One week after Nathaniel Hackett was hired as Broncos head coach last winter, he attended a Denver Nuggets basketball game as a guest of honor. Before the start of the second half, he was handed a mallet to bang on a giant drum on the baseline and hype up the crowd as the third quarter began.
Before Hackett began whacking the drum, he was asked by the in-game host what fans could expect from the offense the coach would be sending onto the field a little more than seven months from that night.
“We’re just going to tear it up,” Hackett said. “It’s that easy.”
The host turned to offensive coordinator Justin Outten, who had joined Hackett that night, and asked a variation of the same question.
“We’re going to score a lot of points!” Outten boldly declared.
Impromptu videoboard halftime interview with Broncos HC Nathaniel Hackett and OC Justin Outten (Nuggets lead 52-51)
“We’re just going to tear it up. It’s that simple.”
“We’re going to score a lot of points.” pic.twitter.com/TT9ZJPysfO
— Kyle Fredrickson (@kylefredrickson) February 5, 2022
The Broncos, even with the benefit of a late-season surge, finished 2022 as the lowest-scoring team in the NFL at 16.9 points per game. Connecting the unbridled optimism stemming from that February night to the dismal offensive showing that followed isn’t an effort to further scrutinize Hackett and Outten, two hard-working, likable coaches who were simply unable to produce the results they envisioned. It is instead an illustration of the difficulty Denver has had developing a modern offensive identity, regardless of what it has tried. Success on that side of the ball has evaded the franchise entirely since Peyton Manning retired seven years ago. That failure hasn’t only made it hard for the Broncos to win; it also has made them hard to watch.
As the team’s head coaching search rounds its final turn, there’s one obvious choice if the Broncos prioritize fixing their offense above all else.
If the Broncos hire Sean Payton, who interviewed with the team last Tuesday and could be brought to Denver for a second interview this week, they wouldn’t be sanguine about the prospects of a potent attack based on projections of what could be. They would believe in improvement ahead because all Payton has done as a head coach at the NFL level is producing explosive offenses.
Sean Payton trade offers: What will it take for Broncos, Panthers, Texans to make him their coach?
Just six months into his job as the top figure in the Broncos organization, CEO Greg Penner has a chance to make a seismic move in the name of addressing a problem that has prohibited Denver from being consistently competitive. It would be an even bigger swing than the one the Broncos took — before Penner arrived — to acquire Russell Wilson from the Seahawks in a blockbuster trade in March.
If there is such a thing as creating instant offense in the NFL, Payton’s track record suggests he’s the one to provide it.
From 2006 to 2021 — Payton coached all of those seasons except 2012, when he was suspended due to the Bountygate scandal — the Saints were second in the NFL in scoring at 27.7 points per game. Only the Patriots (28.5), led during most of that stretch by incomparable quarterback Tom Brady, scored more points. The 392.4 yards per game the Saints produced during Payton’s tenure were No. 1. Third-down conversion rate? No. 1. Red zone efficiency? Best in the league. Total touchdowns scored? More than anyone. The Saints were also tied atop the NFL with the Patriots during that stretch in expected points added (EPA) per play.
It was the sort of sustained offensive excellence the NFL has rarely seen. It was amassed amid shifts in personnel, changes to coaching staffs, rapidly emerging new trends in the league and opposing defenses hell-bent on figuring out how to stop it.
No matter what came their way for a decade and a half, the Saints just kept scoring touchdowns.
The constants in New Orleans were Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the percentage of credit that should be passed to each man for the Saints’ success. But the bottom line is Payton designed, and put his players into position to execute, an offense that was revolutionary in the way it stretched defenses, created easy completions and reached the end zone.
To wit, Brees completed more than 65 percent of his passes only once during his first five seasons in the NFL with the Chargers. He exceeded that rate in 13 of his 15 seasons with Payton and the Saints, including five seasons with completion percentages above 70.
As Broncos continue coach search with Sean Payton, draft capital question looms
The Broncos have finished no better than 22nd in scoring during the past seven seasons, and they have produced bottom-five finishes three times during that span. They rank 29th in completion percentage (60.1) since 2016. Collectively, only the Giants and Jets have been less potent on offense since 2016. That stretch of futility in Denver was produced by four head coaches, a truckload of different offensive coordinators and 12 starting quarterbacks.
Payton’s sample of head-coaching experience without Brees at quarterback is limited but still impressive. Take 2019, when Teddy Bridgewater stepped into a five-game starting cameo in place of the injured Drew Brees. The Saints went 5-0 during that stretch and averaged 25 points per game. In 2021, New Orleans had four quarterbacks start at least one game — and three started at least four. The Saints didn’t light up the scoreboard the way they had in years past, but they still put up 21.4 points per game, which was good for 19th.
Payton, should he be hired by the Broncos, would be working with a quarterback far more accomplished than Trevor Siemian or Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill. Yes, Wilson is coming off the worst statistical season of his career. But with a more refined structure under interim coach Jerry Rosburg, Wilson produced two of his best performances across the season’s final two games, providing legitimate hope he can still thrive in the right environment.
Payton has already outlined how he would go about setting the foundation for a more effective Wilson.
“I’d want to see a cut-up of all Russell’s past plays of 30 or more yards from the field (level), and I’d want to see if there’s some schemes that he felt comfortable with,” Payton said in October , when asked about the struggling quarterback during an interview with Fox Sports Radio’s Colin Cowherd. “Like, I know they did a great job in Seattle of bringing him off a naked boot and then pulling up. We all saw that throwback to (Tyler) Lockett across the field where the ball traveled 60 yards in the air. Then, I’d want to look at another film of his red zone touchdown passes. What I’m asking for from assistants is some of his greatest hits, and then make sure that we have those song lyrics available. If not, let’s put them in.”
Translation: Wilson doesn’t need to reinvent himself. He simply needs to be used more consistently in the ways he is most effective. Payton has made a successful career out of solving those kinds of riddles while defenses attempt to rapidly counter.
In a marathon media session after Denver’s win in its regular-season finale against the Chargers earlier this month, Wilson perked up at the idea of possibly playing for Payton.
“He’s one of the world’s best, obviously, a guy who has coached a (future) Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees, who was one of my closest friends and the guy that I got to know across the league,” Wilson said. “(Payton is) as competitive as can be; he’s a winner and, obviously, won a Super Bowl (in 2009). I was able to be around him at the Pro Bowl, and just the wizardry that you would have on the field was just magnificent.”
A ringing endorsement from Wilson would be icing on the cake, not its main ingredient. Penner has to make the decision he believes is best for the health of the franchise, regardless of the quarterback. Perhaps that isn’t Payton. Maybe Dan Quinn or David Shaw or Ejiro Evero or DeMeco Ryans is viewed more as the long-term culture-builder the ownership group is seeking.
Broncos coach search: Dan Quinn’s second candidacy, Sean Payton’s comments, more
But creating a functional offense should ultimately be at the core of this search. Of the eight teams that reached the divisional round of the playoffs this season, six of them were among the top eight in points per drive — and all eight teams resided among the top 15. Without a more prolific attack, the Broncos will continue to flounder . When it comes to addressing a sagging offense, the biggest on-field problem in Denver for the past seven years, the numbers say there is an obvious top choice.
(Top pic: Chuck Cook/USA Today)