BRONCOS

How Carolina’s entry into the Sean Payton sweepstakes could change things for the Broncos

Jan 16, 2023, 2:50 AM

Dissecting a coaching search is often about connecting dots. And quite often, the dots aren’t on the same page to begin with.

But with two reports Sunday and the dots between them, the dynamic of the Broncos’ potential pursuit of Sean Payton looks far different than it did when the holiday weekend began.

And no, this isn’t about the Los Angeles Chargers.

It’s about the Carolina Panthers.

Sunday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Panthers became the fourth team to receive permission to interview Payton.

This could be a game-changer.

For starters, the Panthers have resource-rich ownership. Yes, their owner, David Tepper, has a net worth that is roughly 30 percent of Rob Walton’s. But that still makes him the NFL’s second-wealthiest owner. And that means he won’t blanch at a bidding war for a coach — unlike, for example, the Chargers’ owners, the Spanos family.

Then, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said last week that it is the Saints’ “duty” to “maximize” the asset that is Payton, and what he could fetch in a trade.

“I absolutely want the best for him,” Loomis told New Orleans-area media last week. “But I also recognize that he’s a valuable asset. His contract is a valuable asset to our club, and it’s our duty to maximize that.”

And the Panthers have more draft assets than the Broncos. Thanks to their trade of Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers sit on a trove of picks that includes not only their own No. 9 overall pick, but two second-rounders, a third-rounder (from San Francisco) and two fourth-round picks.

Carolina is in position to put together a more attractive trade package than Denver — at least in terms of draft capital.

Yes, Carolina is in the same division as the Saints. That means the Saints could drive a hard bargain from their rivals.

But such proximity didn’t prevent the New York Jets for trading with the New England Patriots for Bill Parcells’ rights in 1997 … or from the same teams making a reverse deal involving Bill Belichick’s rights three years later.

And with Loomis focused on getting the most out of Payton’s rights, it’s Carolina who — along with Arizona, which has the No. 3 overall pick — who could put together the most robust deal of 2023 assets.

“I know what he brings to the table, and I know that’s really valuable,” Loomis said last week. “And it’s our obligation to maximize that value if he chooses to coach again within that time frame where we have those rights.”

In light of the Panthers’ interest came an intriguing item Sunday night: that Carolina interviewed Vic Fangio for its defensive-coordinator position, per The Athletic:

On Christmas Eve, news broke that Payton intended to put together an “all-star” coaching staff — with the former Broncos’ head coach potentially serving as defensive coordinator.

That Fangio has apparently interviewed with the Panthers shows that their Payton pursuit may already be at an advanced stage.

And that’s not to mention how Carolina offers the easiest path to contention. Its division champion, Tampa Bay, finished a modest 8-9 with Tom Brady at quarterback. All signs point to Brady playing elsewhere in 2023.

To say the NFC South is in transition is being kind. But it’s also ripe for the plucking. It isn’t hard to imagine Payton jumping to the Panthers and immediately making them the division favorites.

That stands in marked contrast to the AFC West. If Payton joins the Broncos, he will have to embrace the challenge of having two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks on the schedule four times a year. And that doesn’t account for the burgeoning QBs throughout the rest of the AFC, particularly Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence.

A look at the AFC’s four divisional-round teams reveals four QBs with an average age of 25.5. And the least accomplished of those — Lawrence — just showed remarkable resilience in following perhaps the worst 20 minutes of his on-field football life with the best 40 minutes in storming the Jaguars back from a 27-0 deficit.

Since the paths of the Broncos and Panthers intersected in Super Bowl 50, the two franchises seem to be on parallel courses — even though they don’t hit the mile markers at exactly the same time. Neither has a playoff win since that game. Both finished the 2022 season with interim coaches. And they have the NFL’s two newest ownership groups. Further, those owners paid the highest costs in league history to buy into the exclusive club.

These owners expect results. They’ve shown a track record of being willing to shell out for what they want.

And now they could be in a heated competition for the same coveted coach.

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