ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Winning has afforded Sean Payton a lot of things.
By winning more than 60 percent of the NFL games he's coached, the Super Bowl XLIV champion head coach was granted a level of respect, freedom and comfort that few coaches achieve in a notoriously volatile business.
One of the things he may not have anticipated receiving was greater latitude to be selective in future opportunities, and when he turned his attention toward returning to the coaching profession following a year in retirement, he was able to exercise that luxury for the first time in his career.
Generally speaking, this is rarely the case for coaching candidates, but as the Broncos' search committee identified Payton as a perfect fit for the organization, Payton also identified the Broncos as an ideal situation for him. In the process, the Broncos were able to secure their next head coach, and Payton was able to find his next home.
"Last month, I said we were looking for a strong leader who could build a winning culture, one with accountability and discipline and also build a really strong identity on offense," Owner and CEO Greg Penner said Monday. "I couldn't be more proud of where we came out, and we have the perfect coach in Sean Payton."
For the former Saints head coach, the process began with an itch he felt during his year in retirement as an analyst on the "FOX NFL Kickoff." During his introductory press conference, Payton said he ached for the Sundays when he could essentially be around the sport all day, talking about the games and watching them unfold on the studio's eight televisions. But not physically being around a team pained him.
"There's nothing to replace the feeling of winning," Payton said. "It just didn't. So off in the distance, I use this analogy — it was a little bit like that race track where you can smell the gasoline, you heard the cars running, you could see the lights. You knew you were there and you know what 'there' is like. It's hectic, it's loud, it's busy, it's noisy. It's not always fun. There's challenging times. There's losses, there's wins. But every day you'd look and you'd hear it and you're thinking, 'Man, I can't wait to get back.'"
He said his wife, Skylene, at some point eventually said, "When are you getting back to work, buddy?"
So as teams began their searches following the end of the 2022 season, so did he.
The Broncos, meanwhile, were looking for someone with pretty much exactly Payton's resume. Penner said on Dec. 27 that the organization was looking for "a strong leader for this organization that's focused on winning," someone who could instill "a sense of accountability, discipline … [and] an identity on offense." Previous head-coaching experience also felt like an important characteristic, and Payton had been with the Saints for more than a decade.
In his assessment of available jobs, Payton looked to that experience for guidance. In New Orleans, he joined a franchise that he felt had strong ownership, a harmonic relationship with the front office and a devoted fan base. In his next head-coaching stop, he wanted those same characteristics.
"Ownership was important to me," Payton said. "I had been exposed to a great ownership group in New Orleans. … What I knew for 16 years was functional; it wasn't easy, but it was functional and it was supportive and it was respectful and it was teamwork at its best. And that was [Saints GM] Mickey Loomis, who I didn't know at the time, who later became a very close friend, and then [late Saints owner] Mr. [Tom] Benson and [Saints owner & CEO] Mrs. [Gayle] Benson. That triangle, to me, was most important in this process. And obviously the players, the city — all of those things factor in. I think the second-most important thing to me was the passion — is football important here? And obviously it is, right? [Denver is] a city that's had great success — three championships and a number of Super Bowl appearances. …
"Throughout the process of interviewing, it still came back to that triangle of front office, ownership and then a passionate fan base."
The two sides first met on the first day Payton could field in-person meetings, and Penner, Condoleezza Rice and General Manager George Paton visited him in Los Angeles for more than four hours.
The conversation, as Paton said, revealed important commonalities — "I felt like throughout the interview we were aligned on how we want to build this," Paton said — that would forge the confidence that the Broncos had found their coach and the coach had found his next position.
Denver still needed to compensate the Saints for Payton's rights, as Payton was still under contract with New Orleans. Over the course of several days of conversation between Paton and Loomis, the two teams agreed on a deal that allowed Payton to come to Denver.
"I just can't say enough about Mickey and the first-class [characteristics] he showed to get the trade done," Paton said. "And the goal all along was not only to get Sean, but also for it to be win-win — win for the Broncos, win for the Saints — and I think we accomplished that."
While it may not have been the easiest process, the end result was still what the Broncos hoped for, as they secured arguably the most sought-after coach in this year's cycle. Penner also confirmed the team honed in on Payton as a candidate nearly a week before the trade was official, refuting reports that the team made last-minute pushes for other candidates.
"At the end of the day, we wanted to run a comprehensive process, we wanted to be open-minded," Penner said. "We met with eight great candidates. We learned something in each of those meetings. And so we came away from it feeling really good about the process. But the most important thing is where we ended up, and where we ended up is with the perfect coach for the Denver Broncos."
Now that Payton has been granted a new opportunity, his goal is the same as it's always been: winning championships and winning games, pure and simple.
"Win," Payton said, when asked about his aspirations. "It's important here. Look, I've had a number of opportunities maybe to go somewhere and it just didn't [feel right]. Here you are, there's no other city that's sold out as often as this city is with their football team. In fact, in all of sports. That's important. That passion is important. That crowd noise. I don't want to play somewhere, coach somewhere where half the … fans are coming from the opponent's team, and I know that's not the case here. So, winning."
How much more can winning provide him after a successful 15 years in New Orleans? Sean Payton may just find out.
As the Broncos officially introduced Sean Payton as the team's new head coach, the franchise welcomed him with a reception and then held his first introductory press conference.