Is it October yet?
The Broncos only officially open training camp on Friday morning and already first-year coach Sean Payton has thrown down the gauntlet.
In an interview with USA TODAY, the first-year coach said Nathaniel Hackett’s 2022 in Denver, “might have been one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL. It was that bad.”
He implied the New York Jets, where Hackett is now the offensive coordinator and Aaron Rodgers the quarterback, are ripe for disappointment in 2023. He said Russell Wilson still has “gas in the tank” and sharpened comments he made to the local media corps when he was first hired that a lot more people than just Wilson share blame for his career-worst 2022 season.
Payton’s comments rung out around the league, a hot shot that certainly found the mark in New York. The Jets, of course, visit Denver on Oct. 8.
“He’s been in the league a while, he can say whatever the hell he wants,” Jets head coach Robert Saleh told reporters there Thursday. “I kind of live by the saying, ‘If you ain’t got no haters, you ain’t poppin’.’ So hate away. Obviously we’re doing something right if you’ve got to talk about us and we don’t play until (Week 5). …
“I think Hackett’s doing a phenomenal job here, the coaching staff’s doing a phenomenal job.”
Offensive lineman Billy Turner, who spent time with Hackett in Green Bay and then 2022 battling injuries and appearing in eight games for the Broncos, was even less diplomatic. On social media he added his own commentary to Payton’s assertions, writing, “Seems like someone started training camp and is trying to soften the blow after realizing what he’s in for this season. (Expletive) bum. #BountyGate #childish.”
Payton, who is next slated to speak with local reporters Friday, is intentional about every single thing he says and does, so unloading to USA TODAY was no mistake. He heaped blame on Denver’s public relations staff, general manager George Paton and front office leadership for the way they enabled Wilson to have his own staff around the team facility last year. He said they leaned too far into offseason hype and that the Jets are doing the same this year.
But he also put clear expectations on his own team for 2023, saying, “I’m going to be (angry) if this is not a playoff team.”
That quote as much as any resonated with running back Javonte Williams, who spoke with reporters after the Broncos’ ramp-up workout Thursday.
“That just lets you know how much he believes in the team,” the running back said. “At the end of the day, especially after the season we had last year, he could have came in with any kind of mindset. But for him to believe in us like that, it shows the talent we’ve got here and once we get it all together, how good things will look.”
Defensive lineman D.J. Jones said Payton has made his point about leaving 2022 in the past and improving this year in a simple way.
“He said it without saying it. Hasn’t said much,” Jones said. “It’s a new year.”
But clearly Payton felt compelled — or at least willing — to blast Hackett and the Broncos’ modus operandi more generally again as training camp gets going.
And that came after he called for an offseason of being “anonymous donors” when he was hired and on Wednesday complimented his team for having a “quiet” summer.
“With the season that we just had and we’re coming off of, it was an important reset for the team,” CEO Greg Penner told reporters Wednesday. “With a lot of new faces and with what happened last season, it was a good way for us to start and be totally focused on football.”
Now Payton’s taken it upon himself to quit with the quiet and start training camp loudly. Damn the bulletin boards and the past.
While the comments are sure to add spice to Hackett’s Empower Field return, the former coach was really more collateral damage as Payton sent a clear signal to a different target: His own locker room. The pressure’s on now, and nobody at the Centura Health Training Center could possibly have missed the message.
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