The Broncos have parted ways with the last remaining member of their Super Bowl 50-winning team. Kicker Brandon McManusrevealed (on Twitter) that he has been released. He will be designated a post-June 1 cut, per a team announcement.
The 31-year-old added “more to come in the following days” to his announcement, which could point to a new contract coming together in the near future. That would come as no surprise, since he represents arguably the top available option at the position at this point in the offseason. As a result, a number of teams should be expected to show considerable interest in him.
By releasing McManus with the post-June 1 designation, the Broncos will save $3.75MM this season and $3.95MM in 2024. No guranteed money remained on his contract, but this move still constitutes a surprise considering the former UDFA’s status as one of the league’s more productive kickers. After four consecutive seasons with a field goal percentage rate of at least 80%, McManus’ accuracy did drop to 77.8% in 2022, however.
The Temple alum ranks second in franchise history in terms of both total points and career field goal percentage. His nine-year stint in the Mile High City also ranks second, behind only Jason Elam. McManus will likely be best remembered for his play during Denver’s Super Bowl run in 2015. He went 10-for-10 on field goals during that postseason, converting all three extra point tries as well.
Given his track record, he should have multiple offers within a quick span. The Cowboys have been public about their desire to add a veteran at the kicker position, which should make them a team to watch in McManus’ free agent period. He will be joined on the open market by the likes of Robbie Gould, Mason Crosbyand Ryan Succop. The Broncos, meanwhile, now no longer have a kicker on their 90-man roster.
“Developing into one of the NFL’s most productive kickers, Brandon made so many clutch kicks for this franchise over the years as a Super Bowl champion and team captain,” a statement from Broncos GM George Paton reads in part. “He will always hold a special place in Denver Broncos history. We thank Brandon for all he did for the Broncos, and we wish him and his family the very best in the future.”
This alleged request came weeks before the Seahawks decided to trade Wilson to the Broncos. Wilson denied (via Twitter) he asked for the Seattle HC and GM’s firings, and a lawyer for the QB described that assertion as “entirely fabricated.”
Wilson-Carroll disagreements about the direction of the Seahawks took place ahead of the QB’s 2021 trade destination list surfacing, and after the 2022 trade, reports indicating the NFC West team viewed its former franchise passer as declining came out. A shockingly mediocre Wilson season commenced in Denver. His partnership with Nathaniel Hackett proved a poor fit, and Hackett became the third first-year HC since the 1970 merger to be fired before season’s end.
The previously referenced Latavius Murraytext message to his former coach occurred just before the Broncos’ Christmas blowout loss to the Rams. Payton had said Murray texted him about he and a backfield teammate wanting him in Denver, with the veteran running back confirming Wilson was the teammate. Murray sent the text Dec. 23, per The Athletic. The Broncos fired Hackett on Dec. 26, following a 51-14 loss to the Rams. No accusation is made of Wilson wanting Hackett to go, but that relationship had long trended in that direction. During the Broncos’ coaching search, Wilson reached out to Payton.
Payton soon put the kibosh on Wilson’s team having full access to Denver’s facility, but Paton allowed Wilson’s personal coach (Jake Heaps), a physical therapist and a nutritionist such privileges last year. Heaps had partial access to the Seahawks’ facility, per The Athletic, and Wilson did not have an office there. Wilson agreed to stop using the office and to keep his support staff out of the building over the season’s final two weeks.
Wilson organized weekly meetings for Denver’s offense during the players’ Tuesday off day, and The Athletic notes Heaps was part of those summits, which were aimed around preparing for the next opponent. An anonymous coach also said he did not agree with the evaluations Wilson and Heaps made on scouting reports distributed on Tuesdays. With Hackett also being accused of being too deferential to players, the potentially incongruent scouting reports would provide a partial explanation for the Broncos’ myriad offensive issues. Those came to a head during an ugly Thursday loss to the Colts in October and persisted for much of the season.
The team ended the year with three play-callers. All three (Hackett, QBs coach Klint Kubiak, OC Justin Outten) are elsewhere now. Melvin Gordon, whom the Broncos waived in November after extensive fumbling problems, said Hackett attempting to blend Wilson’s Seattle offense and Hackett’s preferred Green Bay-style blueprint was “a bit much.” The organization fired Vic Fangio in large part due to his team’s struggles offensively, but the Broncos’ Pat Shurmur–Teddy Bridgewater setup ranked 23rd in scoring. The Hackett-Wilson season produced a last-place ranking, and while numerous injuries contributed to this decline, the Broncos’ QB-HC partnership generated most of the attention. Payton, who signed a five-year contract, will be tasked with cleaning up this mess.
