If coach Sean Payton can’t get the Broncos in the playoffs from here, we should all be ticked off.
While Denver has little margin for error to secure a wild-card berth, the notion that Payton deserves strong consideration for Coach of the Year if Denver recovers from a 1-5 start to get in the Super Bowl tournament is pure poppycock.
Broncos CEO Greg Penner and team ownership paid Payton a reported $18 million salary to fix Russell Wilson, not dig a hole and then regularly drop hints that the mess was his quarterback’s fault.
No contender for a wild-card berth in the AFC has an easier schedule than what awaits Denver.
With two games against the Chargers’ Brandon Staley, who’s a dead coach walking, a Patriots squad so bad it might get Bill Belichick fired, and Raiders that will already be packing for Cancun on the final weekend of the regular season, if Payton can’t get Denver to the playoffs from here, he richly deserves a grade of “F” for his first season in Colorado.
We haven’t forgotten Payton declared at the outset of training camp he would be ticked off if the Broncos failed to make the playoffs. So why should we not grade Payton’s work by his own words now?
Maybe the real genius of Payton’s success in New Orleans was quarterback Drew Brees. And if Wilson is so wretched, how did Seattle coach Pete Carroll figure out how to drag him twice to the Super Bowl with the Seahawks?
In victory or defeat with the Broncos, Payton has been quick to shove Wilson under the bus and slow to acknowledge it’s the coach driving the orange-and-blue bandwagon that somehow surrendered 70 points to the Dolphins, while also losing to quarterbacks named Sam Howell and Zach Wilson.
The latest example: Payton lamented that his team fell victim to chaos in the red zone during the final minute of a 22-17 loss at Houston. Wilson let panic get the best of him and he threw an interception in the end zone, ruining the chance for the Broncos to win the game and take control of their playoff destiny down the stretch.
While Wilson bears a heavy responsibility for a bad mistake at the worst possible time in this crucial loss to the Texans, who should ultimately be held accountable for the defeat?
With the football in their possession and the clock winding down in clutch time, the Broncos looked so confused that if we didn’t know better, I would suggest they looked like a poorly coached team.
“I think as a teacher, we always have to examine the why. Did we explain it well enough? Did we cover it well enough? How could we have done a better job ourselves?” Payton said. “If you hand out a test to your students and two-thirds of them are getting C’s and D’s, then you have to look at yourself.”
Thanks for that refreshing moment of accountability, Mr. Payton.
For a master of the NFL universe, it took Payton far too long this season to realize that Wilson is never going to be Brees. Only after the record dropped to 1-5 did Payton fully accept that his Broncos must win gritty, not pretty, by leaning on their defensive talent and asking Wilson to put down his ego, hand off the football to Javonte Williams and throw the majority of passes short and outside the numbers, where interceptions seldom happen.
By putting back together a defense that was in shambles in September, maybe defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has had as much or more to do with the Broncos’ revival as Payton.
None of us is as arrogant, glib and grumpy about the NFL as Payton. He’s a football genius, as Payton makes it clear to everybody who’s not.
But the crazy-rich Waltons didn’t pay Payton anywhere in the neighborhood of $18 million per year to finish 9-8 and be stuck with a draft pick in the middle of first round, when all the marquee quarterbacks, from USC’s Caleb Williams to North Carolina’s Drake Maye to LSU’s Jayden Daniels, will be off the board and long gone.
We might all be fools, me most of all. But we all would be foolish to give Payton a pass and lay the blame on Wilson if the Broncos fail to make the playoffs.
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