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Payton or no Payton, unanimous optimism will be a tough sell to Broncos Country

Super Bowl winning head coach Sean Payton is the odds-on favorite to take over the struggling Denver Broncos franchise, but for a fanbase that has been burnt so many times over the years, skepticism will remain

Dallas Mavericks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Denver Broncos just concluded one of the most inept failures of a season in the history of the franchise. Yet, now that Nathaniel Hackett is out the door and many signs point to Sean Payton, a Super Bowl-winning coach with 10 or more wins in nine of 15 years as a head coach, as replacement, excitement should be flowing into the seats, right?

Not so fast.

Would a guy like Payton be worthy of fan optimism, relief, and the belief that much better days are ahead? Sure. The man’s record speaks for himself.

He resurrected a struggling New Orleans Saints franchise and turned them into annual contenders. In doing that, he also elevated the career of Drew Brees, a good QB pushed aside for Philip Rivers and rejected by the Miami Dolphins, to that of a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.

He also had former Broncos QB Teddy Bridgewater playing the best football of his career during a 5-game win streak with Drew Brees sidelined in 2019, which led to him landing a $63 million deal with the Carolina Panthers the next season.

Yes, the guy’s resume makes whatever Nathaniel Hackett laid across George Paton’s desk last cycle look like a post-it note. Still, however, there will still be a contingent of this proud fan base that will take a wait and see approach. And who could blame them?

Every since Peyton Manning retired following the 2015 season, in which the Broncos under his leadership were among the best teams in the league, the franchise has taken an out-of-control nosedive year after year.

Let’s recap.

2016 - The Paxton Lynch Debacle

The offseason that followed Manning’s retirement, John Elway traded up in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft to take what he perceived to be the next great Broncos QB in big, strong-armed QB Paxton Lynch out of Memphis. Greatness out, soon-to-be greatness in, right?


Neither Lynch, nor free agent placeholder Mark Sanchez, stood out in camp to defeat former 7th round pick Trevor Siemian, and when Lynch once again failed to rise to the occasion the next offseason, the writing was on the wall. He will go down as one of the biggest busts in recent memory, and the Broncos QB situation has been a mess since.

2017 - Vance Joseph hired

Okay, this was less of a reason for fans to be excited more so than the front office doing all they could to sell the hiring of Joseph, a minimally experienced defensive coordinator with no head coaching experience, as a home run. A “leader of men” was a phrase used to describe him.

The addition of Garrett Bolles to the offensive line would help Paxton Lynch, who surely would be starter, get comfortable, and Elway looked to have steals in later round picks DeMarcus Walker, Carlos Henderson, Jake Butt, and DeAngelo Henderson.

Yeah. This is a sequence fans would like to forget. Joseph would go 11-21 in two season before being let go.

2018 - Case Keenum is still Case Keenum, and Josh Allen is now in Buffalo

The Broncos finally gave up on the Paxton Lynch experiment and cut the former first-rounder before the season. The return of prodigal son Brock Osweiler didn’t stick, either, and given that Siemian just wasn’t good, the team was once again in the market for a QB.

With the number five pick in the draft, the team could have taken Josh Allen, a QB from a minimally competitive conference who lacked tape against the best in college football but had a frame and arm to make scouts forget that. However, after whiffing on his previous two hand-picked QB choices, Elway went with pass rusher Bradley Chubb and signed journeyman QB Case Keenum, coming off a career year with the Minnesota Vikings, to be the starter.

Keenum wasn’t a big name but did provide a jolt of optimism, as he led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game the prior season and was even named just outside the top 50 by his peers in the top 100 players entering 2018.

Yet, in a Broncos uniform, he looked as average as he had looked the majority of his career and led Denver to just 6 wins in his lone season. Don’t get it twisted, Allen would’ve certainly been ruined by Denver, but it does sting just a bit watching him dominate the league. Keenum, ironically, was his backup this year.

2019 - Joe Flacco, Drew Lock, and Vic Fangio

Out was the green Vance Joseph and in was the gruff, seasoned, and well-respected Vic Fangio. Elway even convinced Mike Munchak, one of the most well-respected O-Line coaches, to come aboard in that role despite not getting the head coach position he interviewed for.

Also out was Keenum, and in was Super Bowl champ Joe Flacco and rookie Drew Lock, who after being projected a first-round pick by many pundits, fell to Denver in the second round. Add in a new offensive coordinator in Rich Scangarello from the Sean McVay coaching tree, and we’re back in business, right?

Not really.

Flacco flopped, Scangarello looked clueless calling plays, and the team went 7-9. However, the defense was respectable, the offensive line showed improvement, and after Flacco grabbed the bench, rookie Drew Lock went 4-1 to finish the year, looking like the answer...finally.

2020 - COVID hits, Lock isn’t the answer

This one was a mess from the start.

COVID destroyed the season, as teams had to postpone games, hold players out, and allow players to opt out should they feel that was best for them.

The “highlight” of this season was Kendall Hinton being forced to be elevated from his position as practice squad WR to starting NFL QB, as every QB on the active roster had to sit out with COVID protocols. That game went about how you’d expect, but at least Hinton earned a spot in the Hall-of-Fame for his meteoric and unorthodox rise to starting QB for a day.

Lock, given the starting role, failed to live up to the expectations he built for himself finishing the 2019 season and looked nothing like a long-term plan (though he’ll always have his supporters).

2021 - Teddy Bridgewater can’t “Alex Smith” the Broncos to winners

With Fangio coaching for his job after a 5-11 2020 season, he decided to go against the high risk, high reward style of Lock and awarded the starting QB job to the less flashy, more reliable free agent Teddy Bridgewater.

This was also general manager George Paton’s first season, and he made significant waves when he chose to pass on a potential franchise QB in Justin Fields for defensive back Pat Surtain II. Bridgewater was expected to be a bridge QB, so this move made little sense to some.

Yet, maybe Bridgewater, a former first-round pick, could find his stride and be the talented game manager, ala Alex Smith with Kansas City, to get the Broncos back to the playoffs. He had an offensive line that had improved under Munchak and two talented receivers in Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton.

Once again, more letdown.

The Broncos finished 7-10 let again, Bridgewater fought through injuries, and Jeudy was beginning to look like a first-round bust.

2022 - The biggest kick in the nuts of all

Let’s not rehash it too deeply. Never was more excitement generated and expectations lifted only to completely explode into the biggest disappointment of all time.

To sum it up, Sean Payton would be a great hire, someone who certainly is an upgrade over the last coach, but this is a fanbase that has been through a LOT. Therefore, if a parade isn’t thrown right away, don’t take offense.

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