Payton will call the Broncos’ plays next season, accepting the team’s offer after DeMeco Ryans had generated some buzz. Ryans may not have been a serious candidate. While he preferred the Texans, The Athletic describes the former 49ers DC’s Broncos interview as “awkward.”
The Seahawks have begun negotiations withGeno Smith, whose surprising season earned him Comeback Player of the Year honors. It remains to be seen if the organization will make a true long-term commitment to Wilson’s former backup, but the team that had made some draft missteps late in Wilson’s tenure will be in position to land more starters via the 2023 first- and second-round picks obtained in the Wilson swap. Carroll is signed through the 2025 season; Schneider’s latest extension runs through 2027. Both decision-makers are going into their 14th seasons in Seattle.
Terry Bradshaw made a bit of noise during Super Bowl week, saying ex-FOX coworker Sean Payton was leery of working with either Russell Wilson or Kyler Murray.
Payton interviewed with two teams that roster returning quarterbacks — the Broncos and Cardinals — and two teams without settled starters (Panthers, Texans). He ended up choosing Denver, but Bradshaw said (via Newsday’s Tom Rock, on Twitter) he accepted the Broncos’ offer in spite of Wilson and did not want to work with Murray. Noting when Bradshaw is interviewed, “you hold your breath, because you don’t know what’s going to come out,” Payton addressed why he chose the Broncos — a job that will feature a Wilson cleanup task in 2023.
“For me, the first thing was ownership and general manager. That triangle needed to be strong,” Payton told Kay Adams on her Up & Adams show Thursday. “… With Russell, we’ve got someone who’s won a lot of games, who’s been successful. And then it’s really looking at, ‘Hey, what are the things he does well?’ I think anytime you have a season where it’s 5-12 or whatever their record was, my experience from afar is, generally speaking, there are a lot of people with dirt on their hands — not just Russ. That falls on other players; that falls on the coaching staff. I think those things we can clean up and correct.
“More importantly, [the decision centered on] going to the place where ownership is in place and supportive and has a clear vision and the general manager’s in place, those are the key, critical factors.”
Payton has spoken highly of both new Broncos CEO Greg Penner and third-year GM George Paton. Although Payton has been connected to bringing in former GM and longtime Saints staffer Jeff Ireland, Payton compared Denver’s GM toMickey Loomis. For the time being, it looks like the Payton-Paton setup is not in jeopardy of splintering.
Paton’s headline 2022 acquisition encountered quick turbulence. Wilson struggled for most of the season acclimating to Nathaniel Hackett‘s offense and flashed concerning form in his age-34 campaign. But he angled for Payton, reaching out to the longtime Saints HC and Drew Brees about the fit. Payton will now be in charge of salvaging the Broncos’ big-ticket quarterback get.
“We spoke briefly,” Payton said of a pre-hire conversation with Wilson. “Latavius Murray is one of my former players, and he’s played with a number of teams. He’s one of those guys you like being around. We had a great experience with him in New Orleans. I got a text right at the end of the season. He said, ‘Man, we have to find a way to get you here — me and backfield teammate.’ When I heard that, I thought of running back. Then I thought of who else is in his backfield? I texted and said, ‘Who is your backfield teammate?’ He sent the number three. It was Christmas time and I said, ‘Be careful what you’re asking Santa for.’ That was my response. We kind of went from there.”
The Broncos fired Hackett on Dec. 26, and Payton became the team’s top target soon after. He made the Broncos his first meeting and said that was not due simply to logistics. While Payton offered praise for Kyler Murray, he said his “instincts were pushing me in a direction with Denver.”
This promises to be an eventful period for a Broncos team that has followed up its Super Bowl 50 win with seven straight playoff absences. The team gave Wilson and his team considerable privileges upon acquiring the longtime Seahawk, allowing him input into the offense and permitting his camp access to the facility. This involved a private office for the quarterback and access for his personal coach, Jake Heaps. Payton will be making some changes on that front. While Payton said he was unfamiliar with the previous arrangement, he confirmed (video link via SI.com’s Albert Breer) Wilson would not be working with his personal coach while at the facility.
“I think [Murray] is extremely talented, and I think they have the same challenges there that we have in Denver,” Payton said, via Adams (Twitter link). “They are very similar challenges. Culture in the building has to be better. It just does.”
