As the Denver Broncos’ search for a head coach grinds into its second week, one name stands out above the rest.
The 59-year-old coach has a resume that no other candidate competes with; 15 seasons of experience as an NFL head coach, a Super Bowl ring, and an AP NFL Coach of the Year Award. If he returns to the NFL, Payton will rank sixth among active coaches in both wins and winning percentage with a 152-89 record during his decade-and-a-half with the New Orleans Saints. He’d be one of 10 active coaches with a winning record in the postseason, pending the results of the rest of the playoffs.
The Broncos’ ownership group clearly stated when the search for the organization’s 19th head coach began that it wasn’t looking for somebody who only focuses on one side of the ball. They want an experienced leader who can build a successful team through all three phases of the game, not just next year but for the foreseeable future.
To build a successful team in Denver next season, the top of the to-do list is obvious: fix the NFL’s worst offense.
And Payton could be the perfect man for that job.
Why could Payton “fix” Russell Wilson?
Prior to joining the Broncos in 2022, Russell Wilson, 34, had appeared in nine Pro Bowls in 10 NFL seasons and had the fourth-best win percentage for a quarterback in NFL history. In his first season in Denver, he set career worsts in most statistical categories, including passer rating, touchdowns and completion percentage.
Broncos general manager George Paton told reporters last month that he believes Wilson is “fixable.” While that won’t be the sole priority of the next head coach, Sean Payton may have the best chance at success.
Payton built his reputation as a quarterback whisperer.
Kerry Collins played quarterback in the NFL for 17 seasons, and Payton was his offensive coordinator for three years starting in 2000. Three of Collins’ four most productive seasons by passing yards were under Payton, and three of his five best seasons by completion percentage and touchdowns were under Payton.
In 2003, Payton joined the Cowboys as quarterbacks coach and assistant head coach. Undrafted rookie quarterback Tony Romo joined the team at the same time. By the time Payton left to become head coach of the Saints, Romo was ready to take over as the Cowboys’ starter for the next decade.
With the Saints, Payton ran one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL over 15 seasons. They led the NFL in scoring over the course of his tenure. His offenses finished in the top five of scoring nine times and led the league in total yards six times. His quarterback for 14 of those seasons was future Hall of Famer Drew Brees.
When Brees arrived in New Orleans, he had five years of NFL experience, one Pro Bowl appearance and a career 84.4 passer rating under his belt. For reference, Brian Griese posted an 84.1 passer rating during his five seasons as a Bronco.
In New Orleans, Brees led the NFL in passing yards seven times, touchdowns four times, completion percentage six times and quarterback rating twice. His passer rating as a Saint: 101.5.
Brees and Wilson play dissimilar brands of football, but they have one thing in common: Wilson (5-foot-11) and Brees (6-foot) are among the four shortest quarterbacks ever to win a Super Bowl.
There’s no guarantee Payton can turn Wilson back into a top-five NFL passer, but he’s probably the best option available.
How would Sean Payton “fix” Russell Wilson?
The Sean Payton offense is unlike any other.
Payton’s first NFL job was as the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach in 1997 when Jon Gruden was the offensive coordinator. Gruden became the most influential coach on Payton schematicallys, as he introduced him to the West Coast offense.
Twenty-five years later, Payton’s version of the West Coast scheme is unique. He uses West Coast staples to stretch the defense horizontally and build a quick passing game that methodically works its way down the field, but his goal is to create and exploit mismatches.
Under Payton, the Saints used numerous personnel groupings. In 2019, they led the NFL with 10.53 different personnel packages per game, according to Next Gen Stats. The idea is to feel out how the defense will defend various looks and then pick out the best matchups.
For example, if Payton was in Denver, he might put Albert Okwuegbunam on the field to see how the defense defends him. Do they account for him with a linebacker, safety or cornerback when he’s split wide? What about when they also have a running back split wide? Or when there are no wide receivers on the field? Or when Okwuegbunam is in tight next to the tackle?
What if the Broncos put four wide receivers on the field with a running back in the backfield? Would the defense respond with five cornerbacks, leaving a light box to run against? Or would they only play three cornerbacks and leave a couple of linebackers on the field to defend against the run, allowing the Broncos to find a wide receiver matched up against a linebacker or safety?
Defenses have rules. Typically, they’ll match 11 personnel with a nickel defense and 12 personnel with a base defense. But by combining different skill position players, each of them with their own strengths and weaknesses, Payton’s offense can test out how the opponent will structure its defense and then pick its favorite combinations for the rest of the game.
And Payton’s offenses make their changes quickly.
The Saints’ offense was typically one of the most fast-paced in the league under Payton. They hurry up to the line of scrimmage and rotate personnel at high speed, giving the defense little time to decide who to play.
