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Next Denver Broncos head coach search figures to prioritize experience

The list of candidates could include Jim Harbaugh, Sean Payton, Frank Reich, Dan Quinn and current defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Here we go again. For the fifth time in a little more than seven years, the Denver Broncos need to find another new head coach.

Gary Kubiak succeeded John Fox in 2015. Vance Joseph beat out Kyle Shanahan and Dave Toub in 2017. Vic Fangio edged Mike Munchak for the job in 2017 with Zac Taylor and Brian Flores in the mix. Nathaniel Hackett got the job over Dan Quinn, Kevin O’Connell, Brian Callahan and Jonathan Gannon in 2022.

There’s still some days left in 2022 and already the Broncos need another new head coach after Hackett was fired Monday.

The top two priorities for the Broncos’ new coach: One, win. Two, get better play out of quarterback Russell Wilson.

Here is a list of possible candidates to succeed Hackett:

Jim Harbaugh, head coach, Michigan

Credit: AP
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh watches from the sidelines during the first half of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game against Purdue, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Broncos owner Greg and Carrie Penner and limited investor Condoleezza Rice have deep ties to Stanford where Harbaugh was head coach from 2007-10. Harbaugh inherited a 1-11 Cardinal program and turned it into a 12-1, Orange Bowl-winning, 4th ranked team in the nation by his fourth season.

In 2011, he took over the San Francisco 49ers who were 6-10 the year before and immediately made them a 13-3 team in his first year with Alex Smith as his quarterback. He then led the 49ers to the Super Bowl with quarterback Colin Kaepernick in his second season of 2012. Harbaugh knows how to get the best out of athletic, two-way quarterbacks.

After losing a power struggle, Harbaugh took over his alma mater’s program at the University of Michigan where he has led the Wolverines to college football’s Final Four two years in a row with a 12-1 record last year and 13-0 mark this year. He has that type of coaching cache’ to bring the best out of Wilson, whose skill set had similarities to Kaepernick. As a rival coach, Harbaugh went 2-5 against Wilson-led Seattle teams.

But would Harbaugh want to coach the Broncos with so many performance questions now swirling around Wilson? If Harbaugh decides he has done all he can do at Michigan and has unfinished coaching business in the NFL (namely, winning a Super Bowl), the Broncos will likely have to outrecruit the Indianapolis Colts and owner Jim Irsay. Harbaugh was a four-year starting quarterback for the Colts in the mid-1990s, leading them to the AFC Championship Game in 1995 when he earned his only Pro Bowl appearance.

Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator, Cowboys

Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn during warm-ups before an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022, in Jacksonville, Fla. Jaguars defeated the Cowboys 40-34 in overtime. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

Broncos general manager George Paton informed Quinn he was going to come in for a second head coach interview in January but cancelled it after Paton was swept away by Hackett.

Quinn returned to his job as the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive coordinator where his defense ranks No. 3 in points allowed at 17.6 per game.

It’s almost certain the Broncos next head coach will be one who has done it before as their three previous hires – Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and Hackett – were all first-time bosses. Their combined six-year record: 30-51 (not including Hackett 3-10).

Quinn had a decent 5 year-plus run as head coach for the Atlanta Falcons until it unraveled with an 0-5 start in 2020. In his second season of 2016, Quinn guided the Falcons to Super Bowl 51 where they blew a 28-3, third quarter lead and lost to Tom Brady’s Patriots in overtime.

Before that Quinn was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator in 2013-14 – when Seattle went to the Super Bowl each year, blowing out the Broncos in the first and blowing it against the Patriots in the second when Wilson was picked off at the goal line by Malcolm Butler. So Quinn knows Wilson, at least the younger version of Russ.

Quinn would need to sell Penner and Paton on an offensive coordinator who can return Wilson to his former self.

Frank Reich, former head coach, Colts

Credit: AP/AJ Mast
Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich watches during the first half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguar, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022, in Indianapolis.

If Peyton Manning has the ear of Broncos owner Greg Penner, Reich could get a recommendation. Reich was a Colts offensive assistant/quarterbacks coach when Manning was one of the league’s most dominant quarterbacks from 2006-10. Reich was also offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles in 2017 and was the Colts’ head coach from 2018 until he was fired midway through this season.

In his five years in Indy, Reich had a new starting quarterback each season – Andrew Luck in 2018, Jacoby Brissett in 2019, Philip Rivers in 2020, Carson Wentz in 2021 and Matt Ryan in 2022. Reich coached the Colts to the playoffs when Luck and Rivers were his quarterbacks. No one may be more qualified to guide Wilson in 2023.

Sean Payton, former head coach, Saints

Credit: AP
New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton looks on from the sideline during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins Monday, Dec. 27, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Derick Hingle)

After 15 seasons as the Saints’ head coach, Payton retired and became a Fox NFL studio analyst. He also has the type of command and offensive know-how to get Wilson playing well again.

Payton would be expensive, which may not be a problem for Penner, and the Broncos would have to essentially trade for him, which could be an issue. The Saints hold Payton’s rights through 2024 so New Orleans will ask for compensation. The Broncos traded away their 2023 first- and second-round draft picks as part of their Wilson deal with Seattle. Even with getting a first-round pick back for Bradley Chubb, that selection belongs to the San Francisco 49ers, which means likely picking anywhere from No. 22-32 in the draft.

If Payton decides to coach again in 2023, the Broncos could possibly have stiff competition from the Cowboys, Chargers and Saints.

Ejiro Evero, defensive coordinator, Broncos

Credit: AP
Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero speaks with media after a practice session in Harrow, England, Friday, Oct. 28, 2022. The Denver Broncos will play the Jacksonville Jaguars in an NFL regular season football game at Wembley Stadium on Sunday. (AP Photo/Steve Luciano)

The best coach on Hackett’s only staff, Evero demonstrated in one year he not only is a terrific defensive play caller and coordinator, but an impressive person and leader who has the qualities to command a room. Evero figures to get multiple head coach interviews this offseason. He may be only candidate without previous head coach experience the Broncos interview but Evero will have earned it.

Steve Wilks, head coach/defensive coordinator, Panthers

Credit: AP
Carolina Panthers head coach Steve Wilks watches during warm ups before an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

A perfect example of how head coaching experience helps. Wilks was a one-and-done head coach for the Arizona Cardinals in 2018. His 3-13 record that year included a 45-10 drubbing by the Broncos, who were 2-4 at the time.

But Wilks got a second chance in the extremely difficult interim role this year after Carolina fired Matt Rhule following a 1-4 start. The Panthers are 4-4 under Wilks, including a decisive 23-10 win against the Broncos.

One catch and it’s a biggie: Wilks has joined Brian Flores’ racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL that also names the Broncos as a defendant.  

Leslie Frazier, defensive coordinator, Bills

Credit: AP
FILE - Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier walks on the field before an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, on Oct. 3, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. Frazier is credited for providing the Bills a calm and reassuring voice even at the the most troubling times. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus, File)

The Broncos interviewed Frazier in January 2009 after Mike Shanahan was fired. The job went to Josh McDaniels. Regrets? The Broncos have had a few.


Brian Callahan, offensive coordinator, Bengals; DeMeco Ryans, defensive coordinator, 49ers

Credit: AP
Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan before an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
Credit: AP
San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans watches during the first half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

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