The Broncos were connected to a number of head coaching candidates in the days leading up to their trade with the Saints, with some reports indicating that the organization was zeroing in on 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who ended up opting for the Texans job. However, owner Greg Penner made it clear today that the team had their sights on Sean Payton days before the deal was consummated.
“We locked in five to six days before got trade done, our focus was entirely on him and closing that deal,” Penner said during Payton’s introductory press conference today (via Troy Renck of Denver7 on Twitter).
On the day of the trade, it was reported that the Broncos had made a last-ditch offer to recruit Ryans to Denver. When he declined their overtures, the team pivoted to Payton, surrendering a 2023 first-round pick and 2024 second-round pick to acquire the head coach from New Orleans. The Broncos subsequently signed their new head coach to a five-year deal.
Payton, 59, was believed to be intrigued by both the new Broncos ownership contingent and the prospect of coaching Wilson. He acknowledged as much today, and he admitted that he was ready to return to television for another year if a suitable opportunity didn’t present itself (per Kyle Newman of the Denver Post on Twitter).
More notes out of Denver:
Payton said he spoke with Russell Wilson before joining the Broncos, and he added that running back Latavius Murray helped recruit him to Denver (via Newman on Twitter). The veteran had a pair of productive seasons playing under Payton when the two were with the Saints, with Murray averaging 852 yards from scrimmage during his two years in New Orleans. Thanks to a number of RB injuries, Murray ended up starting seven of his 12 appearances for the Broncos last season, finishing with 827 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns.
The head coach’s five-year contract was suggested to be in the range of $17MM to $21MM per season, but Peter King of Football Morning in America narrows down the number to “at least” $18MM. It sounds like Payton may have had to settle for that amount, as ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler writes that the coach was seeking a contract that would pay him around $23MM annually. However, “Denver wasn’t quite comfortable paying that” amount.
As Dan Graziano points out in that same ESPN article, many assumed that Payton would want full control over player personnel like he had in New Orleans. This leads to natural questions about general manager GeorgePaton‘s job security, and Fowler notes that there’s growing buzz that Payton wants to reunite with Saints vice president/assistant general manager JeffIreland. However, during his press conference today, Payton expressed optimism that he’ll mesh with his GM. “I feel like I’ve got good instincts, and I feel like there’s a demeanor with him that reminds me of Mickey (Loomis) in a good way,” he said (via Mike Klis of 9News on Twitter). “Very steady. I’ve always respected the teams that he’s been a part of…There’s this myth I’m this tyrant that has to come in and control everything. I’m like, ‘Where are you guys getting all this stuff from?’ I might be a tyrant once in a while but not a lot. Anyway, I really enjoy his company and it’s worked well so far.”
King notes that Wilson was a proponent of adding Payton, and the quarterback is looking forward to being coached hard following a disappointing first season in Denver. King points out the height similarities between Wilson and Drew Brees, who had plenty of success under Payton when the two were in New Orleans. In fact, Wilson recently reached out to Brees “to get a preview of coming attractions.”
In his FMIA article, King notes that Payton won’t be in a rush to find a coordinator and will look for a coach that’s a proper match. While there’s no clarity on additions, we’re getting word on who could be out in Denver. It sounds like tight ends coach JakeMoreland and assistant offensive line coach BenSteele will not be back next season, per Klis (on Twitter).
Four teams pursued Sean Payton this year, and the former Super Bowl-winning HC would have been a coveted option next year. Rather than stay at FOX and wait out potential openings of jobs he was previously connected to, Payton decided to become the Broncos’ next head coach.
Addressing the decision to relocate to Denver — in a transaction that probably doubles as the highest-profile coaching hire in Broncos history — Payton broached a few topics. Among them, the team’s new owners.
“I tried to put ownership at the top from the beginning, and I was impressed with how much they want to be successful,” Payton said, during an interview with NOLA.com’s Jeff Duncan, of the Broncos’ Walton-Penner ownership group. “We had great support in New Orleans. I can’t recall Mr. or Mrs. B [Tom and Gayle Benson] ever saying no to something. … This was the opportunity I was looking for.”
Payton, 59, also interviewed with the Cardinals, Panthers and Texans. He made the Broncos his first meeting, and Duncan adds the former Saints coach spoke with Rob and Carrie Walton Penner via Zoom this past weekend. Rob Walton was not part of the Broncos’ contingent to initially meet with Payton in Los Angeles more than two weeks ago. Denver’s ownership did not announce interviews this year and made a surprise trip to Ann Arbor to meet withJim Harbaugh, who had previously announced he was staying at Michigan. The winding HC search still led back to Payton, who was believed to be the franchise’s top choice throughout.
