PHOENIX — From island to island, microphone to microphone, Sean Payton made the rounds on Friday morning in the Super Bowl media center. As the final 72 hours of his stint as a Fox Sports analyst came to an end and the first few days of his reign with the Denver Broncos overlapped, worlds began to collide and nothing was off the table.
Only hours removed from spending the evening with new quarterback Russell Wilson and longtime friend Joe Montana, Payton was spotted in the early morning hours chatting up All-Pro running back and soon-to-be free agent Josh Jacobs. A short time later, he regaled a few Denver media members with a favorite story regarding newly minted Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware. Sprinkled into an interview here or there, he tried to smooth out 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 choice” but to make the best with Wilson.
Throughout it all, Payton kept repeating some version of the same phrase about the Broncos’ crash in 2022.
“Dirt on everyone …”
“Muddy hands …”
“A lot of responsibility to go around …”
On its face, it was a communal defense of Wilson, who became the last man standing after the firing of head coach Nathaniel Hackett. And if Payton was the read-between-the-lines type, you could craft 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. An overarching belief that is going to be a guiding principal in Denver moving forward — especially once Payton gets into his office on Monday.
Right now, he’s happy with the triangle of ownership, general manager and head coach. But he’s planting verbal signs at seemingly every stop that there’s going to be a sweeping culture change in Denver. As much as everyone wants to focus in on Wilson and what Payton can do to get him back a top-10 quarterback, this is starting to sound a lot deeper than just getting the centerpiece right. Frankly, outside of Wilson, it’s probably fair to assume that every single part of the franchise that is beneath the ownership level is now under audit in 2023. And the term everyone should be absorbed as … everyone.
The personnel department? Under audit. Strength and conditioning? On alert. Business operations? Have the books in order. Coaching staff, players, trainers, mental health staffers … even the fans had better expect to be critiqued. That frustrated booing and leaving early routine of last season? You will be catching some s*** under this head coach. And he’s not going to care if you like it.
The media pummeling that Hackett took last season? Go ask anyone who covered the New Orleans Saints over a solid period of time. Payton is going to hit back. That’s the takeaway here. As much as anyone and everyone might be gearing up to evaluate Payton in the coming months, they should know he’s going to be staring right back at them. All this story time stuff with analogies and explanations is going to wane in the coming weeks and months. Pretty soon it’s going to be about results and little more.
Let that resonate for a bit. And when Payton keeps repeating that line about a “lot of dirty” hands or whatever version of the phrase he chooses at that given time, it’s best to assume he actually thinks more than two people — Hackett and Wilson — were the only problem in Denver last season.
“Typically speaking, if a team is 5-12, there is probably a lot of muddy hands,” Payton said Friday in a sit-down with Yahoo Sports. “Now, the focus always goes to the quarterback and the head coach — that’s nothing new. But that being said, getting the right culture, putting the right program in place, all of those things, how you run the football, how you play defense, these things all come back to good quarterback play.”
In other words, Wilson is going to be fixed both individually and collectively. Payton pointed out that over the expanse of his career, he helped tailor offenses to all manner of quarterbacks, from Kerry Collins to Vinny Testaverde to Quincy Carter; Drew Brees to Taysom Hill, Teddy Bridgewater and beyond. Getting Wilson into a system built to his strengths is not the hard part. The difficult part will be augmenting every other thing around him, so that the effectiveness of the entire operation and the culture that supports it all works together. In some ways, everything is going to be retooled, either entirely or partially, because that’s what a massive culture change requires. This is why Payton brought up having a $30,000 stereo system with the Saints, because that’s just one of the kind of detail-oriented things he thinks about.
When you experience the joy of winning, who can hear it?
That seems like such an odd detail to attribute to culture, but that’s where this is going. We’re all out here thinking about Payton game-managing and he’s already 100 yards past it, deciding where people should be sitting on the plane rides home. Failing as a game manager isn’t even in his vocabulary at this point. To Payton, that’s like the CEO of an automotive corporation being asked if he knows how tires work.
Right now, he’s concerned with “the triangle:” How ownership, the general manager and the head coach all work together. If the answer to that is what it should be, instilling the right culture will work. And if the right culture works, the food chain of problems that comes after that tends to work itself out with some time and patience.
“If you feel good about that triangle, you’ve got a chance,” Payton said. “It doesn’t guarantee you success, but you have a chance. What guarantees you something is when that [triangle is] not right, you have no chance. And that exists in a lot of teams in our league. They can beat you on a Sunday, but they’re dysfunctional at the top.”
“[Culture] is like a garden,” he added. “You have to pay attention to it daily. Number two, it’s people. And what I mean by that is you can have great cultural goals and attention to detail, but if you’re bringing 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. He’s talking about everyone. And right now, everyone should be listening. The next head coach of the Denver Broncos shows up to his office on Monday, and it’s the only thing he will be doing moving forward. The overlap with his analyst days at Fox Sports will be finished and the job in front of him is all that will matter.
Everyone with dirty hands is on notice. Payton has been saying it for days.