Broncos’ HC hunt leaves many unknowns to ponder

I’ve been trying to decide what to make of the Broncos’ protracted coaching search, the heralded acquisition of Sean Payton, and the early optimism about Denver’s football future with him at the helm.

After weeks of listening, reading and ruminating, here’s what I’ve come up with.

First, the process:

We may never know for sure, but I suspect Greg Penner’s first foray into pro football’s competitive culture was eye-opening and not much like hard-nosed business, even at his level.

When he announced at the outset of his inaugural hunt that he was looking to bag a leader with previous head-coaching experience, he may have expected that proclamation to mark the first sorting of the candidate herd.

After all, what seasoned head coach looking for another opportunity wouldn’t want to take over the on-field product of one of pro football’s high-profile franchises? Especially one with the richest ownership in the league.

But some other teams with sideline vacancies eschewed first-timers, too, meaning there would be competition.

Also, some coaches who had been around the block previously weren’t enamored with the Denver challenge. Others didn’t interest Penner.

Dan Quinn and Raheem Morris head those lists, respectively.

Jim Harbaugh, current resident of the house of Bo, was, it seems, Penner’s first choice.

When the Michigan man with Super Bowl creds declined not once but twice, a newcomer emerged as the preferred candidate. At this juncture, Sean Payton’s price tag appeared to be too steep, even for Penner. So, the best rookie was worth a try.

I believe Demeco Ryans would have been the Broncos’ new coach—despite Penner’s stated desire to hire experience—if he hadn’t chosen to return to Houston, where he had starred as a player.

As soon as it became clear that Ryans was not coming to Denver, the question quickly became, “What do we have to do to land Payton?”

Suddenly, roughly doubling Payton’s reported TV salary and making him one of the highest-paid coaches in the NFL, was acceptable.

In a flash, a deal was struck with New Orleans to bring the proven ex-Saints coach, who was still under contract, to Denver, in return for the 2023 first-round draft pick the Broncos garnered from Miami for Bradley Chubb, plus next year’s second-rounder.

One thing this saga suggests is that the Broncos’ new ownership will do whatever it takes to turn this ship around.

Payton, for his part, proved to be the better poker player, allowing every rumor about his intentions—“he’ll wait for an opening in Los Angeles” . . . “he’s prepared to return to the Fox studio for another season” . . . etc.—to enhance the urgency of signing him now.

So, what’s in store?

There are many questions to be answered.

First and foremost is quarterback Russell Wilson’s encore to his disastrous debut in orange and blue.

Payton succeeded in helping one short passer become a superstar. (Or was it the other way around in the case of Drew Brees?)

Can he do it again and revive Wilson’s suddenly flagging reputation as an elite playmaker? Is better coaching all Russ needs? Many believe Payton will do it.

And, too, there’s the matter of control.

At one point in Penner’s odyssey, Payton was alleged to have expressed concerns about friction between him and someone in Denver’s brain trust.

He denied it, of course, but by then that chip, shrewdly, had already raised the stakes.

In stark contrast, “The ownership group is fantastic,” was among Payton’s first comments when it was reported that he was headed for Denver.

Coming from someone who insisted on having the only say that mattered when anything Saints football was the subject, one must wonder if “ownership group” is a not-so-veiled reference to the other Paton—general manager George, no ‘y.’

We won’t know until push comes to shove over one or more personnel decisions, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on.

Finally, what about personnel?

With no pick until the third round this April (barring an unlikely trade), the 2023 draft does not figure to infuse the roster with much immediate help.

Penner & Co. likely is willing to spend the bucks it will take to try to offset the slim draft pickings with mercenaries. But this isn’t considered a deep free agent class.

Thus, it comes down to Payton’s impact, which includes the staff he assembles.

He may restore Wilson’s luster and should resuscitate the team to the point of competitiveness and respectability.

But not even Sean Payton can turn water into wine or multiply loaves and fishes.

In other words, don’t expect a miracle.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at