Waiting out the prospect of the Cowboys or Chargers’ jobs becoming available next year would have included opportunities to coach Dak Prescott or Justin Herbert. Not long ago, Russell Wilson would have resided as an asset for coaching candidates. Thanks to a stunningly woeful season that came shortly after the Broncos’ new ownership group authorized a five-year, $245MM extension, Wilson can be viewed as a liability. Reports had indicated Payton was onboard with coaching the former Seahawks great, however, and his Tuesday decision will greenlight this pairing as one of the more interesting in recent memory.
“Russell is a hard worker and has played at a high level and won a lot of games in this league,” Payton said. “The pressure is on us to put a good run game together and reduce the degree of difficulty on his position. I’m excited about him.”
Wilson, 34, reached out to Payton about coming to Denver and will have one of this era’s top play-callers overseeing his bounce-back opportunity. The Saints were on Wilson’s initial 2021 trade-destination list; he added the Broncos later that year. The Broncos traded an eight-asset package for Wilson, including two first-round picks and two seconds, to land the nine-time Pro Bowler in March 2022. The early returns were alarming, but Wilson going from an overmatched Nathaniel Hackett to Payton should represent a strong spot to re-emerge as an upper-echelon starter. If Wilson cannot resemble his Seattle form this season, the Broncos will need to look at other options. Of course, Wilson’s contract will make such a move more difficult — even by 2024.
The Wilson situation heightens the importance of the Broncos’ Payton hire. Payton unleashed Drew Brees in New Orleans. The former Charger morphed from a player the team obtained Philip Rivers to replace into one that totaled a record-shattering five 5,000-yard passing seasons. Payton guided the Saints to seven NFC South titles and nine playoff wins. The team ranked in the top 10 offensively 11 times during Payton’s 15 years on the sideline; it also did so during Payton’s 2012 Bountygate ban. After the Broncos gave Wilson considerable autonomy to co-design an offense last year, Payton should be expected to hold the reins tightly.
Mickey Loomis and Broncos GM George Paton spent the past three days hammering out a compensation package for Payton, Duncan adds. Payton has been rumored to wanting to bring some personnel people with him to Denver, which could certainly cause a conflict with the Paton-led front office. The high-profile coach should have the opportunity to structure things as he sees fit, given his pedigree and the leverage he possessed. For now, however, Paton remains in place.
Both Payton and Paton — that will make for some confusing conversations as long as this partnership lasts — will report to Broncos CEO Greg Penner. That marks a change from 2021 and ’22, but the Walton-Penner group only arrived in Denver late last summer. Payton and Paton also spoke privately often ahead of this hire, Albert Breer of SI.com tweets.
“George and Mickey were great,” Payton said. “It took a minute, but they worked through it hard and got a deal done. … It works out great in Denver because we’re in the AFC.”
The Saints were believed to have asked for two first-round picks from teams for Payton, and while the price undoubtedly would have been higher had the Panthers made the hire, the Broncos collected a 2024 third-rounder in the deal. Still, Denver will go into this draft without first- or second-round picks and will not have a 2024 second-rounder. That will make matters difficult for the Payton-Paton tandem, but this will be the power structure in place in charge of helping the Broncos crawl out of their biggest slump in 50 years.
9:35pm: Add another list to the Broncos’ head coaching search. Denver interviewed former Stanford head coachDavid Shaw on Wednesday, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Shaw recently resigned from his post at Stanford after two consecutive 3-9 seasons. Despite the dismal finish to his career, Shaw left the Cardinal with a 96-54 record as a head coach.
Before becoming a mainstay in Stanford, Shaw held assistant coaching roles with the Raiders and Ravens coaching quarterbacks and wide receivers. His success at the NFL level combined with his winning tradition at Stanford made Shaw a hot commodity in the NFL, especially after the immediate NFL success of his Stanford predecessor, Jim Harbaugh, following his rise to the pros.
NFL teams will finally have their opportunity to kick the tires on Shaw, and it appears the Broncos are the first to do so. It would certainly be an interesting fit as Shaw has connections to fellow Stanford alumni Penner and Rice.
