Behind the scenes of Sean Payton’s introductory presser and going viral
The Denver Broncos welcomed a new head coach in a press conference on Monday in their large team meeting room at UCHealth Training center; it was the seventh time since 2008 the team has done this.
This is a big, auditorium-style room with comfortable seats that can lean back accompanied by small desks that can slide up or down like a tray table on an airplane. It’s always quite a scene when there’s a press event big enough to justify using this room. It is the most formal of settings for the media. On the top deck, there is a walkway where as many as a dozen cameras with tripods can be set up. There are tabletops with room for several live radio shows to broadcast. There is a huge drop-down movie screen that can be used for a wide assortment of graphics and videos. At the bottom, there is a literal stage where Molly Hatchet could have a southern fried reunion concert on. Who wants to hear “Flirtin’ With Disaster” again?!
The room is so large Nathaniel Hackett had a regulation basketball hoop set up. There were bumper stickers painted on the wall. “Team first. No Excuses. Be On Time” was on one side, with the slogans “The Team. The Ball. The West” painted just to the left of the basketball backboard. On Monday, during the latest incarnation of the head coaching journey, Sean Payton was introduced and you could feel a new era had begun.
The hoop was gone. The slogans were painted over. The tone was significantly different. There was no doubt about who was really in charge.
Broncos billionaire owner Greg Penner, faced tanned by the harsh breeze from the Pebble Beach golf courses, stepped to the podium to welcome coach Payton’s family. He introduced two other owners in attendance, his wife Carrie and Condoleezza Rice. I guess the three other owners had other things to attend to.
As expected Penner declared joyful plaudits surrounding Payton and the effort in which it took to obtain him. Frankly, a bunch of cash and willingness to dump some draft picks did the trick. It wasn’t that hard. Penner wrapped up likely the last thing you will hear him say publicly for a very long time to welcome Payton to the podium.
However, what was significant was it was Payton, not George Paton who next spoke. Despite being the technical boss that got the deal done, general manager Paton was not asked to have any words. No need to hear from the man who apparently cemented the deal while Penner cemented six under par at the Pro-Am. Nope. We are just gonna skip over that dude. Let’s get right to the main show.
What ensued was an absolute masterclass in head coaching rhetoric. Without notes, Payton effortlessly rolled out his vision and what he’s all about. It was fluid and funny.
Payton thanked the right people and told the right stories. The assembled media was eating out of his hand from the start to the finish. After Payton was done with his monologue at the podium, he sat at a table draped in Broncos logos framed by two helmets. Payton sat in the middle and to his right general manager Paton sat at the kids table. Question after question was directed to Payton.
The onslaught of focus was so slanted that Penner, feeling left out like the man shooting an albatross on a Par 3, actually jumped in uninvited at one point to voice his take about something. It wasn’t Payton talking, so nobody was really paying attention to what Penner said. It got to the point where you could tell Payton was feeling bad for Paton, so he wove a tail of how he and George shared the same field when they were younger. Payton was a grad assistant coach and George what were you? “Red-shirt freshman,” George sheepishly replied. You know—on the team—sort of, which is a perfect analogy for the current situation.
Quite convinced I will never have to ask Paton or Penner a question ever again, I followed the herd of media off the stage into the well where Sean Payton would answer questions in a less formal situation. During the main Q-and-A, I was able to get in a question about specifics of details that mattered to the new coach. He gave a wonderful and colorful answer about loud boom boxes to celebrate wins, appropriate towel sizes for the fans to wave and how he works with the GM on player selection. It was another home run answer amongst many.
This is the time when the Broncos media staff passes a microphone around, so you have to somewhat patiently wait your turn. By a mile, this is my least favorite style of presser. First, who knows when you are actually gonna get to ask a question and following up on anything is practically impossible. I understand the system for broadcast purposes, but I hate it. Second, any presser is less than compared to just talking to a player or coach one-on-one, but often there just isn’t another choice, you take what you can get. But, when the coach is off to the side and the setting is less formal, it tends to open things up. That situation opened up beautifully for the most important statement in Payton’s young tenure leading the Broncos.
The gaggle of reporters is a somewhat embarrassing collection of microphones and body odor. COVID-19 protocols are long out the window when the setting calls for the human dog pile. Microphones, recorders and cell phones all jockey for position to get every critical word that may come out of the subject’s mouth. In this particular instance, I was late to the party and honestly, I’m just short. Those two factors are a bad combination. Payton had climbed down the stage, so I circled behind him. It was the best I could do to be anywhere close. But, I had no choice as there was one question that I knew I could ask. In the previous formal setting, dialing in on one very specific thing that was likely to elicit a short of total non-answer isn’t the right play. It would be a total waste of getting handed the mic. But, in a gaggle setting, being blown off is not really a big deal at all. Payton had been in a good mood all day, but he was close to an hour deep in answering every question under the sun.
