DENVER — Sixteen days. Eleven interviews. Ten in person. One at UCHealth Training Center.
In his search for the Broncos' fourth coach in seven years, general manager George Paton promised this road map.
"We are going to be thorough," he told the Broncos website. "We are not going to be rushed."
No cycle has moved slower in filling vacancies in recent NFL memory. With New Orleans' Sean Payton stepping down Tuesday, nine jobs sit open. Byron Leftwich has been characterized as the favorite to secure the Jacksonville post. Or will Nathaniel Hackett swoop in and land that job? He is a finalist and will interview Thursday in Jacksonville.
Will that domino falling accelerate the process across the board?
The Broncos believe they are in a good position. They met for nine hours with Hackett, the Green Bay offensive coordinator, on Monday in Englewood, introducing him to several department heads, while touring the facility and going to dinner.
Hackett impressed in his first four-hour discussion in Green Bay, leaving him squarely in the mix for the position, especially if the Broncos decide an offensive play caller — one who knows Aaron Rodgers well — is the tiebreaker. However, he did not walk away with a contract, and now might have options.
Cowboys defensive boss Dan Quinn and Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell represent the other two finalists. Quinn is expected to travel to Denver for a second interview, but the date has not been finalized. It will not be Wednesday as he is interviewing for a second time with the Chicago Bears, and the the first time with new GM Ryan Poles.
Quinn is the lone candidate with previous head coaching experience, something Paton did not prioritize. Paton knows Quinn, having worked with him for two years in Miami from 2005-2006. Quinn owns a 43-42 career record, two playoff berths and a Super Bowl appearance. He draws praise from current and former players because of his ways to connect, listen and care. He also had strong offenses in Atlanta, but they suffered after Kyle Shanahan departed for the 49ers.
Quinn. 51, has been the most in-demand candidate, receiving interest from the Dolphins, Giants, Vikings and Bears.
O'Connell, 36, represents the youngest candidate and brings intrigue. He has found traction under Rams coach Sean McVay the past two seasons, deemed so valuable that McVay blocked him from interviewing for the Chargers OC job a year ago. The Broncos cannot talk to O'Connell a second time until after the NFC Championship Game on Sunday. O'Connell began as an NFL player, drawing praise as a third-string quarterback for his ability to dissect defenses and help formulate ways to attack opponents, like the Patriots.
O'Connell met Paton at past NFL combines and has a connection with Darren Mougey, the Broncos director of player of personnel. They were both quarterbacks at San Diego State, and O'Connell won the job. Mougey switched to receiver, and in 2007, caught 32 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns from O'Connell.
Paton has not wavered from the importance of this decision. The Broncos desperately need stability, if not a jolt of energy, from the new coach. Paton wants a leader who can empower, inspire and create an identity. He also added that he wants a "smart (bleeping) coach."
Hackett brings a high football IQ, having grown up around the game with his father Paul a longtime NFL and college coach. Hackett's connection to Rodgers raises eyebrows in Denver since the Broncos have used 11 starting quarterbacks since Peyton Manning retired and posted five straight losing seasons.
Following his playoff exit, Rodgers said during his weekly appearance on the Pat McAfee Show that everything remains on the table — retirement, staying in Green Bay or a trade request. He indicated he would make it sooner than last year, likely making a decision before free agency begins on March 16 or the deadline for the franchise tag on March 8, which applies to his favorite receiver Davante Adams.
"I'd like to be respectful of the organization," Rodgers said. "One decision that will be upcoming will be obviously Davante and his future with the team. There still is this thing called a franchise tag, which I don't think '17' wants the franchise. I think that should be enough time to make a decision by then. I don't want to put myself on a specific date, but I do want to be sensitive to Davante and many other guys who have decisions to make on their own futures. To drag it out past free agency would be disrespectful to the organization and to those guys, and that 100 percent will not happen."
Would Hackett help lure Rodgers in a trade that could demand something like three first-round picks, a second and a player — or two first-rounders and a pair of second-rounders and a tight end or a receiver?
It obviously would not hurt as Rodgers knows Hackett well — he has said in the past that no coach brings "more joy" to the game — and his system. However, the prospect of landing Rodgers would not be the reason for the Broncos' hiring Hackett. That would be on his merit, given that he cannot guarantee Rodgers' joins him.
As for the Broncos, there's no deadline to find a new coach, but a decision is growing closer and should accelerate as vacancies fill.