12:52pm: The Broncos added another name to their HC search. They are meeting with former Colts and Lions coach Jim Caldwell on Wednesday, Josina Anderson of CBS Sports tweets.
Caldwell’s interview will be in-person, 9News’ Mike Klis adds (via Twitter). A fixture on coaching carousels in recent years, Caldwell has already met with the Panthers. Caldwell’s AFC championship in Indianapolis and two playoff berths in Detroit aside, his entry into this race qualifies as a lower-profile development considering the other names connected to the Broncos.
Sean Payton has spoken with the Broncos, and an interview is expected. The team can interview Payton beginning Jan. 17. But some doubt regarding Payton’s interest in this job has emerged. The Broncos may want Payton more than vice versa, Dan Graziano of ESPN.com notes, and colleague Jeremy Fowler adds the prospect of a long-term Russell Wilson partnership has generated some skepticism around the league.
Wilson had the Saints on his 2021 list of acceptable trade destinations — before the Broncos landed on that list and became his preference — and Payton, from his FOX analyst role, offered some possible solutions to address Wilson’s stunning performance drop-off this season. The 16-year Saints HC is expected to be choosey, though he has said on multiple occasions he will likely coach again. Payton has also analyzed every team’s depth chart in preparation for a potential NFL return. A franchise quarterback is not a requirement for Payton, Jeff Howe of The Athletic writes (subscription required), but a path to one would move the needle. Although Wilson showed signs of his pre-Denver self to close the season, he probably does not qualify as a franchise QB after the year he had.
Payton would also be expected to bring his own personnel staff to Denver, Graziano adds, which could spell more trouble for Broncos GM George Paton. New Denver ownership’s curious plan of having both Paton and the next head coach report to ownership also could sound alarm bells for Payton, Howe adds, though that might not be too much of a concern given the price the Broncos will need to pay to lure Payton. It would not exactly be expected Denver would hire a new GM that is not approved by Payton, for whom the team may well need to trade a first-round pick.
A report Tuesday placed Harbaugh as an early frontrunner, but Fowler clarifies the Michigan HC is behind Payton. If the latter turns down the Broncos, Harbaugh will be the favorite. Harbaugh is rumored to be prepared to bring Tom Gamble, the former 49ers player personnel director who is now with the Wolverines, with him, per Fowler.
Unlike the Panthers, who were believed to be confused when Harbaugh reached out to them, Tom Pelissero said during a Dan Patrick Show appearance the Broncos contacted Harbaugh (video link). New CEO Greg Penner and co-owner Condoleezza Rice‘s ties to Stanford — where Harbaugh coached from 2007-10 — are driving this interest. The Broncos have done extensive research on the former 49ers coach, Fowler adds.
The Colts were rumored to be interested in Harbaugh, but they have not interviewed him yet. It would not surprise if such a meeting took place, with Fowler adding the Colts job appeals to Harbaugh. Jim Irsay‘s overreaching last year has made the Colts job less of a draw for some, Howe adds, but Harbaugh did play for the Colts for four seasons in the 1990s and holds a spot in their ring of honor.
Caldwell, 67, has been out of the league since a Dolphins one-off as an assistant HC in 2019. He joins Payton as an offense-oriented candidate. The rest of the Broncos’ candidate list includes defensive staffers — Ejiro Evero, Dan Quinn, DeMeco Ryans, Raheem Morris. Among this lot, Quinn, who interviewed for the Denver job last year, looks to have the best shot of landing the position, Pelissero adds. Quinn has ties to Paton dating back to their Dolphins days, though he appears to be a fallback option at this point.
George Paton‘s status with the Broncos has taken some hits this week. Although the second-year GM is set to remain in his post, it appears the decisions to hire Nathaniel Hackett and trade for Russell Wilson have cost him.
New Broncos CEO Greg Penner is set to play a major role in the team’s next HC hire, Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com notes. With the Broncos still in the process of putting the team up for sale when they conducted the search that produced Hackett, Paton led the hiring process. Penner said he will rely on Paton during the team’s latest hiring effort, but with it being the new ownership’s first HC search, it should be expected the GM will not have final say.
Paton’s situation reminds somewhat of Joe Douglas‘ with the Jets, though the former has not been on the job as long. Douglas has rebuilt the Jets’ defense to the point the team is a playoff contender, and this year’s draft class has helped the team considerably. But the Zach Wilson investment has gone south fast. Paton passed on Justin Fields for burgeoning star cornerback Patrick Surtain II and landed high-end starters Javonte Williams and Quinn Meinerz in Rounds 2 and 3, while also adding outside linebacker Baron Browning on Day 2 of last year’s draft. Denver collected first- and fourth-round picks for Bradley Chubbat this year’s deadline, helping to fill the draft-capital void created by the Wilson trade. While several of Paton’s moves have worked out, the Wilson-Hackett partnership undercut them and has the former Vikings lieutenant on thinner ice.
