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IF PAYTON DOESN’T WIN FOR THE BIG $$$, HE’LL FIND OUT WHAT A BOUNTY IS
Expectations will be outsized, with a contract near $100 million, and Broncos fans will howl if he doesn’t fix a broken Wilson, overcome a gutted roster and conquer a division with Mahomes and Herbert
We forget that Sean Payton was scandalized since he last was showered by the NFL’s confetti machines. Remember Bountygate? It was much more egregious than Spygate or Deflategate, the cheating sins attached to Bill Belichick and Tom Brady with the ever-annoying “gate” suffix. They illegally videotaped signals and deflated footballs to improve Brady’s grip, but Payton was the head coach of a team that paid bonuses to injure opponents.
We forget he was suspended the entire 2012 campaign, for bounty crimes over three seasons, including the year the New Orleans Saints won a Super Bowl. We forget because the championship brought joy to a city that still hasn’t recovered from Hurricane Katrina — and because Payton has been a savant of sorts as an offensive strategist, particularly when Drew Brees was his quarterback.
He’s lucky he wasn’t banned from the league permanently. Think about this: Payton knew that his players were on the bounty prowl and trying to ravage knees, clobber heads, break ankles and conceivably end careers. Belichick and Brady sought competitive advantages, not blood. Juiced-up baseball sluggers were trying to gain personal edges, not hurt people. Pete Rose was trying to win his bets, not maim others. The Houston Astros stole signs electronically to win a World Series, not hunt like gladiators.
Jobs have been lost for those integrity transgressions. A lifetime ban was issued. Reputations have been ruined. But today, 13 years after winning his lone Vince Lombardi Trophy, Payton is just the second coach in American sports history to even remotely approach an annual wage of $20 million. His contract with the Denver Broncos, for at least five seasons, assures him of around $100 million, if not more. And it means only Belichick, who has won six Super Bowls and earned general acclaim as the greatest NFL coach ever, is on Payton’s level at $20 million per year, a recently attained reward that will have a short life as Hoodie nears retirement.
What Sean Payton did was create a bidding war based on perception and media buzz, not reality. He pit several teams against each other and finally found one taker in the Broncos’ primary owner, S. Robson (Rob) Walton, heir to the Walmart fortune. Walton is worth $70 billion. Handing $100 million to a coach in his world is like tipping a barista. Never mind that Payton, after his suspension, missed the playoffs four times, lost once in the wild-card round, lost three times in the divisional round and lost once in an NFC championship game. He didn’t return to the Super Bowl, despite rosters often loaded with exceptional talent. He did resurrect the Saints from the dregs, yes. But after Bountygate, he wasn’t quite the same innovator and golden boy who altered momentum and history in Super Bowl XLIV, starting the second half with an onside kick that stole a possession from Peyton Manning. He was another coach who’d found long-ago glory and didn’t sustain it.
When he left the Saints after last season, Payton wasn’t sure what he wanted from life. He could have become the next Bill Cowher, a coach who takes his one ring and stays in the TV racket for a long while — in his case, at Fox, where he made a cold $10 million this season gabbing with Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson and trying to decipher Terry Bradshaw. Last month, he drove off the studio lot in Century City, took two left turns, parked on Rodeo Drive and held a self-auction near Prada and Gucci. His price was $20 million a year. Would a fish bite on his deep-sea expedition? Would his buddy, Jerry Jones, hire him in Dallas and bump Mike McCarthy after another traumatic postseason crash? Didn’t happen. Would he keep living in Manhattan Beach and take a gig with one of the local teams, the Los Angeles Rams or Chargers? Neither opening materialized.
The best jobs were gone. Now, Payton had to save face or have his blazer cleaned. Weeks passed, interviews with no subsequent news. For a minute, it seemed he might float back to Fox, as some owners and executives weren’t sure he was all that, especially at an absurd price tag. The Houston Texans wanted DeMeco Ryans, a local guy who wanted them and, better, a Black head coach in a league with only two others. The Carolina Panthers hired Frank Reich, a white retread, after blowing off a worthy Black coach in Steve Wilks, who had done stellar work as an interim. Indianapolis? No interest. Arizona? Unwilling to meet Payton’s price.
