DENVER — Snowflakes cascaded across Colorado on Tuesday night, their shape evolving on their journey to the Earth's surface.
It brought a reminder that no two snowflakes are the same. Neither are coaching candidates. But there are a pair that rank as the favorites for the Broncos' vacant position: Sean Payton and Dan Quinn.
The Broncos search committee, spearheaded by CEO Greg Penner, has interviewed six candidates with two talks left with San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans on Thursday night — of the first-time coaches interviewed, he profiles as the best in my opinion — and Dallas defensive boss Quinn on Friday afternoon.
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh is out. He called Penner on Monday morning and pulled his name from consideration. Did he do it because he was happy at Michigan, because he used the Broncos as leverage to get a new contract with the Wolverines or because he was growing impatient with the process, wanted too much power in Denver and thought he might not get the job? Regardless, Harbaugh, who would have been a good fit in Denver, is out.
That leaves Payton, Quinn, former Colts and Lions coach Jim Caldwell, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, ex-Stanford coach David Shaw, Broncos defensive boss Ejiro Evero and Ryans.
Payton is considered the top coach available, though the pursuit is complicated. For starters, if discussions advance, a team must trade for him because he's under contract with the Saints through 2024. Payton, with little modesty, said it will take a mid-to-late-first round pick, (and possibly more), for his services. The Broncos own the 49ers' first-round selection and entered this process with eyes wide open about the compensation parameters.
Secondly, Payton has leverage. Which raises the question: Are the Broncos competing with FOX Sports or the Panthers for the Super Bowl winning coach? Payton has made it clear that staying on FOX's pregame show remains an option if he's not comfortable with any of his choices.
So, when Payton met with Denver for several hours in a Los Angeles-area hotel on Tuesday, it is likely that the Broncos had to sell themselves to him as much as he had to sell himself to them. He is in a position of power. Will the Penner-Walton group, namely CEO Greg Penner, appeal to Payton? With the Saints, he worked for the Benson family. They, by all accounts, had his back, even during his one-year suspension in 2012 stemming from the NFL's bounty gate investigation. He worked well with the front office but had plenty of power without interference.
Will Payton trust Penner to give him control and stay out of the way regarding football decisions? Will Penner see Payton's demeanor as confidence or arrogance? And will Penner be open to Payton wanting his hand-picked general manager? When I appeared on WWL radio in New Orleans on Tuesday night, Bobby Hebert and Mike Detillier suggested Payton would want to bring former Bears GM and 14-year Saints executive Ryan Pace or Saints assistant GM Jeff Ireland with him. It's part of what makes this process a bit odd. Penner, Condoleezza Rice and GM George Paton are the primary components. How could Paton be expected to approve Payton if it makes him expendable?
Sources believe Payton would not be deterred by working with quarterback Russell Wilson, whose rebound next season is critical to the Broncos' returning to relevancy. While Payton's success is rooted in the dropback game of future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, he posted a 5-2 record with Jameis Winston and a 5-0 record with Teddy Bridgewater during different stretches with the Saints.
Payton is known as an adaptable, bright coach who will create an offensive identity. Denver clearly needs accountability after its 5-12 mess of a season, which marked its seventh straight without a playoff berth.
While it can be argued he should have had more success with Brees in their 14 years together, Payton's resume speaks for itself: a Super Bowl title, seven NFC South crowns, three NFC Conference Championship Game appearances and 152-89 regular season record and 9-8 postseason mark.
The Broncos' previous three head coaches — Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and Nathaniel Hackett — entered the job with no head coaching experience at any level. There was talk a few weeks ago that Payton would want Fangio as his defensive coordinator. Fangio has interviewed with the Panthers and talked with the Falcons on Wednesday about their DC job. I would humbly suggest Payton keep Evero if he comes to Denver, but I would totally understand if Evero wants to bolt after his best friend Nathaniel Hackett was fired and he was denied an opportunity to interview for the Falcons coordinator job this week.
In the end, the Broncos are strongly interested in Payton and have a decent shot to land him if he returns to the NFL.
He represents a huge upgrade. And price will not preclude a deal. According to reports, the Dolphins were prepared to give Payton a four-year, $100-million contract last offseason, a pursuit that led to tampering charges and the loss of a first-round draft pick. As such, could the Broncos' deal land in the six-year, $150 million range? Or longer?
According to The Washington Post's Mark Maske, Panthers owner David Tepper would give Payton "just about anything he wants to be the team's coach," per a source. While Wilson struggled through the worst season of his career, he has a history of success. The Panthers don't have certainty at quarterback despite finishing the year with a revitalized Sam Darnold. And would Payton want to work with Tepper, who has been known to meddle on the football side? Tepper is the second richest owner so the contract and draft compensation will not be hurdles for him.
Payton interviewed with the Texans and Broncos this week and is scheduled to talk with Tepper in New York City on Friday.
Can the Broncos ownership group sell Payton on the idea that the Broncos make more sense than FOX or any other team? According to Jeff Duncan of NOLA.com, Payton's interviews went well with the Broncos and Texans. And he was impressed with the Broncos group with Duncan writing, "(Payton) likes majority owner Rob Walton and the management team he has assembled in Denver."
If not Payton, Quinn makes a lot of sense. He led the Falcons to a Super Bowl, has a winning record as a head coach — 43-42 — and has spent the past two seasons turning a once awful Cowboys defense into one of the league's best. Quinn put on a masterclass against Tampa Bay, befuddling Tom Brady and snuffing out the run game.
Why would Quinn be different now after losing out as the runner-up to Hackett a year ago? The resume will be valued over the interview.
Quinn appears ready. However, he would have to convince Penner and Co. of his offensive plan, which could include Brian Schottenheimer or Darrell Bevell, both of whom had success with Wilson in Seattle. Could Quinn represent a player's coach — and he's been beloved by players — with enough discipline to shove the Broncos back on track?
In the end, if it's not Payton or Quinn — and I still believe it will be one of them as of now — Ryans represents the most appealing first-time head coach. A former standout player, he brings energy and edge and will likely land a job in this cycle. But the Broncos cannot afford to mess this up, making his lack of experience difficult to overcome.