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Experience or potential? A multiple choice question the Broncos can’t afford to get wrong

The Denver Broncos coaching search is winding down, and it appears the team has its finalists, including a hot up-and-comer and some seasoned vets

NFL: Washington Commanders at San Francisco 49ers Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos just can’t not do drama.

Ever since the team parted ways with Nathaniel Hackett last month, the new ownership has played things fairly close to the vest but in doing so have provided somewhat of a “will they/won’t they” vibe regarding the candidates.

Jim Harbaugh, following leading the Michigan Wolverines to a second college football playoff appearance, was clearly the top candidate for the Broncos...until the only meeting turned out to be a zoom meeting.

How about Sean Payton, the former New Orleans Saints coach who turned that franchise into an annual contender? He’d command significant money, but that is no issue for this ownership group. He was the odds on favorite for a few days, so much to the point it seemed like a “when” and not “if” situation. The smoke has since faded away in that regard, though, as the team never scheduled a second interview with him, and reports surfaced that he was uneasy about how much control ownership would have.

There’s also been David Shaw, former long time Stanford head coach, Dan Quinn, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator and former Atlanta Falcons head coach, and even Jim Caldwell, former Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions head coach.

And there have been murmurs that the door may not be completely shut on Harbaugh on Payton, although it certainly seems that way.

That is a lot of head coaching experience, and each has been successful at that role, even if it didn’t last. The Denver Broncos need a sure thing, or as sure as it can get, so recent reports that the team is zeroing in on San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans as the top candidate may shock some fans.

After all, this is a franchise who hired two experienced head coaches, John Fox and Gary Kubiak, and saw Super Bowl appearances from each of them, and then completely whiffed on first-time head coaches Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio, and Hackett.

Would it not make more sense to buck the trend and go back to more of a sure thing, even if it isn’t flashy? After all, just getting back to over .500 would be a reason for celebration, so why put all your chips on the table when there is an opportunity to walk away with a respectable, but not significant, amount? Having something is better than losing it all, right?

However, anyone who truly believes that has not been paying attention to what the new ownership is trying to do. From the start, they have indicated that they were going to swing big.

On the surface, that could’ve been interpreted as throwing a ridiculous amount of money at our candidate of choice and will not allow him the chance to refuse. Yet, it means more than that.

Sure, throwing $20-$25 million at a Harbaugh or Payton would give the Broncos a proven winner and would certainly be deemed a home run hire, but money and a winning history aren’t the only variety of home runs.

Every single head coach in the NFL was a first-time head coach at one time or another. Kyle Shanahan, perhaps the coach of the year frontrunner, had never been a head coach prior to his hiring by the 49ers. He had success carrying Dan Quinn and the Atlanta Falcons as offensive coordinator, but he was also fired from the same role with the Washington Commanders (then Redskins). The 49ers were taking a chance.

Zac Taylor was never anything higher than a position coach (QB) at the NFL level and never stayed somewhere more than two years before he was hired by the Cincinnati Bengals to be their head coach. The Bengals took a HUGE chance after being afraid to do so for so many years attaching themselves to Marvin Lewis. Yes, it helps to have Joe Burrows and Jamarr Chase, but don’t sell Taylor short.

Of the final four teams in the NFL playoffs, three head coaches are under the age of 44 and in their first head coaching role. Yes, the Broncos missed badly with Joseph, Fangio, and Hackett, but fingers can be pointed to the front office for roster construction as well.

The point is that just because the Broncos have struggled with first time coaches doesn’t mean every candidate without head coaching experience is going to fail. DeMeco Ryans has led the 49ers elite defense the past two seasons and was just named Assistant Coach of the year. He is widely respected, and his current boss Kyle Shanahan praised him as far back as his rookie year, when he established himself as leader of the Houston Texans’ defense.

Ryans was an All-American as a player, an All-Pro in the NFL, and as a coach, perhaps established himself as the league’s premier assistant. If the Broncos are truly going to go with a first-time candidate, this seems like the way to go.

Yet, there have been bounce backs from NFL coaches who got second chances with a new team. Fox and Kubiak, as mentioned above, did well. Andy Reid has been leading perhaps the hottest ticket in the NFL. And Doug Pederson just led the Jacksonville Jaguars to the playoffs after the team was torpedoed by Urban Meyer the year prior.

The difference between those situations and the Broncos, though? Peyton Manning, Patrick Mahomes, and Trevor Lawrence. That’s not to say Russell Wilson can’t be salvaged, but having those QBs do the heavy work for you does make things quite easier.

Whatever direction the Broncos go, the team really can’t afford to screw around with the hire, like they seemed to do with Hackett (to lure Aaron Rodgers). This next guy has to hit all the marks, and maybe that’s why Payton slipped off. Ryans, however, can be that guy, provided he assemble an offensive staff that can resurrect that unit back from the dead.

Yet, Ryans’ team from his playing days, the Texans, are coming calling as well. The longer this plays out, the worse it looks for the Broncos, so if ownership has their guy, they need to move as soon as possible. Let’s cut out the drama, hire our guy, and get back to being respectable on the field, whether the guy is a seasoned head coach or Ryans, a guy looking at his first gig.

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