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How Sean Payton will toughen up the Denver Broncos

Henry Chisholm Avatar
March 29, 2023

Sean Payton knew he wanted to get back into coaching halfway through last season.

“Alright that’s enough of this quiet time,” he remembers thinking. “We’re kind of conditioned with itineraries and schedules. When all of that stops, there’s a little bit of a void.”

Payton’s plan was always to return to coaching after he stepped away from the Saints following the 2021 season. The pain of losing was stronger than the joy of winning. He wanted to spend more time with his kids. He wanted to try his hand working on the broadcast side of football.

“I played plenty of golf,” Payton said. “I knew I wanted to come back this season.”

Now that Payton is back, don’t expect his 12-month mini-retirement to change his outlook on football.

Payton and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick are the final two head coaches in the NFL who coached under Bill Parcells. The Parcells coaching tree is known for coaching hard. They aren’t scared to ruffle players’ feathers if they think it will help the team.

Hard coaching will be a big change from the previous regime. Last fall, Broncos veterans were given plenty of days off from training camp. They never tackled to the ground on the practice field.

“We’re playing tackle football, and you have to practice tackle football,” Payton said.

Last year, the Broncos’ coaching staff emphasized maintaining health. Only one of the team’s starters, right guard Quinn Meinerz, played in the preseason and that’s because he specifically asked to play a series.

This year, the Broncos will take a new philosophy.

“We are going to play all of them,” Payton said. “In the preseason? Absolutely we are. That’s the preseason.”

That’s an old-school approach, as most of the league is trending toward less work for important players before the season, in an effort to avoid injuries. The Broncos, the most injured team in the NFL last season and one of the most injured over the past half-decade, are making a bold decision to fly in the face of the league-wide trend, but following along didn’t help either.

But more contact before the season is only one part of the plan to fix the injury problem.

“Typically, when you have the season that went like it did last year, there’s a lot of people with dirt on their hands,” Payton said of the injury situation. “It’s not just one thing.”

The Broncos invested heavily this offseasons in staff that could help to turn the bad injury luck around. The big move was hiring Beau Lowery to be the team’s Vice President of Player Health & Performance. He’ll oversee athletic training, strength and conditioning, nutrition and sports science. He’d worked under Payton for five seasons in New Orleans.

“It’s hard in our league,” Payton said. “The training room is one of those rooms where it’s hard—the grass is always greener. For a period of five, six, seven years there, I’ve watched it flip with him and the trust of the players and getting treatment.”

The Broncos have a plan to fix the injury problem, but the solution will have other benefits. More physicality in the month leading up to the season should, at least in theory, produce a more physical football team. Given the money the Broncos spent on its offensive line this offseason—nearly $130 million—it’s safe to say they wanted to improve in that regard.

Payton gave a simple answer whether improving the running game was a goal this offseason.


And the importance of a physical running game?

“I’m in favor of it.”

The exact path Sean Payton has laid out for the Broncos is still up in the air, but the general direction is clear: he wants to build a team in his image, and that means callousing them.

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