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In the NFL, it’s time for playoff races — and coaching chatter

Expect to hear Sean Payton's name over and over until he finally returns to the NFL. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Nathaniel Hackett is not yet out of work for a week, having failed to survive his first NFL season as a head coach, and already the backchannels inside the league are overflowing with suggestions about who will replace him in Denver.

There were a few immediate takeaways from Broncos rookie owner Greg Penner’s news conference following the firing that resonated with executives I spoke with. As with so many billionaires who take over professional franchises, it seemed clear that Penner will be quite hands-on, with his proclamation about the new coach reporting directly to him coming off to some league insiders as chest-thumping. (“He looked like a guy figuring out it’s more fun to see your name on the ticker on ESPN than somewhere in Forbes,” as one longtime coaching agent put it. The agent spoke on the condition of anonymity because he represents clients who could be interested in that job opening.)

Many also read Penner’s chain-of-command restructuring as a direct overture to former Saints coach Sean Payton, seen as the prize candidate of this cycle, with it well known in NFL circles that Payton isn’t really keen on reporting to a GM. In fact, he’ll almost certainly handpick who fills the general manager position in his next organization, with former Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland among those to watch.

“If [Penner] wants Sean, he’s going to have to give him all the money and all the power,” said one NFL GM, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he isn’t permitted to discuss other franchises’ hiring decisions. “And even then I’m not sure it will be enough.”

Broncos fire coach Nathaniel Hackett after 15 games

It’s already being assumed that money will be no object for an owner who married into the Walmart fortune, but is Russell Wilson the type of reclamation project that would lure Payton to the Rocky Mountains? Payton had significant interest in trading for Wilson after the 2020 season, according to individuals with direct knowledge of the situation, but Wilson was playing like an MVP then.

Others are linking Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh to the job; the chain of command in Denver would suit him, and he’d probably be more inclined to keep George Paton as the GM than some other rumored coaching candidates. But multiple people who know and have worked with Harbaugh and Wilson indicated to me that such an arrangement could prove awkward and tumultuous.

“That’s not a fit,” said one individual who is personally familiar with both the coach and the quarterback. “That would be a strange one to me, but strange s--- happens in this league all the time.”

Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, the former Falcons head coach, will be high on Paton’s list, as previously mentioned in this space — though ownership is clearly in charge here — and many were surprised Quinn didn’t land in Denver a year ago. But Quinn knows Wilson from Seattle, where he served as the defensive coordinator, and he also knows some of Wilson’s quirks. If there is no longer an elite passer rating to go along with the eccentricities, well, Quinn might prefer other options.

“I would think ideally it’s someone who knows Wilson and who Wilson would be comfortable with,” said one GM, speaking on the condition of anonymity, “but not another first-time guy. This owner won’t want to go back down that path.”

One candidate I could see quickly emerging, particularly should Payton not want to go to Denver: Former Colts head coach Frank Reich. He and Wilson would undoubtedly click, and Reich played the quarterback position for a long time at a high level and experienced a late-career rejuvenation himself. He was well-respected for his strategies, leadership and demeanor during his stint in Indianapolis, and he has reached the postseason before. He and Paton would likely mesh well, too.

Other coaching situations to watch

It’s starting to look as if there might not be many more head coaching openings this offseason. Conversations with executives and top coaching agents revealed something of a consensus. The Panthers, many believe, will retain Steve Wilks as their head coach (as they should). No one is buying interim coach Jeff Saturday staying in Indianapolis, no matter what ramblings come next from owner Jim Irsay. There remains a strong expectation that the Texans and Cardinals will be hiring new coaches.

Zach Wilson’s time in New York is ending like this Jets season: Badly

With the Browns collapsing and Deshaun Watson spiraling, execs I spoke to would not be surprised if Cleveland owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam took that out on head coach Kevin Stefanksi. Should Tampa Bay miss the playoffs, there will be rumblings about Todd Bowles, but his mentor, Bruce Arians, is still held in high regard by ownership and a one-and-done seems unlikely. Similarly, the Saints giving Dennis Allen just one year in trying to replace Payton, a legend in New Orleans, doesn’t seem like the kind of move GM Mickey Loomis would make.

All the insiders I canvassed agreed there is always the chance that something totally unforeseen happens — Arians shocked the league with his retirement last year — and some wondered whether Jerry Jones might react swiftly should the Cowboys crash out of the playoffs in spectacular fashion. “If that’s an ugly one-and-done [in the playoffs], then it’s over,” another top coaching agent predicted. “Jerry isn’t getting any younger.” Perhaps Quinn would be promoted in that instance.

Finally, might 71-year-old Pete Carroll consider retirement in Seattle? “He’s having too much fun this year,” said one longtime colleague of his, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not at liberty to speak for the coach. “He still has the bug.”

What of Sean Payton?

Amid all of the chatter about where Payton is going to land, might I suggest the possibility that he stays at Fox another season and waits for what might be a more bountiful marketplace a year from now? I wouldn’t bet against it.

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If there are only four or five open jobs this season, history would tell us that a larger coaching purge is probably only a year away. Brandon Staley reaching the playoffs with the Chargers is big, but what if Justin Herbert, on a massive new contract, isn’t transcendent next year? Heavy-spending Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who has coveted Payton in the past, might be more inclined to pounce a year from now. And several smart agents suggested something else to keep in mind regarding the coaching market moving forward: record sale prices of franchises.

Coaching salaries have already soared since Jon Gruden reentered the league with a $100 million deal. So what will be the value of the person acting in essence as an organizational CEO once the Commanders sell for, say, $7.5 billion, with other sales potentially to come? And of the most likely openings this winter, none are with franchises that have accomplished much of note for quite some time; none feature a distinguished ownership group; and none would qualify as anything close to a bucket-list position.

“The landscape a year from now might be more attractive for a multitude of reasons,” the agent said. “I wouldn't discount that. Particularly If you have a client in a position to pick and choose his spot.”

Um, yeah, I’d say Payton qualifies on that score.