Michael Lombardi: Why Sean Payton will improve the Denver Broncos

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Why Sean Payton will help the Denver Broncos win games 

In 1996, after losing to the Philadelphia Eagles, 21-20, making their record 1-14, then Jets head coach Rich Kotite stepped to the microphone and decided to quit.  Kotite said he would coach the last game of the year against Miami.  ”I feel I’ve always been a bottom-line guy,” Kotite said. ”And when you’re 3-13 and 1-14, that just doesn’t cut it.”  

 

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The Jets had spent over 70 million dollars to add talent during the 1996 off-season, hoping to improve on their 3-13 record from Kotite’s first season.  When that failed, Kotite fired himself, saving owner Leon Hess from having to rid himself of a man he treated like a son.  Hess loved Kotite. He even fired Pete Carroll after just one season to bring Kotite to the Jets, believing Kotite had the necessary skills as an offensive play caller and head coach to refurbish the Jets into winners.  The winning never manifested itself and after two seasons, out went Kotite, and in came Bill Parcells, who had just left the Patriots after taking them to the Super Bowl. 

And because Parcells is a Hall of Fame coach, the Jets went from 1-15 to 9-7 and a Keyshawn Johnson dropped pass away from beating the Lions in Week 17 to make the playoffs.  Parcells made this rapid improvement with essentially the same players that Kotite used.  The next year, the Jets made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game, losing to Denver, 23-10. 

Parcells molded the Jets, held everyone accountable, developed all three phases of the team, improved the talent, and the Jets vastly improved, proving the point that coaching matters in the NFL.  And the same thing will happen in Denver when a Parcells disciple, Sean Payton, takes over for Nathaniel Hackett and improves the Broncos. 

I am not suggesting that Hackett and Kotite are similar in their coaching talents.  Hackett might be better served to be an offensive coordinator than a head coach, whereas Kotite was never even a good coordinator.  Kotite never worked again in the NFL or college after his Jet stint.  When Payton dumped the blame onto Hackett and the entire organization last week with his comments, he put the pressure on himself to win—and that was his intention.

Payton didn’t inherit a mess from a personnel standpoint as Parcells did, even though both organizations overspent for players for their new coach.   Payton quickly identified the problems with the Broncos’ offense, starting with improving the offensive line.  Because of Parcells’ influence on how Payton approaches the game, Payton has always been an advocate of great line play. 

Unlike most of his West Coast coaching contemporaries who believe adding receivers solves all the problems, Payton believes the trenches are the key to winning games.  He always had a good offensive line in New Orleans and always valued drafting lineman high.  When Payton arrived in Denver, he was willing to move on from any receiver on the team, feeling the return on their investment in Cortland Sutton or Jerry Jeudy was not substantial.  He has since changed that tune and with Tim Patrick getting hurt, Payton needs Jeudy and Sutton to stay healthy and play well. 

In 1997, Parcells inherited Neil O’Donnell, the former Steeler, as his starting quarterback.  The prior season, the Jets signed O’Donnell to a five-year, $25 million deal (my how things have changed over the last 27 years) beating out the Steelers, who offered $3.1 million per year.  O’Donnell went on to start six games for Kotite, losing each one, throwing just four touchdowns, and having seven interceptions. 

The next season with Parcells, O’Donnell improved, starting 14 games, going 8-6 in those games, throwing 17 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.  By the next season, O’Donnell was no longer a Jet.  Payton knows he is stuck with Wilson for two more seasons since his 2024 salary of $17 million is fully guaranteed. 

For the next two years, Wilson will either fall in line with the Payton offense or watch the game standing next to him.  No longer will we be bombarded with the slogan “Let Russ Cook.”  Wilson will need to fit into the offense, using his legs and his movement to make plays.  In the past two seasons, Wilson has been reluctant to run—reluctant to step up into the pocket and look down the field.  The first sign of the opponent’s jersey in the pocket, Wilson looks to run sideways to avoid the hit. 

At 35 years old, Wilson has taken a ton of hard hits, and it’s typical for quarterbacks as they age to want to avoid contact.   During Wilson’s best rushing season in 2014, he averaged 7.4 carries per game, 7.2 yards per carry and made 47 first downs by running with the ball. 

Last year, he averaged 3.7 rushes per game, five yards per carry, and he gained 21 first downs with his feet.  Wilson’s numbers rushing have been coming down significantly. In fact, in the last two seasons, he gained 460 yards total. In 2020, he gained 513.  Clearly a decline—indicating he doesn’t wasn’t to run. 

And when he doesn’t move, Wilson doesn’t have the height to see down the field. He needs to move up into the pocket to find the windows to make the throws, and with his eye level fixated on the rush, his yards per attempt have also been on a steady decline.  Last year, Wilson averaged 7.3 yards per attempt which is significantly lower than his 8.2 his Super Bowl-winning season in 2013. 

Payton completely understands the problems with Wilson.  He will manage the offense around Wilson, not through him.   What has to worry Payton as much as Wilson is his overall defense when playing against a good passing offense.  The Broncos have a reputation for being an elite defense, yet when they played well-coached offenses like the Chiefs and Raiders, the ball moved up and down the field through the air. 

Even with an elite corner in Patrick Surtain II, the Broncos were too inconsistent in their coverages and rushing ever to get control of the game.  With the return of Vance Joseph as the defensive coordinator and with Payton managing the game, the Broncos won’t be the worst third-down offense in football, which means they will play less defense than last season.  And playing less defense is the best defense. 

Payton will improve the Broncos.  They will win some of those close games they lost last season and should be a better home team, which will be important to the start of their season as they open with the Raiders and Commanders at home.  Their win total is set at 8.5 and winning nine games will still be a challenge even though they will be better coached.  My advice is to wait for the in-season win totals, as we need to get a better feel for Wilson’s playing skills with Payton.  Yes, Payton will make him better, but the question is how much?  And for me, I’d rather wait and get the right answer than guess.