The Broncos have experienced ups and downs with a coach running the show, going from Mike Shanahan in this role to the overmatched Josh McDaniels, who held de facto GM power upon being hired in 2009. Considering new ownership’s deep pockets and a potential offer to run football operations, the Broncos would present an intriguing opportunity for an experienced head coach. That is believed to be the direction Denver heads this time, after seeing first-time hires Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and Hackett underwhelm.
“I’ve worked with a lot of great CEOs, and it starts with really strong leadership,” Penner said. “I think that’s going to be the most critical factor here in a head coach. Obviously the X’s and O’s are important, but we need a strong leader for this organization that’s focused on winning. That starts with culture, it’s instilling a sense of accountability, discipline, and we need an identity on offense. At the starting point, it’s got to be about culture and leadership, and those characteristics are what we’ve focused on the most.”
Frank Reich, Jim Harbaugh, Dan Quinn and Sean Payton are believed to be on the early radar. The Broncos could make a strong run at Payton, Fowler adds, though it is not certain the former Saints HC is interested. Harbaugh has a relationship with Broncos consultant John Elway, who ran the team’s football ops for 10 years, and minority owner Condoleezza Rice due to each’s Stanford ties. Rice worked with Harbaugh during his time with the Cardinal, per Florio, adding an interesting wrinkle to the upcoming search.
As for the team’s current setup, interim HC Jerry Rosburg said (via 9News’ Mike Klis, on Twitter) DC Ejiro Everodeclined the chance to be the interim option out of loyalty to Hackett. Evero and Hackett have been friends since they were college teammates at UC-Davis. The league has also shifted away from promoting interim coaches, with Doug Marrone being the most recent such hire back in 2017. The Broncos still want to interview Evero, though the first-time DC does not profile as an experienced candidate.
Rosburg, 67, also said (via ESPN.com’s Jeff Legwold, on Twitter) it was his decision to fire special teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes and offensive line coach Butch Barry. Both were Hackett hires. Rosburg also confirmed it was Paton, not Hackett, who brought him out of retirement to be the team’s game management assistant. Hackett’s run of issues during the season’s first two weeks led to the hire. The sideline confrontation between Brett Rypien and Dalton Risner also contributed to the early Hackett dismissal, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com notes (video link), as it was a sign the first-year coach was losing the team. Penner said off-field matters led to the early firing. Randy Gregory, who threw a punch at Rams offensive lineman Oday Aboushi and faced a suspension, cited Hackett’s tenuous status as HC in his successful appeal to the league, Klis tweets.
Broncos GM George Paton has seen a few members of his 2021 draft class become high-end starters, and the team’s Bradley Chubb trade at this year’s deadline netted a first-round pick. But Paton’s two biggest moves since taking the GM reins — hiring Nathaniel Hackett as head coach and trading for Russell Wilson — have moved him to a relatively hot seat.
Although Paton is staying on in the wake of Hackett joining a short list of HCs fired before the end of their first season (just five since the 1970 merger), new Broncos CEO Greg Penner said (via NFL.com) the next head coach will report directly to him. This effectively minimizes Paton’s power, and it should not be considered out of the question the Broncos will be looking for a new GM if the next head coach insists on it.
Paton, 52, was a sought-after GM candidate for years and was viewed as likely to stay on in Denver prior to Hackett’s ouster. But the Hackett-Wilson pairing ignited a stunningly ineffective offense, leading to Denver falling well short of expectations despite a stout defense. The Broncos rank last in scoring — down from 23rd with Teddy Bridgewater and OC Pat Shurmur at the controls last season — and chose to both bring in a game management assistant and move their QBs coach (Klint Kubiak) to the play-calling role. The next Denver HC will be tasked with repairing Wilson, something Paton believes can happen.
“We saw flashes of Russ this year. Russ even said he didn’t play up to his standard,” Paton said. “He will be the first one to tell you he didn’t play up to his standard, didn’t play up to our standard. He needs to be better.