Payton’s running backs typically have excellent receiving chops. They often run similar routes to the tight ends and wide receivers. Think Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles and Alvin Kamara. Line a linebacker up across from one of those three and the back will smoke him in the passing game. Line a defensive back up across from him and the running game will have a significant advantage.
Payton’s tight ends are typically athletic weapons who can stretch the seam and clear out space in the middle of the field for running backs and receivers to work. Think Jimmy Graham, Jeremy Shockey and Taysom Hill.
Payton’s top receiving threat is typically a big-bodied possession receiver who can win the one-on-one matchups that Payton creates for him and keep the offense on schedule. Think Marques Colston and Michael Thomas.
So where does all of that leave Russell Wilson?
The West Coast scheme, which is still the basis for the Payton offense despite being covered in layers and layers of other ideas, is a quarterback-intensive system. The pre-snap reads are crucial. The post-snap reads need to be made quickly.
Wilson struggled in a Shanahan version of the West Coast offense in 2022, but the Payton version would fit him slightly better, at least in theory. The “matchup hunting” portion of the scheme is simpler to process. The terminology could stay similar, too, though that is tough to say for sure.
We’ve seen Payton cater his offense to his talent before, carving out roles that fit the strengths of even the fourth and fifth receivers on the roster, but the constant was Drew Brees. He was the engine that made the system work. He was the point guard. In Denver, Payton may need to cater the offense to the quarterback more than he needs to cater it to the rest of his talent, which would be a new challenge.
Wilson is at his best when he rolls out off of play-action and looks for the long ball. Deep shots are a crucial piece of what the Saints did under Payton, but in the final year of the Payton-Brees pairing the Saints ran the third-fewest play-action passing plays in the NFL. Is avoiding play-action at the core of Payton’s identity? Or did he not use play-action to better suit Brees, meaning he’d likely add more to fit Wilson?
Wilson, historically, has been at his worst when throwing the ball short over the middle of the field. Brees was at his best when he was working the middle. Was clearing space in the middle for Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara to catch balls and turn upfield a core piece of the Payton offense? Or did Payton build the offense that way to fit Brees?
Was Wilson a bad passer when targeting the middle of the field because of his own lack of ability? Or were the offenses around him not built to create advantages in that area of the field, like Payton’s have been?
Plenty of questions about what a Payton-Wilson offense would look like exist. But we have a hint at some of the answers.
In October, after the Broncos’ 2-2 start to the season, Payton made an appearance on The Herd with Colin Cowherd to explain how he would jumpstart Wilson.
In short, he would look back through the 30 best plays of Wilson’s career and find a way to incorporate them into the offense. He would also look at what worked for Wilson in the red zone and make sure those concepts are also included in the playbook.
The mystery doesn’t disappear because of this answer, but it’s a strong sign that the Payton offense would take a hard turn toward what Wilson does best, rather than being copied and pasted from New Orleans.
What could go wrong?
Let’s take a look at the blemishes on Sean Payton’s resume…
- He only made it past the second round of the playoffs once in 11 seasons after winning the Super Bowl.
- He missed the playoffs six times in 15 seasons.
- He “retired” for a season after a 9-8 campaign in his first year without Brees, as the Saints faced a waterfall of salary cap concerns.
- He failed to stop a bounty system implemented by his defensive coordinator, which rewarded players for injuring opponents. He was suspended for the 2012 season.
Bountygate is a unique knock for a candidate and it’s tough to weigh. To each their own.
The knocks against his success are fairly valid—he doesn’t have a Mike Tomlin-like streak of never finishing with a losing record or an 11-year playoff streak like Bill Belichick—but it’s worth noting that Payton is the only head coach candidate available who has won a Super Bowl or made the playoffs at the rate he did. Plus, New Orleans is a tough place to win. The Saints posted two winning records in the 13 seasons before Payton’s arrival.
Walking away from a struggling Saints team isn’t a good look, but it isn’t worth knocking him out of the search over. If the Broncos struggle and Payton decides to walk, that isn’t the end of the world. If the Broncos are struggling, a good portion of the fanbase will probably be calling for his head anyway. Plus, he gave 16 years to the Saints. Only three coaches in the Super Bowl Era have had a longer stretch with one team. Sometimes when it’s time to move on, it’s time to move on.
The biggest problem: the Broncos will probably need to give the Saints compensation to be able to hire Payton, since Payton still had a few years left on his contract in New Orleans. Some reports indicate a first-round pick will be the bill for Payton’s rights. Others suggest as much as two first-round picks. In NFL terms, that’s a big price tag.
Is Payton worth the cost? It’s tough to say. But if he can turn Russell Wilson around for a half-decade, that would be tough to pass up.