Fann: Dissecting Broncos getting Sean Payton to coach Russell Wilson

Jan 31, 2023, 3:47 PM | Updated: Feb 1, 2023, 11:23 am
Seahawks Broncos Russell Wilson...
Broncos QB Russell Wilson in action against the Seahawks at Lumen Field on Sep. 12, 2022. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Denver Broncos have had a bizarre search for a new head coach to lead quarterback Russell Wilson and the team, with the twists and turns reaching a crescendo just prior to the franchise landing Sean Payton on Tuesday afternoon.

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According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport, Denver chased Jim Harbaugh, who stayed at Michigan, and then made multiple pushes for DeMeco Ryans, who agreed to become the Texans new coach prior to the announcement of the blockbuster deal with the Saints for the rights to sign Payton.

Denver gave up a 2023 first-round pick (No. 29 overall) that was acquired from Miami in its deadline trade that sent Bradley Chubb to the Dolphins as well as a 2024 second-round pick. The Broncos will receive a 2024 third-round pick from New Orleans in the deal.

That means the Broncos have now traded three first-round picks and three second-rounders for the duo of Wilson and Payton, including two each to the Seahawks. It’s an immense cost that will leave the franchise hamstrung when it comes to short-term roster building.

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For Payton, taking the job comes with an unusual combination of both risk and job security. He’ll be tasked with fixing Russell Wilson, who had an abysmal 2022 season under then-coach Nathaniel Hackett with just 3,524 yards and 16 touchdowns in 15 games. His 84.4 QB rating and 37.0 QBR were each easily the lowest totals of his career.

To Wilson’s credit, he was dealing with a variety of injuries, most notably to the lat in his right shoulder. His most notable weapons and offensive linemen also dealt with injuries. But there’s no denying his immense and puzzling struggles as he looked like a shell of himself for a vast majority of the season. Wilson had trouble seeing the field and exhibited very little burst when escaping the pocket in order to extend plays.

Payton’s primary objective will be to see if he can get Wilson to regain some of his swagger. But unlike Hackett, it will be Payton who outlasts Wilson if things continue to go south. Payton will come to Denver with minimal expectations given how poorly things went in 2022. If Wilson’s play remains egregious, the Broncos will likely make him a post-June 1 cut in 2024 and eat $35.4 million in dead money.

Wilson’s albatross of a contract coupled with a lack of immediate early-round draft capital has Payton playing with house money for at least the first two years of his time in Denver. His own contract is sure to be a king’s ransom given the uphill battle he faces with the Broncos. The terms of that deal are reportedly agreed to despite not yet being made public at the time of publication.

Payton spent 15 years as the Saints head coach from 2006-21 prior to stepping away from football last season. He accumulated a record of 152-89, won one Super Bowl and was named AP Coach of the Year in 2006. New Orleans retaining his rights added a unique wrinkle to any team seeking to hire him this winter. It ultimately ended up being the Broncos who deemed it worthy to send a pair of valuable draft picks to the Saints in addition to having to agree to a hefty contract with Payton.

Surely the next few months will be filled with reports of a ‘kumbaya’ relationship between Wilson and Payton. Those will likely continue into August where Broncos fans will be filled with hope that Payton has worked his magic on the embattled QB. But there will be no patience in Denver for Wilson’s poor play if he comes out of the gates slow in 2023.

And that’s something Payton knows he won’t have to worry about when it comes to his longevity as the Broncos head coach.

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