“I don’t think we made a coaching move based on Russ. That wasn’t what it’s all about. That’s not why we’re getting a new coach, to turn around Russ, it’s about the entire organization. It’s about the entire football team. It’s just not one player. It’s not whether Russ is fixable or not. We do believe he is. We do.”
After making the blockbuster trade for the nine-time Pro Bowl passer, the Broncos gave him significant input in helping design the offense, Nick Kosmider of The Athletic notes (subscription required). The Broncos also allowed Wilson’s personal team unfettered access. Attempting for much of this season to play more from the pocket — a scenario some Seahawks staffers envisioned would take place as Wilson (fourth all time in QB rushing yards) aged — the 11th-year QB has produced by far his worst season. The potential Hall of Famer has played through injuries for much of the year and often lined up with a backup-laden offensive line and receiving corps. The Broncos have also been without Javonte Williams since October. But Wilson’s struggles to this degree (29th in QBR — a sharp decline from 10th in a down 2021 season) have been one of the most shocking developments in recent quarterback history.
The Broncos gave Wilson a five-year, $245MM extension in August, tying him to the team through the 2028 season. The team’s offensive freefall will certainly impact its next HC search. Paton, Penner, Rob Walton and minority owner Condoleezza Rice will work toward finding a staff that can coax better play from the current franchise centerpiece.
“The decision to have Russell here was a long-term one,” Penner said. “This season has not been up to his standards or expectations. We saw some glimpses of it in the last few weeks. He knows he can play better, we know he can play better, and we know he will do the right work in the offseason to be ready for next year.
“George and I have had a chance to get to know each other — we talk every day since we purchased the team a number of months ago — and he acknowledged right up front there were a couple of decisions that hadn’t worked out as he had expected. But I understand his thought process. He understands the work that needs to be done in this offseason, and I’m going to rely on him heavily as we go through and make these changes.”
The team offered the interim HC gig to DC Ejiro Evero, who declined, leading to Jerry Rosburg — whom the Broncos pulled out of retirement to address Hackett’s game management issues — taking the gig. But the team wants to interview Evero for the full-time position. While Evero may be in the mix, Mike Klis of 9News notes experience will likely be prioritized. Frank Reich, Dan Quinn, Jim Harbaugh and Sean Payton should be considered candidates, per Klis, and SI.com’s Albert Breer heard Harbaugh connections to Denver shortly before Hackett’s firing.
Payton will require trade compensation to land, as the Saints still hold his rights, and will be coveted by every team searching for a new coach. Reich said he hopes to coach again in 2023, while Quinn was a Broncos finalist this year. Paton added experience is a plus but not a requirement.
Harbaugh signed a new Michigan contract last year and recently reaffirmed his commitment to the Wolverines, but the ex-49ers HC has long lingered on the NFL fringe. The Vikings interviewed Harbaugh last year, and the Colts have now been linked to an attempt to bring him back to Indianapolis. Harbaugh, 59, has a relationship with John Elway, per Breer, dating back to the former’s time as Stanford’s HC. Elway is no longer in a regular role but works as a consultant; he had input in the Broncos’ process to trade for Wilson this year. Harbaugh’s 49ers stay did include some notable quarterback success stories. The fiery HC elevated Alex Smith‘s career in the early 2010s and redesigned his offense to suit the talents of Colin Kaepernick, leading to three straight NFC championship game appearances.
Coaches formerly with the Seahawks could be candidates as well, with CBS Sports’ Josina Anderson indicating options like Quinn and Dolphins QBs coach Darrell Bevell — a longtime Seahawks OC — have been brought up (Twitterlinks). The Broncos had success when pivoting to retreated head coaches John Fox and Gary Kubiak. While Peyton Manning had plenty to do with that, it appears the team will try to move in this direction after three straight first-timers — Hackett, Vic Fangio, Vance Joseph — could not end the now-seven-season playoff drought.
4:00pm: The Broncos have gone with senior assistant Jerry Rosburg as their interim HC to close out the season, as ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweets and the team has since confirmed. The veteran coach was hired in September to assist with in-game operations and decisions, including clock management. The 67-year-old’s background is in special teams, including stints with the Browns, Falcons and, for one decade, the Ravens; he will oversee the team’s staff in all three phases.
Pelissero adds that the interim HC role was originally offered to defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, who has become a prime candidate for a full-time head coaching gig given his performance in 2022 (Twitter link). He has instead decided to remain the DC to close out the campaign, as he heads towards what will likely be a busy offseason filled with interest from Denver and elsewhere.