Then the Broncos backed off, presumably because the fisherman kept eyeing a bigger catch and payoff and made visits elsewhere. Broncos CEO Greg Penner, son-in-law of Walton, ventured to Michigan for a sitdown with an image-damaged coach, Jim Harbaugh — stripped of leverage, trying to elude an NCAA investigation, a year removed from his rejection by the Minnesota Vikings — who would have taken half the $20 million. Penner’s sidetrip came amid a Washington Post report that Payton was concerned about a “power struggle” with a member of Denver’s ownership group. Finally, the Broncos circled back to Payton and reached an understanding … before reportedly making one last run at Ryans, though he’d already agreed to terms in Houston. At that point, Payton had been stiffed so many times, he could have crawled back to show business and appeared on “The Biggest Loser.”
So why did the Broncos reverse course and hire him … with a $100 million bag, no less? Because the Walton-Penner group was desperate to make a splash after a rough first season. And because billionaires can do these things. And because Walton managed to build consensus with Penner and his wife, Carrie Walton Penner, the additional lead partners in this dizzying arrangement. Yes, sweet Jesus, Greg married into the family, just as Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke once married Ann Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Bud Walton. All of which means the most recent Super Bowl champions — and their $6 billion stadium — were fueled by Walton wealth, a splurge followed by the Broncos using the same family portfolio to overpay Payton and the broken quarterback he’s expected to fix, Russell Wilson.
Americans find bargains at Walmart, only to realize their purchases are being funneled into football play-toys for in-law opportunists.
When the odyssey was over, Payton insisted he knew he’d be in Denver all along. Really? He said so while Greg Penner was keeping plans to play in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in northern California, seemingly a trivial pursuit when it was time to introduce a head coach in the hours after hiring him. Does all of this not seem a bit weird? Might Payton be dealing with the latest set of dysfunctional owners in a league full of them?
“I knew where I stood with Denver all along,” Payton insisted in his only post-hire interview so far, with Jeff Duncan of NOLA.com. “There’s a reason they showed up to interview me at 10:15 on Jan. 17, the first day I could visit with teams. We had a great Zoom call (with Carrie Walton Penner and Rob Walton) this weekend. Then it was a matter of working out compensation.”
The latest beneficiary of Walmart largesse will wear an orange tie at his introductory press conference and declare the Super Bowl as the annual goal. But the Broncos have finished last in the AFC West for three straight seasons and haven’t been to the playoffs since winning Super Bowl 50 seven years ago. They play in a division that should be ruled by Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs through the 2020s, with competition from Justin Herbert and the Chargers. And in the process of spending around $100 million for Payton and $245 million for Wilson, who’s guaranteed $165 million, the Broncos have gutted their roster in compensation for their poachings.
How is Payton supposed to win in that division — and help Wilson find his mojo — after the Broncos relinquished an all-time haul to acquire both from New Orleans and Seattle? In a staggering surrender of draft capital, they gave up three first-round picks and three second-round picks, along with three veterans including defensive end Shelby Harris and tight end Noah Fant. Wilson needs weapons, pass protection and a reliable running game, after regressing into the league’s bottom tier of quarterbacks with career lows in passer rating, touchdown passes and sacks. Already battered by years of wear and tear, Russ doesn’t cook anymore. He loses games, soaks his body and makes bank deposits as he nears 35. It was embarrassing how Geno Smith, his successor in Seattle, outplayed him in 2022.
“Russell is a hard worker and has played at a high level and won a lot of games in this league,” Payton said. “The pressure is on us to put a good run game together and reduce the degree of difficulty on his position. I’m excited about him.”
Brees, for one, thinks Payton is the perfect coach to unleash the subdued lion in Wilson. “To me, this is set up to be Russell Wilson’s prime,” he told ESPN. “Especially with Sean Payton and the system that’s going to be built around him. This is a great opportunity for Russell Wilson.”
The fisherman is pleased, of course, to join hands with the league’s richest ownership. But as a friend of Jones, who owns the world’s most valuable sports franchise, he knows money alone can’t repair disarray. There is no proof so far that all of these Waltons and Penners know anything about winning football games. But at his salary, Payton will be held accountable nonetheless for curing a 5-12 mess. “It’s a great fanbase and great tradition,” he said. “It matters there. The fans are passionate about the team.”
And if he doesn’t win? He’ll find out — quickly — how it feels to be on the other side of a bounty.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.