Before the press meeting, the Broncos held a get-to-know-you session with their own employees and players in the field house. Payton had been glad handing the vast majority of the morning. You could tell, while friendly enough, he was getting a bit shorter with his answers trying to politely get this chore complete. For the one question I had been thinking about for three days, it was now or never.
Payton turned his head and body slightly to the right to answer a good question from Vic Lombardi about being a game manager. I was standing behind Payton slightly off his right shoulder so anything that turned him my way was terrific. Payton had a great mic drop answer about the crowd no longer needing to do a countdown to get a play snapped when I was able to time out a slight pause to get my question in.
Strike the match
Me: “Coach, Russell Wilson had a personal coach, Jake Heaps, who was in the building with access who wasn’t on the staff…”
Payton interrupts, “yeah, I’m not too familiar with that.”
Light the fuse
Me – plowing forward, “How do you feel about players having their own people off the staff in the building with access to players?”
Payton then said, “That’s foreign to me. That’s not going to take place here. I’m unfamiliar with it. Our staff will be here. Our players will be here and that will be it.”
Coach says personal coaches for players will NOT be welcome in the building “it won’t happen here” pic.twitter.com/F64SS6NwqJ
— Darren McKee (@DMacRadio) February 6, 2023
With that simple yet declarative statement, Sean Payton set the tone Broncos Country had been waiting to hear. Perhaps, as Dan Graziano suggested on “GET UP” on ESPN, I had simply placed the ball on the tee for Payton to knock out of the park. I certainly wasn’t trying to be a co-conspirator in the debugging of Wilson, nor was I out to get Heaps, but the reverberations of that answer rocketed around the sports world like a missile towards a Chinese Spy Balloon. At the time of this writing, that short clip has piled up over 3.7 million views on social media. 3.7 million! I got plenty of attention about asking Roger Goodell at the Super Bowl if he had ever been drug tested, but nothing like the response in less than 24 hours to this question. It went everywhere and quickly.
Why was this question and answer such a big deal?
Trust me, it’s surreal when you ask endless amounts of questions as part of your job, to hear your voice and question repeated and discussed to such a large degree.
It wasn’t even that great of a question, nor was it really all that great of an answer. It’s information literally every single media person in Denver knew about and had previously discussed and it was an answer based in common sense. It’s actually amazing that somebody else didn’t ask about it first. So, no credit should be given when it comes to asking the obvious nor should stating the obvious get applause.
The question was like wondering why you should put toothpaste on a toothbrush rather than using a finger and the answer was equally banal. So why was there such a big reaction?
I think people are just sick of Wilson’s hype. Wilson the person is just fine. In fact, he’s more than fine. He seems to be an extraordinary human being. He’s actually amazingly inspirational. He had to overcome a ton of hardship in his personal life to succeed in a business not built for short guys. He’s a loving husband and doting father. His teammates both past and present lavish praise on him. He has at the least a borderline if not locked down Hall of Fame career.
So what gives? Why did it mean so much to so many to see his new coach immediately set him in his place? Why do people want him humbled?
The answer to the question didn’t just resonate because of the specifics—sorry Heaps—it slammed the door shut on the image that Wilson as a player isn’t above others and perhaps that means he is one of us after all. We all have bosses and restrictions in our lives. None of us can just get away with everything we want. All of us know what compromise is all about because we have lived through it all our lives. At the end of the day, we take pride in doing things the hard way not the easy way. Despite the fact, Wilson uses his own money for his own team, folks just seem to hate it, perhaps because it’s not an option and even if it was, we would all like to think we wouldn’t take the easy way out.
I think this is more than hypocritical. I think the majority of people would take full advantage of the situation in a similar fashion to Wilson. The difference is we likely wouldn’t be so bold in flaunting it. This is where Wilson and his team truly miss the boat. It’s not about having stuff – it’s about bragging about having stuff. We know you are a higher class of person, we just don’t want to hear about it.
So, how do you fix Wilson? You can’t. Nobody can fix Wilson. The main reason is he doesn’t need to be fixed. He just needs to calm down. Payton said Wilson had called him during the process and Payton worried that the phone call could be breaking some NFL rules. After being suspended for a year, the last thing Payton needed was a conflict with the league. Payton said Wilson has been “wearing out” Drew Brees in terms of asking for advice about how to make things work in Payton’s system.
Hey Russ: chill!
You got the job! You won the audition! Nobody is coming to steal your stuff! You’ve won in football and won in life! Payton spoke about being more anonymous in the process rather than flaunting things on social media. This is bedrock advice Wilson and other Broncos players should pay heed. The Panic at the Disco days are behind this team with Payton as their leader. So…everybody…especially Russ…take a breath. It’s gonna be okay. It seriously can’t get worse.
While Payton’s answer to my question may have come across as a spanking, I think of it in a different context. I believe it was really just setting a tone. I think this was the moment Payton defined the new culture. I think it was curt and direct. The reason why the moment has resonated may be because it satisfies some of our deep insecurities, but at the end of the day, it’s simply a statement of reassurance that things are quietly going to be handled the right way from now on.
Plus, Payton made sure the basketball hoop was gone.