- Jeff Legwold is a senior writer who covers the Denver Broncos and the NFL at ESPN. Jeff has covered the Broncos for more than 20 years, joining ESPN in 2013. He also assists with NFL draft coverage, including his annual top 100 prospects. Jeff has been a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Board of Selectors since 1999. He has attended every scouting combine since 1987.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Denver Broncos coach Sean Payton called his scathing public criticism of former Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett “a mistake,” and said, “I need a little bit more filter” when asked about the team’s 2022 performance.
In an interview with USA Today’s Jarrett Bell earlier this week, Payton called Hackett’s 15-game run with the Broncos “one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL” and said there were “20 dirty hands” around quarterback Russell Wilson’s career-worst season that included just 16 touchdown passes and a league-high 55 sacks.
Payton also likened how the Broncos handled Wilson’s high-profile arrival with what he called the “pomp and circumstance” with which the New York Jets have handled Aaron Rodgers’ arrival.
After Friday’s training camp practice, Payton apologized and said he intends to reach out to Hackett, now the Jets’ offensive coordinator, and to Jets coach Robert Saleh. Payton spoke to the Broncos players about his comments Thursday in a team meeting.
“Listen, I had one of those moments where I still had my Fox [network television] hat on and not my coaching hat on,” Payton said Friday. “I said this to the team: We’ve had a great offseason relative to that, I’ve been preaching that message, and here I am the veteran stepping in it. It was a learning experience for me, a mistake obviously. I need a little bit more filter.”
Payton added, “I needed a bit more restraint, I regret that.”
Hackett was fired Dec. 26, 15 games into his first season with the Broncos, and Payton was formally introduced as the team’s new coach in February. He did not coach last season and worked as an analyst at Fox Sports.
On Friday, Payton also addressed criticisms that appeared to be directed at people still with the Broncos, such as general manager George Paton, team president Damani Leech and the media relations department.
In the interview with USA Today, Payton said of Wilson’s struggles: “Oh, man, there’s so much dirt around that. There’s 20 dirty hands, for what was allowed, tolerated in the fricking training rooms, the meeting rooms. The offense. I don’t know Hackett. A lot of people had dirt on their hands. It wasn’t just Russell. … That wasn’t [Wilson’s] fault. That was the parents who allowed it. That’s not an incrimination on him, but an incrimination on the head coach, the GM, the president and everybody else who watched it all happen.”
On Friday, Payton said Paton and Denver’s front office staff were two of the biggest reasons he accepted the job.
“The front office and the ownership are the two reasons I came here,” Payton said. “George and I are close, he was one of the big attractions, he and ownership. My point was it was across the board organizationally, it wasn’t one person. They’re good [with me].”
Payton said he intended to reach out to Saleh and Hackett “at the right time.” The Broncos and Jets will face each other in Week 5 in Denver.
“I think the world of Robert,” Payton said. “I don’t know Nathaniel, but at the right time. It certainly will bring more interest to the game when we play them, but that seems light-years away, but I’ll handle it the right way.”
One thing Payton did not back down from was having said he would be “pissed” if the Broncos don’t make the playoffs this season. The Broncos have lost at least 10 games in each of the past three seasons and haven’t played in a postseason game since Super Bowl 50 to close out the 2015 season.
“I’m not afraid of the expectations,” Payton said. ” … That mindset needs to be present here. I see this as a team that has that ability, it’s our job to bring it out of them.”
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