PHOENIX — Sean Payton’s team won’t start playing for more than five months, but the new Broncos head coach has already made a clear impact on the franchise in his boss’ eyes.
“He immediately set a different tone coming into the building,” CEO Greg Penner told a small group of reporters at the league’s spring ownership meetings here Tuesday.
“As a head coach probably the most important thing that you do is the staff that you hire and right away he came in and he’s built a staff that’s diverse. And I mean diverse across multiple dimensions — it’s age, you’ve got everyone from (75-year-old assistant head coach) Mike Weshtoff to (28-year-old quarterbacks coach) Davis Webb, diverse backgrounds from different coaching trees and perspectives — and that’s probably the most impressive thing.”
The first football season under the Walton-Penner Family Ownership Group did not go the way anybody expected when they closed on the acquisition of the club in August. It culminated in the firing of first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett after just 15 games and the seventh consecutive season without a playoff appearance for Denver.
In the late March Arizona sun, hope springs for every team. The Broncos are betting that Payton’s 15 years of experience in New Orleans, his 152 regular-season wins and Super Bowl championship will all help expedite a turnaround in Denver.
“Lots of learnings in the past 7.5 months,” Penner said. “One is just how passionate our fans are and how much they want to win. The last seven seasons have been tough. But at the end of the day, the biggest learning and what we saw this fall is we’ve got to have the right people in place, we need the right culture, we’ve got to set expectations, we need accountability.
“I think with hiring Sean Payton, we’re teed up to be a very different team.”
What do expectations look like in his first season?
“For me and Rob and Carrie and the rest of our ownership group, the expectation is around the right process and the right approach and the right culture,” Penner said. “It’s not necessarily around ‘we have an expectation of X number of wins or Y number of wins.’ One thing that we’re really confident in is that we’re going to take the right approach and that we will have the right expectations of our staff and our players.”
Payton has the leading role in setting expectations for the football team, of course. One of his former assistants, Detroit head coach Dan Campbell, on Tuesday said that’s among Payton’s specialties.
“He’s energetic, he’s highly intelligent, he’s very demanding,” said Campbell, who was a New Orleans assistant from 2016-20. “He’s innovative. He’s always been innovative. He’s going to give clear communication. Everybody in the building and everyone in that locker room is going to know exactly where he stands with him.
“He’s going to get it turned is what he’s going to do. He’s going to get it turned. Now, I don’t know when, but it’s going to happen.”
The ownership group quickly decided that Payton and general manager George Paton’s plan to spend big in free agency this month was the best route toward speeding up a rebuild. Penner on Tuesday said he had no qualms about acquiring 16 players so far via free agency and committing more than $137 million in guaranteed money to do so, but also that he didn’t anticipate every year featuring such spending sprees.
“You definitely don’t win the season in free agency and you don’t necessarily want to have to spend that way each year, but we just felt this year with the lack of draft picks and the needs that we had on the offensive line that that was the approach we needed to take,” he said. “… We just looked at it and said, ‘OK, these are our needs and if we can get these players, we really want to get them.’ And, fortunately, we had a lot of conversations leading up to it, we had players that we were targeting and we got all of those players.
“Again, ideally, you can do that through the draft and that will be more the approach in the future, but this year it was critical to take this approach.”