The Denver Broncos' search for a new head coach is officially underway less than a day after their 2022 season ended.
The team has already requested to interview five candidates to fill the vacant job, according to multiple reports. That list includes former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans.
That's a star-studded list and four of the five names already have NFL head-coaching experience. But this is what the Broncos need after the team went all-in on Russell Wilson this offseason only to fire first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett 15 games into his tenure.
After a horrific 5-12 season in the first year under new ownership, the Walton-Penner group will likely look for a big splash to jumpstart the franchise. Ownership doesn't want another inexperienced coach. Therefore, it only makes sense to look almost exclusively at candidates with NFL wins under their belt.
Payton, Harbaugh lead candidate list
Payton is undoubtedly the biggest name the Broncos have asked to speak with and he'll be a highly coveted candidate this spring.
Denver already requested permission to speak with Payton but can't officially interview him until Jan. 17, and Payton himself confirmed he's already spoken with Broncos ownership, too. New Orleans is also reportedly asking for at least a first-round draft pick in exchange for the right to hire Payton, who is still under contract for two more years after stepping down last offseason.
Payton makes sense as the top candidate, though: He's a proven offensive coach who helped turn Drew Brees into one of the best quarterbacks of all time. The idea would be he could do the same for Wilson after the veteran passer's worst season in the NFL.
Harbaugh is an intriguing choice as well considering his success with the San Francisco 49ers and at the collegiate level with Michigan. He went 44-19-1 in four seasons with the 49ers, including a Super Bowl berth in 2012. Harbaugh is also 74-25 in eight seasons with Michigan.
He almost returned to the NFL last year as a candidate for the Minnesota Vikings' head coaching position, but ultimately lost the job to Kevin O'Connell and returned to lead Michigan to the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive year. Harbaugh already said he "expects" to coach at Michigan next year, but an impending NCAA investigation could change his mind — especially if NFL teams come calling.
Quinn, Morris and Ryans all have defensive backgrounds
The rest of the candidates are all either successful defensive coordinators or former head coaches — or both.
Quinn coached the Atlanta Falcons for six seasons that included a Super Bowl appearance in 2016. He also has ties to Broncos general manager George Paton — both worked for the Miami Dolphins from 2005-06. Quinn actually interviewed for the Broncos head coach position in 2022 — as well as other open jobs — but eventually returned to the Cowboys for another year.
Morris actually has two head coaching stints under his belt: First with the Tampa Buccaneers from 2009-11 and then for the final 11 games of the Falcons' 2020 season after Atlanta fired Quinn. He's had a lot of success in his most recent job as the Los Angeles Rams' defensive coordinator since 2021.
Ryans is another sought-after candidate after his past two seasons as the 49ers' defensive coordinator. San Francisco's defense ranked first in yards and points allowed this season after it ranked third in yards and ninth in points in 2021. The Broncos might have to wait the longest for Ryans, though, as his 49ers are the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and have the fourth-best probability to win the Super Bowl, according to FiveThirtyEight.
What direction should the Broncos go?
This is the ultimate question for a team that had Super Bowl aspirations heading into the 2022 season. The Broncos can't afford to miss on their head coach again after whiffing on Hackett. The roster is all but locked in, too, after Denver spent lavishly this past offseason and are on the hook for at least two more years with Wilson.
Despite all the missteps this season, the Broncos did finish strong in their final two games without Hackett. Denver averaged 27.5 points and went 1-1 to end the season. The defense has also been great for most of the season and finished 14th in points allowed and seventh in yards allowed. The pieces might be there, and the Broncos just need a coach who can pull it all together.