ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – His family bought the Denver Broncos last summer but it was on Tuesday that CEO Greg Penner really took ownership of the franchise.
Penner made it clear that not only will he lead the search for a new head coach but that Nathaniel Hackett's replacement will report directly to him and not to general manager George Paton.
“Yes, the new head coach will report to me, which is the more typical structure in the NFL,” Penner said. “Obviously, the relationship between the general manager and the head coach is a critical one and George is going to be intimately involved with this process of looking for a new head coach and we’ll make sure that there’s a good fit there.”
Penner, his wife, Carrie Walton-Penner, and her father, Rob Walton, purchased the team for $4.65 billion, a global record for a professional sports franchise. Limited partners include former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The team has proven to be more of a fixer-upper than the new owners expected.
The Broncos have tumbled through a 4-11 season and quarterback Russell Wilson has stumbled through the worst season of his career after signing a $245 million extension before the opener.
“When we purchased this great franchise in August this is not the season we were expecting," Penner said, adding, “I want to personally apologize to our fans and all of Broncos country. We know that we need to be better and we will.”
The Broncos have extended their playoff drought to seven years, mostly because of a sputtering offense that averages fewer than 16 points per game.
Hackett became just the fifth coach in NFL history not to make it through his first season. He's being replaced by interim coach Jerry Rosburg after Ejiro Evero, a candidate for the full-time job, declined the temporary offer, suggesting he'd be more of a help these last two weeks just sticking to his role as defensive coordinator.
The new head coach will have to find a way to fix Wilson and establish an offensive identity to match the team's stingy defense.
Penner said he wanted to wait until after the season to decide on Hackett's fate, but that all changed when the Broncos were blown out 51-14 by the Los Angeles Rams on Christmas Day.
Exacerbating the Broncos' embarrassment, guard Dalton Risner, the team's Walter Payton Man of the Year honoree, shoved backup QB Brett Rypien on the sideline and linebacker Randy Gregory threw a punch at Rams O-lineman Oday Aboushi during postgame handshakes, resulting in a one-game suspension.
That debacle alone isn't what got Hackett fired with three years and more than $12 million left on his contract, but it did accelerate the conversations that led to his dismissal.
Penner said he "didn’t go into this week thinking this was a time we were going to make a change. But after we saw the effort we put forward on Sunday, some of the things that were going on off the field, we just felt like it was time to make a decision."
Paton said he still thinks Hackett is “a great football coach” but that “it just didn't work out here.”
“And that’s on me,” added Paton. “I take full responsibility for where we are as a football team. I brought in the head coach; I brought in most of the players. Those are my decisions, and there’s no one to blame but me.”
So, why, Penner was asked, does he maintain such faith in both his GM and his QB given their dreadful 2022 performances?
“So, the decision to have Russ here was a long-term one,” Penner said. “This season has not been up to his standards or expectations. We saw some glimpses of (vintage Wilson) in the last few weeks. He knows he can play better. We know he can play better. And we know he’ll do the right work in the offseason to be ready for next year.”
Penner said he and his GM have daily conversations "and he acknowledged right up front there are a couple of decisions that haven’t worked out as he had expected. But I understand his thought process. He understands the work that needs to be done this offseason. And I’m going to rely on him heavily as we go through and make these changes.”
The Broncos aren't limiting their search to experienced NFL coaches even though their past three hires have been first-time head coaches who were fired before their contracts were up.
“It certainly helps, but it’s not necessary,” Paton said of previous NFL head coaching experience. “We’re going to keep an open mind through this search."
Paton said he's not necessarily looking for a quarterback whisperer, either.
“That's not why we're getting a new coach, to turn around Russ," Paton said. "It's about the entire organization, it's about the entire football team. It's not one player. It's not whether Russ is fixable or not. We do believe he is, we do.”
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