Denver has its new football coach. Can Sean Payton fix what ails Broncos Country?

Tony Gorman/CPR News
Sean Payton, center, who won a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints, is presented as the Denver Broncos’ new coach by the team’s ownership group on Monday, February 6, 2022.

Sean Payton has officially taken the reins of the Denver Broncos.

The Broncos’ owners, the Walton-Penner Group, introduced their new coach Monday during a press conference at the UCHealth Training Center in Centennial. 

Payton was head coach of the New Orleans Saints for more than a decade, winning a Super Bowl in the process. Payton left coaching after the 2021 season and spent last season as a TV analyst for Fox Sports’ NFL broadcasts. On Monday, he used a race track analogy to describe his decision to return to the sidelines — and his time in the TV booth.

“It was a little bit like that racetrack where you could smell the gasoline. You heard the cars running, you could see the lights, you knew you were there. It's hectic. It's loud. It's busy. It's noisy,” Payton said. “It's not always fun. There's challenging times, there's losses, there's wins. But, every day you'd look and you'd hear it, and you're thinking, ‘Man, I can't wait to get back.’”

The Denver Broncos also want to get back in the race — for a fourth Super Bowl win. The team has gone seven seasons without a playoff appearance. 

After firing Nathaniel Hackett before last season was over, the Broncos settled on Payton, but the coach was still under contract with his old team, so the two worked out a trade. The Broncos gave up their only first-round draft pick this year as well as a 2024 second-round pick to the New Orleans Saints to secure Payton’s services. The Saints also sent a 2024 third-round pick in return.

Broncos Owner and CEO Greg Penner led the coaching search. He admitted Monday that the sports world is different from the corporate world, but that he felt like he had found the perfect man for the job.

“We met with eight great candidates. We learned something in each of those meetings. So we came away from it feeling really good about the process,” Penner said. The most important thing is where we ended up and where we ended up is with the perfect coach for the Denver Broncos.”

Payton won 161 games in his 15 seasons with the Saints, losing 97 in return. He won the franchise’s only Super Bowl in 2009. His offenses were consistently ranked at the top of the NFL. Broncos fans will hope he can revitalize a struggling Denver side that has fallen on hard times following the retirement of former quarterback Peyton Manning. 

For his part, Payton said the ownership, front office, and the passionate fanbase is why he chose Denver after interviewing for several other head coaching jobs. 

Payton has the tall task of helping the Broncos rebound from a disappointing 2022 season. The team won just four times in 15 games under first-time head coach Hackett before the Broncos fired him. The season was marred by offensive and clock management woes. 

One of Payton’s first tasks is to try to get highly paid quarterback Russell Wilson to start performing like the perennial Pro-Bowler he was in Seattle before the Broncos traded for him last year. Not only did Denver give up a lot of draft capital to acquire Wilson, the team also recently handed him a 5-year contract worth nearly $250 million. Payton, who has coached against Wilson before, said he has faith the struggling play caller will get back on track.

“Here's what I know: I know he is a hard worker. I know he is an extremely hard worker. That's important. And, I think you take that, you understand the skillset,” Payton said. “It's easy to point out what players don't do well. And there's certain coaches that tend to look at it that way, but I was kind of taught early on, ‘Hey, what is it they do well? And let's have them do those things.’” 

Payton’s arrival to the Broncos is in contrast to when he arrived in New Orleans. He took over the Saints after Hurricane Katrina inundated the city. He built the organization — often synonymous with losing — into a winning culture.

Getting the Broncos back on track and winning again, just like he did in New Orleans, is one of Payton’ main goals.

“That's the fun part. That's why we do this. And so the banners and the trophies, and the media and the money, those all come with it,” Payton said. “Here's what happens when you win one: It's like you have that evening [to feel good]. And then the very next day, you get right back on the treadmill and you start chasing the chicken again. It begins again.”