11:45am: After yet another disastrous performance in front of a national audience, Nathaniel Hackett‘s time in Denver is coming to an end. The first-year head coach has been fired by the Broncos, reports Tom Pelissero of NFL Network (Twitter link). The team has confirmed the decision.
Hackett has become just the fifth coach in league history to have his first season as a bench boss come to an end before the campaign is completed. Denver sits a 4-11 on the year after yesterday’s 51-14 loss to the shorthanded Rams. That qualifies them as one of, if not the largest disappointments in the league considering the expectations surrounding the team heading into the fall.
Hackett was hired with the intention of reviving the Broncos’ offense, a unit which was seen as by far the weak point on an otherwise capable team. That, coupled with the trade for, and extension of, quarterback Russell Wilson, was presumed to put the organization on a path to success on both sides of the ball. Instead, the team ranks dead last in the NFL with an average of just 15.5 points per game. Improvement has generally not been seen even after Hackett ceded play-calling duties to QBs coach Klint Kubiak in November.
As offensive struggles (including several shockingly poor performances by Wilson), injuries and a lack of consistency continued to pile up, expectations grew over the passing weeks that Hackett would be let go at some point. The matter of whether or not he would be fired before the end of the campaign was a matter of debate, but questions on that subject have now been answered. Denver will now join the Panthers and Colts in their search for a long-term replacement.
A statement from team owner Greg Penner reads in part, “We sincerely appreciate Nathaniel’s efforts and wish him and his family all the best in the future. Following extensive conversations with [GM] George [Paton] and our ownership group, we determined a new direction would ultimately be in the best interest of the Broncos… We recognize and appreciate this organization’s championship history, and we understand we have not met that standard.
“Moving forward, we will carefully evaluate every aspect of our football operations and make whatever changes are necessary to restore this franchise’s winning tradition. I will lead our head coaching search with support from our ownership group and George, whom I have confidence in as our general manager.”
That final sentence is noteworthy, as Paton has drawn sharp criticism this season for his role in the decisions to hire Hackett and acquire Wilson. Conflicting reports have emerged recently regarding whether or not Paton’s tenure would be cut short after only two seasons at the helm in the Mile High City. A public vote of confidence from the team’s new ownership group bodes well for his job security in at least the short-term future.
Nevertheless, Paton and the rest of the Broncos’ front office will be under intense scrutiny in the coming months as they look to undo the damage caused by Hackett’s hiring. Wilson is under contract through 2028 as a result of the mega-extension he signed before making his regular season debut with Denver this fall, so he is tied to the franchise for years to come. That, along with coaching uncertainty for the second straight offseason will leave a significant stain on the 2022 season for the Broncos, the sixth straight in which they have produced a losing record.
Hackett, meanwhile, is unlikely to find himself on the head coaching radar anytime soon. The total inability of the Broncos to find consistency on offense in particular and build any momentum during the season suggests he is best suited as an offensive coordinator, the role he held for eight total years with the Bills, Jaguars and Packers before taking the Denver gig this offseason.
Broncos head coach NathanielHackett is more than likely going to be a one-and-done in Denver, but there may be additional casualties following the Broncos’ underwhelming 2022 season. Sources told Jason La Canfora of the Washington Post that “front-office changes are more probable than not” in Denver, with the writer specifically pointing to general manager GeorgePaton.
Things haven’t gone great for Paton during his second season in Denver. The organization’s two main offseason moves — the trade (and subsequent extension) for Russell Wilson and the hiring of Hackett — have backfired, and as La Canfora points out, both of those moves were made before new ownership took over. The Rob Walton-led ownership group has “unlimited resources,” as La Canfora writes, and they may be more willing to eat the salaries of both their head coach and GM.
While La Canfora’s sources indicate that front office changes could be coming, ESPN’s Adam Schefter is adamant that Paton is staying put. During an appearance on 104.8 The Fan in Denver, Schefter opined that the GM will keep his job following the 2022 campaign.
“I expect that George Paton is going to be safe,” Schefter said (via the station’s website). “You can write that down from me. I don’t think he’s going anywhere.”
Paton worked his way up the Vikings organization, culminating in him earning the role of assistant general manager/vice president of player personnel. After being connected to a number of GM vacancies, he was hired by the Broncos following the 2020 season. During Paton’s first season at the helm, the organization traded star Von Miller and finished with a 7-9 record. A new quarterback and head coach were expected to right the ship in 2022, but the team is currently sitting with a 3-9 record.