ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Sean Payton’s formal introduction as Denver Broncos coach Monday touched on the importance of keeping an open mind on players, a promise of discipline, an eye for details and a focused pursuit of winning that “is not for everybody.”
And perhaps nothing punctuated all of it more than Payton’s steadfast belief in the improvement quarterback Russell Wilson can make and how Payton expects Wilson, as well as the rest of the Broncos, to make that improvement.
Asked if Wilson could continue to have a personal quarterback coach — Jake Heaps — as well as other support personnel to work with the quarterback in the building, Payton was clear on where he stood.
“I’m not too familiar with that,” Payton said when asked about Wilson having Heaps in the building with access this past season. “That’s foreign to me — that’s not going to take place. I’m unfamiliar with it. Our staff will be here, our players will be here and that will be it.”
For a team that has lost at least 10 games in five of the past six years, Payton has a fairly big to-do list with Wilson at, or near, the top.
Wilson, for whom the Broncos sent five draft picks and three players to the Seattle Seahawks last March, finished the season with a career-low 16 touchdown passes and a career-high 55 sacks. The Broncos were the lowest-scoring team in the league (16.9 points per game) and had 11 games this season in which they put up 16 or fewer points.
But with Justin Outten calling plays from the coaches’ box and quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak on the sideline for the season’s final two games while Jerry Rosburg was the interim head coach, Wilson had six total touchdowns in the two games — four passing and two rushing. Wilson threw three touchdown passes in the season-ending victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Payton said Monday he believed those two games were the first glimpses of how things could be better for Wilson.
“[The] last couple weeks [of the season] we saw a little more of what we were expecting, what we’d become accustomed to,” Payton said. “… No. 1 job for us as coaches in evaluating players is what are the things that they do well and then let’s try to put them in those positions. … Highlight their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.”
On fitting the offense to what Wilson does well, Payton later added, “None of us want to be at a karaoke bar with a song we don’t know the words to.”
But overall, for a franchise that has missed the playoffs in each of the past seven seasons — the Super Bowl 50 win is the team’s most recent playoff game — owner and CEO Greg Penner had said the new coach would have to bring discipline and accountability.
Payton made those promises both in his interviews with the Broncos and on Monday as well, as he harked back to his arrival as New Orleans Saints coach in 2006 and to working with Hall of Famer Bill Parcells.
“You have law and order, as Bill [Parcells] would say,” Payton said. “… You come in with this is how we’re going to teach, this is how we’re going to meet, this is how we’re going to practice. … Every year in our league there have been great plans with noble thoughts and a lot of enthusiasm that don’t have success. … Discipline, toughness, and football makeup is going to be real important for who is a Denver Bronco. There is an element of discipline, there is an element of toughness and, look, it’s not for everyone.”
Payton later added, “I know what it looks like and I know what it doesn’t look like. And sometimes we’re not asking; sometimes it’s nonnegotiable.”
Penner and general manager George Paton said Monday they considered Payton the team’s top candidate earlier in the hiring process than most believed. Penner said it took “five or six days” after the Broncos had decided Payton would be the next head coach to actually work out the trade with the Saints for compensation.
Payton, who last coached with the Saints in 2021, was under contract in New Orleans through the 2024 season. The Broncos sent their first-round pick in April (29th overall) and a second-round pick in 2024 to the Saints to sign Payton to a five-year contract. Denver also received a 2024 third-round pick back from New Orleans.
Penner, specifically, was asked if the Broncos were still pursuing San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans last week before Ryans accepted the Houston Texans head-coaching job.
“That wasn’t the case,” Penner said. “… Once we locked into Sean about five or six days before we got the trade done with the Saints, our focus was entirely on him and closing that.”
“We would have had Sean done earlier if we didn’t have that other layer with the trade,” Paton said.
For his part, Payton said, “What I was looking for I felt like existed in one place, based on my exposure with the other teams. … This was the opportunity that I was interested in, and I know I was the coach they were interested in.”