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Broncos reach deal to hire former Saints coach Sean Payton

Sean Payton coached the Saints for 15 seasons before stepping aside following the 2021 season. (Derick Hingle/AP)
5 min

Sean Payton is poised to make his return to the NFL with the Denver Broncos.

The Broncos and Payton’s former team, the New Orleans Saints, reached a tentative agreement Tuesday on draft-pick compensation for Payton, according to a person familiar with the situation. That clears the way for Payton, the Super Bowl-winning former coach of the Saints, to apply the finishing touches to a deal with the Broncos to succeed the fired Nathaniel Hackett as their coach.

The Saints are expected to receive first- and second-round draft choices from the Broncos in what amounts to a trade involving Payton. The Broncos receive the rights to Payton, who remained under contract with the Saints after stepping aside as their coach following the 2021 season, and a third-round selection, according to the person with knowledge of the deliberations.

Neither team immediately announced the agreement. The Broncos and the Houston Texans, who announced the hiring Tuesday of San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans as their coach, become the second and third of the five NFL franchises with head coaching vacancies to make their choices. The Carolina Panthers hired Frank Reich, the former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, last week.

Payton, 59, was reported to have been seeking a contract worth about $20 million per season as he contemplated his return to the NFL in recent weeks and interviewed with several teams. He was out of the league this season while working as an NFL studio analyst for Fox.

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The Broncos, Panthers, Texans and Arizona Cardinals pursued Payton. The Broncos appeared to be the favorites for much of the process. Payton told associates early that he liked the franchise’s stable ownership situation and was willing to work with quarterback Russell Wilson.

Some issues arose during Payton’s interview, a person familiar with the situation said last week. Payton emerged with concerns about a potential power struggle with one member of franchise ownership, according to that person. But Payton denied such an issue, writing on Twitter last week that he had had a “great visit” with the Broncos and that “ownership was fantastic.”

Payton appeared on Fox’s pregame show Sunday and said: “I think in the next week we’re going to know a lot more. … There’s a handful of things that still are taking place for these coaches and myself.”

Any issues were addressed and any concerns were alleviated during subsequent conversations, according to the person with knowledge of the deliberations. By last weekend, the Broncos and Saints had begun working on trade terms, according to the person.

Trades involving NFL coaches are rare but not unprecedented. Jon Gruden went from the Raiders, then based in Oakland, to Tampa Bay in 2002, and he coached the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl triumph in his first season. Previous trades involved Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells and others.

Payton had a lengthy interview Thursday in Arizona with Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill. He previously had spoken with the Texans and Panthers. His options for a return to coaching had narrowed after Sean McVay opted to remain as coach of the Los Angeles Rams, the Los Angeles Chargers decided to retain Brandon Staley following their first-round playoff loss, and the Dallas Cowboys stuck with Mike McCarthy.

The Broncos have the NFL’s wealthiest owners after a group led by Walmart heir Rob Walton purchased the team last year from the Pat Bowlen Trust for a league-record $4.65 billion.

The new owners inherited Hackett as their first-year coach and Wilson, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and former Super Bowl winner for the Seattle Seahawks whom the Broncos had obtained in an offseason trade, as their quarterback. They doubled down on the Wilson deal by signing him to a five-year, $245 million contract extension.

It didn’t work. Wilson, who turned 34 in November, had a career-worst season. The Broncos went 5-12 and fired Hackett with two games remaining; assistant Jerry Rosburg served as interim coach. The favorites to replace Hackett initially were believed to include University of Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh, Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and former Stanford University coach David Shaw.

It was a twisting search process for the Broncos. Greg Penner, the team’s chief executive, reportedly traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., last week to meet with Harbaugh, who already had announced that he would stay at Michigan. There were reports last week that Ryans had emerged as a top candidate for the Broncos. NFL Network reported that Denver made a last-ditch attempt Tuesday to hire Ryans.

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The Broncos have missed the playoffs in seven straight seasons since winning the Super Bowl to conclude the 2015 season in quarterback Peyton Manning’s final NFL game. They’ve had six straight losing seasons spanning the head coaching tenures of Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and Hackett. They attempted to solve their quarterback dilemma by trading for Wilson. Now they are trying to repair Wilson’s game and return to contender status by turning to Payton.

He coached the Saints for 15 seasons and won 63.1 percent of his games, posting a regular season record of 152-89. He took the team to the playoffs nine times and won the Super Bowl in the 2009 season. Payton and Drew Brees formed one of the most successful coach-quarterback tandems in NFL history and revitalized the franchise after it was forced to play away from New Orleans in the 2005 season following Hurricane Katrina.

Payton returned to the Saints after missing the 2012 season while suspended for his role in the Bountygate scandal. The NFL cited him for failing to do more to halt a system that provided players with payments for hits that injured opponents, a league investigation found. Payton said when he stepped aside in New Orleans in January 2022 that he might not be done with coaching.