As the Broncos welcome the 20th head coach in franchise history, get to know more about Sean Payton, starting with his historic tenure with the Saints and going back to his college days:
1. He led the Saints to an unprecedented run of success and Super Bowl XLIV
Before Payton joined New Orleans in 2006, the Saints organization had not seen much success. It took 21 years before a Saints team finished a season with a winning record and another 13 years until they won a playoff game. From 1967 through 2005, New Orleans won its division just twice. But after he joined the team — along with a new free-agent quarterback he helped lure in Drew Brees — the team found success early and often. The Saints won seven division titles, nine playoff games and Super Bowl XLIV, as they toppled the Colts to cap the 2009 season. In short, Payton energized a long-suffering franchise and took it to new heights.
2. High-powered offense has been Payton's calling card
From 2006 through 2021, the Saints were the NFC's top-scoring team with 27.6 points per game. Across the entire league, only the Patriots scored more points during that time. New Orleans finished six seasons with the top total offense, including in Payton's first season in 2006. The previous year, the Saints ranked 20th in that statistic. Brees' skills and how much he threw the ball were a major factor, as New Orleans attempted more passes during Payton's tenure than any other team. But even from 2017 through 2020, when the Saints ranked in the bottom half of the league in pass attempts, New Orleans ranked in the top five in scoring in each of those seasons. As Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in 2021, speed is also a big part of why Payton's offense operates so well.
"They operate very quickly. They're on and off the field. They're in that little huddle," said Belichick. "They're up to the line and the ball's snapped, and if you take time to break it all down, you can sort of figure out, 'Yeah, well, this is why he's in this set, and that's why he's doing this and that, and that's what this guy does well, and that's where he's got in there,' but it's hard to do it during the game because it happens so fast, and then as soon as that play is over, he's got somebody else in there and a whole other set of personnel, formations, motion, ball snap, and so it's hard to stay ahead of Sean just because he operates so quickly with so many variables."
Relive new Broncos head coach Sean Payton's NFL coaching career though these photos.
3. Payton's first season in New Orleans was the stuff of legend
The year before Payton was hired, there was farmore on the mind of New Orleans residents, as Hurricane Katrina had decimated the city. The Saints' Superdome home became a refuge for those in need of shelter and support, and the football team itself relocated to San Antonio as it played out a draining 2005 season. After going 3-13, the organization returned to New Orleans and brought in Payton to lead the team. Change was the defining characteristic of the offseason; as Robert Mays noted for The Ringer, 11 of New Orleans' starters were new to the team.
In inspirational fashion, Payton led the Saints to a hot start. They began the year 2-0 with a pair of road wins, and then they returned home for their first game at the Superdome since Katrina made landfall. In an emotional game — "I think every player at some point shed a tear, especially if he was on the team the year before," running back Deuce McAllister said — the Saints defeated the division rival Falcons 23-3, with Steve Gleason's blocked punt standing as the game's most indelible play.
As New Orleans was being rebuilt, the Saints continued an unlikely season that ended with a 10-6 record. In the playoffs, they beat the Eagles and made it to the NFC Championship Game. Though they fell one game short of the Super Bowl, their season was so far from disappointing.
"Sean Payton did such a tremendous job of changing the culture," former Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie told The Athletic’s Jeff Duncan in 2020. "No one really knew what was going on with us. You hear about all of the stories of what people had to do to get back into their homes and just to get back to the city. Just to think about how much excitement and how much joy we brought and simply being able to play the game, before the game had been won, everybody was there to witness the return of this city to the world."
4. HOF head coach Bill Parcells was a 'father figure' for Payton
After stints with the Eagles and Giants, Payton went to his third NFC East team in 2003 when Pro Football Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells hired him to be the Cowboys' assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach. Parcells made the decision before he had even met Payton, as ESPN’s Mike Triplett reported in 2020. He hired Payton over the phone, and then they met when Jerry Jones' private plane flew them to Dallas.
"I'll never forget it," Payton told Triplett. "We spoke football the whole way."
While it took time for the two to build trust, Parcells eventually allowed Payton to call plays on offense, which at the time was described by the Associated Press in 2005 an "unusual relinquishment of control" for the Cowboys' head coach. Parcells estimated that he had called plays every season he coached since 1993 or 1994.
As Payton told Triplett, Parcells became a "father figure."
"I think any one of us who was passionate about football realized, 'Man, this is a great window of opportunity' that you don't always get ... getting this hands-on education and taking advantage of it as much as possible," Payton said. "And I think he saw something in me. I think it was probably the passion for the game. He might disagree with something — it didn't mean it wasn't without conflict — but if you were passionate about it, you were gonna get along just fine with him."
5. He and Mike Shanahan both played quarterback at Eastern Illinois
In a funny coincidence, the Broncos' new head coach and their winningest head coach in team history have the same alma mater. Shanahan and Payton both attended Eastern Illinois and played quarterback, though Shanahan's playing career ended abruptly when he ruptured a kidney during a spring practice.
Payton had a successful run leading the Panthers, as he was a three-time FCS All-American honorable mention and a two-time Gateway Conference Offensive Player of the Year. According to a 1987 press release from Eastern Illinois, Payton finished his collegiate playing career with the third-most passing yards in college football history, regardless of division.
While his professional playing career didn't pan out, Payton found much more success as a coach, and he was able to look up to Shanahan during that time.
"At that time, Mike Shanahan was a guy who was coaching, and he was the one head coach in the NFL — and we were all as student-athletes aware of his career (at Eastern Illinois) as a quarterback and then on as a coach," Payton said in 2010.
Tony Romo, Jimmy Garoppolo and Brad Childress are among the other prominent Eastern Illinois football alums.