Troy Renck: Easy to see Broncos coach Sean Payton more comfortable in second season

Troy Renck, The Denver Post on

Published in Football

DENVER — Sean Payton hustled off the podium Wednesday afternoon to undergo a cataracts procedure on his right eye, six days after it was performed on his left.

It has been a busy offseason for the Broncos coach. He underwent charisma bypass surgery a few months ago.

In his second year in charge, Payton is noticeably more comfortable and affable, revived by the competition of a young roster and no longer burdened by a quarterback that did not fit him or his scheme.

Make no mistake, Payton is in charge. But he no longer has to mark his territory, the culture of concrete he established has settled nicely.

“Look there is probably a little bit of it that first year where you are pissing on all the trees,” Payton said. “I am probably guilty of that.”

The transformation goes beyond canceling Thursday’s last workout of mandatory minicamp after making no concession last June.

Payton has been coaching for three decades, his ability to relate to players and turn whiteboard plays into touchdowns accelerated his rise from prized assistant to a Super Bowl champion boss.

But winning in the past guarantees nothing in the NFL. Remaining respected and effective requires the convergence of distinctive characteristics that separate a coach from a man with a whistle draped across his neck.

For Payton, 60 years old is the new 40. Bob Dylan can provide the soundtrack to juxtapose 2023 with 2024. “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

Payton is facing his biggest challenge since rescuing the New Orleans Saints in 2006, and learning which battles deserve battery power.

The USA Today recently ranked him as the NFL’s 16th best coach behind the likes of the Colts’ Shane Steichen (zero playoff wins) and DeMeco Ryans (10 career victories). In the past, heck maybe even a year ago, such a slight would have boiled his blood. This week he showed restraint.

“I think that I have two middle fingers. I’ve gotten better with age at not using them,” Payton said. “I think it’s more — and I would say this changed for me — it’s more inward focused relative to our own team and what we’re doing.”

Perhaps his biggest change is with the media. Last offseason, the Broncos went dark, players were not available for interviews and, on the rare occasion they spoke at a charity event it was with trepidation. Payton instituted new press rules, like no tweeting during practice and moved us to the walkway above the berm. He didn’t address the media. He tolerated us. It didn’t bother me because at least he played no favorites.

A year later, we are back down at field level, able to move around for better viewing of plays and drills. And Payton’s press conferences have been engaging and insightful with sprinkles of self-deprecating wit.


Fans, generally speaking, do not care how a coach interacts with the press. But this version of Payton is the one owner and CEO Greg Penner sees behind the curtain, offering a hint of why this partnership should work. Payton is charming, a storyteller worthy of a porch and a rocking chair.

The common refrain is that Payton has educated the ownership group in its first foray into sports. That was the case initially, but Penner and Payton have a relationship that is becoming equally beneficial. While Payton gladly answers Penner’s football questions — and he is all in, rarely missing a practice while watching from the sideline — Penner reciprocates with his Fortune 500 acumen.

“I have a lot of respect for what he’s done. He’s developed respect for what I’ve done not in the football world, but in the business world. I see it as I have to empower him to build what we want here,” Penner told me in late March. “At the same time he understands my role. He respects it. He listens.”

It is part of Payton’s evolution. Denver isn’t New Orleans. The Broncos are not a startup company. They have won three Super Bowls and played in eight.

He does not have to tell Broncos Country how and why winning happens. They know what it looks like. No demonstration of power and impatience is required.

They want a winner, a return to relevance, a vision for the future. Payton gets it, his dispatching of Russell Wilson and drafting Bo Nix invigorated him as he shed popular veterans like Justin Simmons and Josey Jewell.

“Clearly we are younger and we shouldn’t be afraid of that,” Payton said. “We embrace it.”

Hungry players, and depth chart cage matches, have created a practice pace more to Payton’s liking. This is his type of team.

“It kind of creates a little bit of elevation in regards to execution, study, energy on the field,” quarterbacks coach Davis Webb said. “It has been fun to watch.”

I don’t know if Payton can pull this off. But he’s clearly relishing the challenge.

“The reward of seeing someone develop and accomplish something and gain confidence constantly comes with new players and veteran players,” Payton said. “And it’s kind of addictive.”

The difference in Payton is obvious. And it does not require eye surgery to see.

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