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Who will Penner pick? A review of 8 head coach candidates Broncos have interviewed

The most conflicting reports have swirled around Sean Payton. DeMeco Ryans, David Shaw appear to be receiving strong consideration.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo — As Greg Penner methodically conducts his Denver Broncos’ head coaching search, let’s review the eight head coaching candidates the team’s CEO has interviewed, along with general manager George Paton and co-owner Condoleezza Rice, in reverse chronological order of interview:

Dan Quinn

Dallas defensive coordinator, Jan. 20

Considered one of the Broncos’ top 2 or 3 candidates two years in a row in part because of his previous head coaching experience in Atlanta, Quinn has yet to land a second interview here. He may. But not yet. Quinn was interviewed for a second time by the Arizona Cardinals on Wednesday night and he is scheduled to meet with the Indianapolis Colts but as of Tuesday he didn’t have a second interview scheduled with the Broncos.

Quinn not only has previous experience, he was the Seattle Seahawks' defensive coordinator in 2013-14, when Russell Wilson quarterbacked the team to back-to-back Super Bowls.

DeMeco Ryans

49ers defensive coordinator, Jan. 19

With Sean Payton seemingly no longer one of the top candidates, the Broncos may be turning to Ryans, who is considered the hottest head coaching candidate in this year's cycle. Ryans had head coach interview requests from the Broncos, Houston Texans, Cardinals and Colts. He interviewed with the Broncos and Texans, then cancelled his interviews with the Cards and Colts.

If the Broncos are serious about Ryans – and why wouldn’t they be? -- they figure to receive strong competition from the Texans. A former linebacker who was selected by the Texans out of Alabama in the second round of the 2006 draft, Ryans was a six-year starting inside linebacker for Houston coach Gary Kubiak. Ryans then finished his playing career as a four-year starting linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Ryans’ wife Jamila is from Houston and the couple has three children.

When Penner began his head coach search process after firing Nathaniel Hackett with two weeks left in the regular season, his preference was to find someone with previous head coach experience. Why? The Broncos three previous hires for the position since 2017 – Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and Hackett – were all first-time head coaches. None posted a winning season and all were fired before reaching the end of their respective four-year contracts.

But Penner also wanted a dynamic leader with an edge for his next head coach and he didn’t limit his 8 candidates to those with previous experience. While Jim Harbaugh, Sean Payton, Raheem Morris, Dan Quinn and Jim Caldwell were candidates with previous NFL head coach experience, three did not – Ryans, the Broncos’ own defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and David Shaw, who recently stepped away as Stanford’s head coach.

Credit: AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez
San Francisco 49ers defensive end Samson Ebukam (56) talks with defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans before an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.

Penner, Rice and Paton came away impressed with Ryans during their interview with him last Thursday in the San Francisco Bay area. And while Ryans’ coaching resume is thin in terms of experience compared to other NFL head coaches, so was Mike Tomlin’s before the Rooney family was blown away his by clear leadership command and hired him to be the Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach in 2007. Tomlin is still the Steelers head coach 16 years later as he has yet to experience a losing season.

Tomlin became head coach after just one year as a defensive coordinator. Ryans has been the 49ers’ defensive coordinator the past two years -- and was enormously successful each season. The 49ers were No. 3 in total defense in 2021 and tied for No. 9 in scoring defense, then became a postseason surprise with playoff upsets of the Cowboys in Dallas and  Packers in Green Bay before nearly defeating the Rams in Los Angeles in the NFC Championship Game.

The 49ers are now making a return trip to the NFL’s Final Four as Ryans’ defense was even better in the 2022. In fact, it was the league’s best as even though Ryans lost two of his best players to free agency and the Broncos in defensive tackle D.J. Jones and nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams, the 49ers ranked No. 1 this year in both total defense and points.

Ryans’ 49ers’ defense picked off Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott twice Sunday in a 19-12, second-round playoff win.

After Ryans’ playing career ended after the 2015 season, he started his coaching career as the 49ers’ defensive quality control coach in 2017. After one year he was promoted to inside linebackers coach, his position for three years. He then replaced Robert Saleh as defensive coordinator in 2021 when Saleh became head coach of the New York Jets.

Raheem Morris

Rams defensive coordinator, Jan. 17

Deserves another chance at becoming a head coach. It just doesn’t seem likely he’ll get that chance with the Broncos.

Sean Payton

Former Saints head coach, Jan. 17

The subject of conflicting reports. What 9NEWS understands: The Broncos and Payton have been in communication since their initial meeting in the Los Angeles-area and while there was casual preliminary discussion of getting together for a second interview this week, the get-together was never scheduled. Payton was included among the Broncos’ top group of candidates through most of this search, but it’s unclear whether he was ever their top choice. Still a possibility but maybe not a strong possibility.

Credit: AP
New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton watches from the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills in New Orleans, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Derick Hingle, File)

Jim Caldwell

Former Lions/Colts head coach, Jan. 11

He remains under consideration. There continues to be conversations between Penner, George Paton and several of the interviewed coaching candidates and Caldwell is one of them. But even with his successful head coach runs in Indianapolis and Detroit, Caldwell would be a surprising choice because he has been inactive as an NFL coach in all but one of the past five seasons.

David Shaw

Former Stanford head coach, Jan. 11

Received strong consideration from Broncos owners Penner, his wife Carrie Walton-Penner and Rice as they have strong Stanford connections and know Shaw well. And Shaw was highly successful the first 8 years of his 12-season term with Stanford, averaging a 10-3 record in that initial stretch. But if Shaw were the Broncos’ top choice he probably would have already been hired by now. 

Ejiro Evero

Denver defensive coordinator, Jan. 10

The first in-person interview and the only one conducted at Broncos’ headquarters. It was also the first of five teams who brought Evero in for head coaching interviews. He’s made it to round two with Houston by Zoom on Wednesday and Indy in person later this week so he has a real chance to land a top job. But it would be a surprise if he’s the choice to succeed his good friend Nathaniel Hackett as the Broncos’ next head coach.

If Evero doesn’t land one of the head coach positions, his return as Denver’s defensive coordinator would depend on who Penner hires as his head coach. Two Broncos’ candidates, Ryans and Quinn, operate 4-3 schemes so Evero and his 3-4 system may not be a fit.

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero takes part in drills during the NFL football team's training camp Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022, at the Broncos' headquarters in Centennial, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Jim Harbaugh

Michigan head coach, Jan. 9

This was the first of the 2 hour-plus interviews the Broncos held with each candidate, and the only one conducted virtually.

A week after the Harbaugh interview, Michigan president Santa Ono announced Harbaugh was staying put. Harbaugh soon followed by also releasing a statement saying his heart was with his alma mater.

But in the 9 days since, Harbaugh still doesn’t have a new deal from Michigan (that we know of) while the NCAA reportedly accused him of misleading its investigators during its inquiry into minor infractions.

Still, the expectation is Michigan and Harbaugh will eventually negotiate a new contract and the school's administration will back him amid the NCAA investigation.


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