ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — At one point in Monday’s practice, Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton stepped between the offense and the defense during an 11-on-11 session and drew the players closer. He held a hand out toward one side of the ball. He held his other hand out toward the opposing line of scrimmage. From a mildly distant perch on a hill — which is the new home of a media contingent that once roamed much closer in these situations — it looked like a lesson was being imparted.
If the Broncos were looking for some kind of agent of change or a more experienced coaching architect after a 2022 debacle, it was’t hard to locate either one. Even if you had to squint a little more or break out the binoculars to get a better idea of exactly what’s happening in practice.
Not that it’s a secret. Sean Payton is happening in Denver. The football force of nature who transformed the New Orleans Saints from a languishing franchise into a Super Bowl winner and perennial offensive juggernaut is now cutting, slicing, honing, teaching and, lest anyone have missed his verbal fireworks from earlier in camp, talking an unmissable path toward the 2023 regular season. It’s a journey that at the very least promises no shortage of chest-out entertainment, but also carries a high probability of schematic improvement where it matters most.
That’s what is happening in Denver with Payton, whose initial message to the Broncos’ locker room was to the point: One way or another, things are going to significantly change from last season, both on the field and in the standings.
“He basically just came in saying how everything was going to be different around here,” wideout Jerry Jeudy recollected of Payton’s first introduction to the entire team. “[He said] we would be working harder and doing things different and to his expectations. He just brought his energy into the facility.”
Into the facility and onto the field, where it takes only one practice and watching Payton stop a drill to see where the work and expectations are going.
“He’s making sure we’ve got our assignment and are playing fast and are doing everything we need to do,” Jeudy said Tuesday. “He’s making that the main focus on everything he does. If he doesn’t like a certain play, he’ll redo it and redo it until he likes it. If he doesn’t like how we run out of the huddle, we come back and do it again. It’s just perfection that he’s looking for in everything we’re doing. … It was kind of similar [with Nick Saban at Alabama]. There’s a lot of similarities because both of them are like teachers. They’re not just coaching us, they’re also teaching us the game, teaching us using the situations they’ve been through.”
In context of Payton’s history, some of what Jeudy is describing is the asset that often drove the peak Saints offenses — an inside-out knowledge and drilling of the most detailed layers in the scheme, with a masterful understanding of how to manipulate defenses. All led by a quarterback in Drew Brees who was essentially drilled into a coaching extension of Payton and his staff. All with a singular belief: Understanding every finite detail of an offense and practicing it to perfection unlocks speed; speed and perfect execution on offense leads to an ability to dictate tempo; and the ability to consistently dictate tempo in a game eventually pushes defenses into mistakes.
If there’s a redesign of the path forward with Russell Wilson, that’s where it will start. First by mastering the understanding of Payton’s offense, then seizing on that knowledge to allow Wilson and the offense to operate fast. So, if we’re harkening back to some of the lowlights of Denver’s 2022 season, that likely eliminates situations where the Broncos’ home crowd feels the necessity to count down an expiring play clock. That alone might be the best reminder that tempo is a great starting point for Wilson and this offense.
“Getting guys in and out of the huddle, off the sideline, getting into the huddle quickly, getting the play called, breaking the huddle, up to the line of scrimmage — one, I think it puts pressure on the defense,” Broncos offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said Tuesday. “[The defense is] trying to figure out who’s in the huddle and getting their personnel in, figuring out which receiver is in, which tight end is in, what play call do I want to make defensively based on who we have in the huddle. I think that puts pressure on them. Also, just giving the quarterback more time at the line of scrimmage if he needs to make protection checks or run checks.”
It’s not exactly a revolutionary line of thought in the NFL. But it doesn’t have to be, either. For a team that has as much offensive talent as the Broncos, figuring out how to execute in a timely manner is likely going to be a significant step forward in the franchise from former head coach Nathaniel Hackett’s mistakes in 2022. There’s little use re-litigating that crash again in its entirety, but if there was one aspect that ignited a growing offensive crisis in Wilson’s first season under center, it was Hackett leaving himself woefully unprepared to handle multiple aspects of game management going into the season.
That shouldn’t be a thing in 2023. Not unless Payton somehow pops off the top of his head and removes the brain that coached the Saints to multiple top-five offensive perches over the course of his career in New Orleans.
Of course, some of that will depend on Wilson, who came into camp slimmer and has put together a cleaner training camp than one season ago. Has he been perfect? No. But word inside Broncos headquarters is that his practice tape looks consistently better in the early going. That improved practice tape and Russell’s slimmer physique is a good start, not to mention the fact that he’s healthy again.
As one source in the building reminded of Wilson last season, he was playing through a multitude of injuries that included his calf, groin, shoulder — and a concussion.
“He was beat to s***,” the source said. “Just another layer of a dreaded season.”
A dreaded season that everyone here is happy to forget. Although Payton didn’t help in that regard earlier in camp, when he decimated Hackett’s coaching job and the Broncos’ culture in 2022 during an interview with USA Today. It was remarkably explosive criticism that raised eyebrows in his coaching fraternity and earned Payton a jabby nickname from one of his coaching contemporaries who dubbed him “Sean Payton-heimer” — an ode to the atomic bomb inventor — during one of Yahoo Sports’ previous training camp stops.
Payton apologized for the remarks one day after he made them. And accounts from inside the Broncos were little more than a shrug, given that he’d already earned a significant line of credit inside the franchise and that some of the criticisms weren’t exactly new. Not to mention the fact that Payton wasn’t necessarily wrong about how badly things had gone in 2022, just wrong in airing it the way that he did.
The upside for Denver, of course, is that the NFL news cycle moves quickly and the whole dustup shouldn’t be much of a headline again until the Broncos meet the New York Jets and Hackett (who is the team’s offensive coordinator) in Week 5 of the regular season. Until then, there are plenty of real-life football worries to tend to, from early camp injuries to the continued work of installing the offense, to retooling aspects of the team’s culture that Payton want’s to see change. Some are physical, like a pole he had installed near the team’s outdoor news conference podium, which boasts a green and white street sign that reads “2023 Compete Street”. Other cultural changes have been more verbal or methodical, like Payton’s decision to play several key starters in the team’s first preseason game and also dictate some new sideline conduct.
Asked what he wanted players to focus on in Friday’s preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals, Payton said on Monday that he’d spend the week focusing on different facets of his expectations, including the necessity of evaluating players against a scheme and group of players they haven’t been practicing against for weeks. Then he added specific details about what he didn’t want to see.
“I don’t want to see 10 guys on the field,” he said. “I don’t want to see uniforms off after we’re done playing, [with] sunglasses on and Gilligan hats on and interviews during the game. That’s what I don’t want to see, but we will communicate all of that.”
For now, that’s just for starters with Payton. It’s going to be a detailed and at times grinding process, something that players have learned with seven padded practices in their first 11 days of full-blown camp work (not counting the team’s first two “ramp up” days). For those counting at home, NFL teams are allowed only 16 padded practices in all of preseason and no more than three consecutive days of that kind of work. That means following the Broncos’ initial two-day “soft opening,” Payton has already worked the team in pads nearly half of the allowable amount over the past 11 practices.
Welcome to Compete Street.
Even with all of that in hand, nobody in Denver is in a hurry to make any predictions about how all of this will turn out. Not about the offense, not about Russell Wilson, and not about where the team’s fortunes are headed in 2023. That kind of thing is a relic of 2022. And like a whole lot of aspects of that season, it’s being left behind.