the Dolphins and Vikings a year ago.
Shaw: The former Stanford coach was a hot candidate a few years ago, but NFL interest cooled as his team spiraled. Shaw is known for his physical teams on both sides of the ball. The Penners and Rice also have strong Stanford connections.