PHOENIX — Island hopping, mic to mic, Sean Payton made the rounds Friday morning in the Super Bowl media center. As the last 72 hours of his stint as a Fox Sports analyst came to an end and the early days of his reign with the Denver Broncos overlapped, worlds began to collide and nothing was off the table.
Just hours away from spending the evening with new quarterback Russell Wilson and longtime friend Joe Montana, Payton was spotted in the wee hours of the morning chatting with All-Pro running back and future free agent Josh Jacobs. A short time later, he entertained some members of the Denver media with a favorite story about new Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware. Sprinkled in an interview here and there, he tried to smooth over some remarks from fellow Fox Sports analyst Terry Bradshaw, who said earlier in the week that Payton didn’t want to work with Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray and had “no other choice” but to make the best of Wilson.
Throughout it all, Payton kept repeating a version of the same line about the Broncos’ 2022 crash.
“Filth on all…”
“A lot of responsibility to go around…”
At first glance, it was a common defense by Wilson, who became the last man standing after head coach Nathaniel Hackett was fired. And if Payton was the type to read between the lines, you could come up with all kinds of theories about what else he’s referring to. But given his history and personality, there’s a fairly literal message here that doesn’t require deep thought. A general belief that he will be a guiding principal in Denver moving forward, especially once Payton enters his office on Monday.
Right now, he’s happy with the triangle of ownership, general manager, and head coach. But he’s planting verbal cues at seemingly every stop that there will be a radical culture shift in Denver. As much as everyone wants to focus on Wilson and what Payton can do to get him back into the top 10 quarterbacks, this is starting to feel a lot deeper than just hitting center. Frankly, outside of Wilson, it’s probably fair to assume that every single part of the franchise that is below ownership level is now under control in 2023. And the term everyone should be absorbed as… everyone.
The personnel department? Under control. Strength and conditioning? Alert. Business operations? Keep your books in order. Coaches, players, coaches, mental health workers… even fans should expect criticism. That frustrated boo and abandonment of the opening routine from last season? You’re gonna get some shit under this head coach. And he won’t care if you like him.
The media beating Hackett took last season? Go ask anyone who has covered the New Orleans Saints for a long time. Payton will answer. That’s the takeaway here. As much as anyone and everyone might be preparing to evaluate Payton in the coming months, they should know that he will be staring back. All this story time stuff with analogies and explanations will fade away over the next few weeks and months. Very soon it will be about results and little else.
Let it ring for a while. And when Payton keeps repeating that line about “a lot of dirty hands” or whichever version of the phrase he chooses at that given moment, it’s best to assume that he actually thinks that more than two people – Hackett and Wilson – were the only problem at Denver last season.
“Typically, if a team is 5-12, there are probably a lot of messy hands,” Payton said in a sit-down with Yahoo Sports on Friday. “Now, the focus is always on the quarterback and the coach, that’s nothing new. But having said that, get the culture right, put the right program in place, all those things, how you handle football, how you play defense, those things all add up to a good quarterback game.
In other words, Wilson will be adjusted both individually and collectively. Payton pointed out that throughout his career, he has helped tailor offenses for all types of quarterbacks, from Kerry Collins to Vinny Testaverde to Quincy Carter; He’s lured Brees to Taysom Hill, Teddy Bridgewater and beyond. Bringing Wilson into a system built on his strengths isn’t the hard part. The hard part will be ramping up everything else around it so that the effectiveness of the whole operation and the culture behind it work together. In a sense, everything will be rearranged, in whole or in part, because this is what requires a huge culture change. This is why Payton busted a $30,000 stereo system with the Saints, because it’s just one of the detail-oriented things he thinks about.
When you feel the joy of winning, who can feel it?
It seems like such an odd detail to attribute to culture, but that’s where it’s going. We’re all out here running Payton’s game and he’s already gone 100 yards, deciding where people should be sitting on the plane going home. Failing as a game manager isn’t even in his vocabulary at this point. For Payton, it’s like asking the CEO of an auto company if he knows how tires work.
Right now, he’s concerned with the “triangle”: how ownership, general manager, and coach all work together. If the answer is what it should be, instilling the right culture will work. And if the right culture works, the resulting food chain of problems tends to resolve itself with a little time and patience.
“If you feel good about that triangle, you have a shot,” Payton said. “It doesn’t guarantee you success, but you have a chance. What guarantees you something is when that [triangle is] it’s not right, you have NO opportunity. And this exists in many teams in our league. They can beat you on a Sunday, but they are dysfunctional at the top.
“[Culture] it’s like a garden,” he added. “You have to pay attention to it every day. Number two, it’s the people. And what I mean by that is you can have great cultural goals and attention to detail, but if you bring the wrong people into that environment, it’s going to fail.
By wrong people, Payton means exactly that: wrong people. Not just players. Not just scouts or GMs or coaches. She is talking about everyone. And right now, everyone should be listening. The next Denver Broncos head coach shows up at his office on Monday, and that’s all he’s going to do going forward. The overlap with his days as an analyst at Fox Sports will be over and the job ahead of him is all that matters.
Everyone with dirty hands is on high alert. Payton has been saying this for days.