With Nathaniel Hackett officially fired, don’t expect Sean Payton to ride into Broncos Country and fix things thanks to one pretty big reason.
There’s a few scenes in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where Gene Wilder, as Wonka, unenthusiastically feigns surprise when one of the horrible children does something unsurprisingly horrible.
That was essentially ever NFL fan and media member on Monday when the Denver Broncos fired first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett. The firing came after an embarrassing 51-14 loss on Christmas Day but also amid a season of utter chaos that could not have gone worse than it already was.
To be fair to Hackett, his job and the expectations for it changed midstream on him. After Hackett was hired, the Broncos sent a massive trade package to the Seattle Seahawks to acquire Russell Wilson to be the franchise’s quarterback of the future. Success was obviously always the key factor that Hackett would be judged on, but the arrival of Wilson — and the Broncos almost immediately handing him a five-year, $242 million extension, meant that the margin for error was slim.
And boy did Hackett color way outside of the lines.
The Broncos have been officially eliminated from the playoffs for two weeks, and the 37-point loss to an equally lost Rams team was the final straw. For fans, the final straw was any of other numerous incidents in which it was clear Hackett was too far out over his own skis, from defensive players shouting at Wilson when leaving the field, to offensive lineman failing to pick him up and then fight with Wilson’s backup over trying to defend his honor.
Things were bad in Denver and that’s putting it lightly. They were also not remotely close to getting any better and the change was well overdue.
The question now is what happens next?
Denver has a boatload of money tied up in Wilson, which means he’s a key piece of the future. That’s bad considering how poor he’s played this year and how obvious it is that he has barely more control over the locker room than Hackett did. If anything, Hackett is being sacrificed to salvage Wilson’s reputation which means the next coach that comes in needs to be a grand slam hire.
One name that will jump straight to the top of the conversation is Sean Payton — and he should. Payton’s reputation speaks for itself, as even down years in New Orleans were good years for other franchises. One thing about Payton, and a key selling point to any owner trying to hire him, is that the Saints culture was consistently elite.
Much like how Mike Tomlin has run a tight ship in Pittsburgh, and it becoming clear how influential Pete Carroll is in Seattle’s success over the years, Payton’s Saints teams were always operating on a higher level of professionalism.
That’s something that is extremely attractive to the Broncos, who couldn’t find a candidate more the polar opposite of Hackett and well-equipped to fix things than Payton if they created one in a lab.
As perfect as Payton seems, there’s a rather significant hangup in connecting the dots to land him in Denver. Over the weekend, Adam Schefter reported that Payton is beginning to assemble a staff for when he makes his return to the NFL. One name that was dropped is Vic Fangio, who Payton reportedly has earmarked to be his defensive coordinator.
Here’s why Sean Payton probably won’t coach the Broncos in 2023
The sound you heard just now was the sound of hearts sinking all over Broncos Country.
Fangio was the Broncos head coach from 2019-2021, and was he guy ownership fired in order to hire Hackett. The whole reason Hackett was in this position in the first place — or a big reason why — was Broncos ownership deemed Fangio a failure and fired him after last season.
Now, there could be a world where bygones are bygones, but this probably isn’t one of them. Fangio would not only be returning to franchise that fired him less than a year ago, but would be doing in a lesser role.
Payton could always choose another defensive coordinator, but that implies the Broncos will be the best job available after Black Monday. Denver is an intriguing option but it might be in for another harsh reality check when Payton deems the situation not worth abandoning Fangio as part of his staff.
Also consider that jobs in Arizona and Los Angeles — both the Rams and Chargers — have rumored to be opening up this offseason. Kliff Kingsbury is on borrowed time, Sean McVay has been rumored to be ready to walk away when the Rams core breaks up, and the Chargers have long been circled as a team Payton could take over and finally fulfill a Super Bowl prophecy with.
All of those options seem better than ditching an arguably top-tier defensive coordinator to take over a franchise in absolute shambles with a quarterback who is more into sticking to corny slogans than sticking to a gameplan that works.
Payton will — and should — be named in coaching rumors for the Broncos. But a Vic Fangio-sized obstacle stands in the way and it might point a light at how unattractive the job in Denver has become after just a single season.