Has Sean Payton Assembled a Super Bowl Caliber Staff?

The Denver Broncos have undergone a massive amount of change over the last five seasons. From three head coaching changes, to adding Russell Wilson, and trading away Von Miller, this team looks completely different than it did just a short five years ago. In fact five years ago, Vance Joesph was the head coach. Now he returns to Denver as the defensive coordinator under new Head Coach Sean Payton.

Sean Payton

First Let’s Take A Look At The Defense

Obviously the hiring of Sean Payton after a year away from football was the biggest news. However he stacked this staff with veteran coaches with experience in many roles.

Vance Joesph, Defensive Coordinator

Vance Joesph after 18 seasons as an assistant coach, Joesph was hired by the Broncos as their head coach, likely a year or two earlier than he should have been. This two season run wasn’t pretty, and it resulted in Joesph being let go in favor of longtime NFL defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Since Joesph left he has spent this time coordinating the defense for Arizona. He now has five years experience as a defensive coordinator, and heads into his sixth with Denver.

Joe Vitt, Senior Defensive Assistant

Joe Vitt has 42 years of coaching experience beginning his NFL coaching career in 1979. He first crossed paths with Payton in 1997 when both men worked for the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2016 Payton was hired by the Saints and he brought Vitt in to be his right hand man. He served as assistant head coach and linebackers coach for the next 9 seasons, winning a Super Bowl that has since been tarnished due to the Bounty Gate scandal. After the 2016 season he was hired by Miami as a consultant for one season. Then he joined the Jets in 2019 where he spent two seasons. Vitt had been out of coaching the last two seasons, but Sean Payton talked him into a return.

Greg Manusky, Inside Linebackers Coach

Greg Manusky played in the NFL for 12 seasons before retiring after the 1999 season. He would begin his coaching career in Washington where he also started his playing career, but spend just one season there as a coach. In 2002 his second season he was hired by the San Diego Chargers where he oversaw linebackers for five years. In 2007 he obtained his first defensive coordinator position with the 49ers. He would spend four seasons in San Francisco before moving on to the Chargers where he spent one season, Indy where he spent four seasons, and finally back to Washington where he spent four more seasons. Only one of those 13 seasons was not as a defensive coordinator. After 12 seasons as a DC, he returned to coaching linebackers where he will serve in 2023 as the Inside Linebackers coach.

Jamar Cain, Pass Rush Specialist

Jamar Cain is a long-time college defensive line coach, after playing the position himself in college. Graduating in 2002, and beginning his coaching career in 2004, he hasn’t looked back since. He now has been coaching the collegiate game for 19 seasons, and finally gets his first opportunity to coach in the NFL in 2023. He has overseen some amazing units, and it will be interesting to see his impact on this unit in Denver. During his time in college he won Division 1 FCS Championships.

Marcus Dixon, Defensive Line Coach

Marcus Dixon was a player long before he became a coach. He spent seven seasons in the NFL splitting time between Dallas, New York, Kansas City, and Tennessee. His final season came with the CFL’s BC Lions in 2014, after which he retired from football. After taking a few seasons off from football, he was hired by Hampton his alma mater as the defensive line coach/director of player development a position he held for two seasons, before transitioning from DPD to Recruiting Coordinator, and only overseeing defensive ends. In 2021 he spent just one season serving as assistant defensive line coach with the Los Angeles Rams, helping them win a Super Bowl. He would join the Broncos in 2022, and ultimately Payton retained him for 2023.

Christian Parker, Defensive Backs Coach

Parker a former player for Richmond University never got an opportunity to play professionally. He instead began coaching right out of college. In 2013 he oversaw cornerbacks before moving to defensive backs coach in 2014 for Virginia State. He would take the same title with Norfolk for the next two seasons. In 2017 he was a defensive analyst for Notre Dame, and in 2018 he held the same title for Texas A&M. In 2019 he got his first chance at the NFL level with the Green Bay Packers as a defensive quality control coach. He spent two seasons in that role before moving on to Denver in 2021. Sean Payton is now the fourth different coach to serve as Head Coach since Parker was hired; Vic Fangio, Nathaniel Hackett, Jerry Rosburg, and Sean Payton.

Michael Wilhoite, Outside Linebackers Coach

Michael Wilhoite is a former NFL player who got his chance with the 49ers thanks to a solid performance as an undrafted rookie free agent in the 2011 edition of the United Football League. Playing with the Omaha Nighthawks for the entire season before signing a contract to join the 49ers practice squad in December. This launched his NFL career and he never looked back. He went on to play seven seasons in the NFL, including 6 in San Francisco. Just a year removed from his playing career, Sean Payton hired him as a special teams assistant in 2019. In 2020 he moved over to assisting the defense. In 2021 the Chargers hired him as their linebacker coach. After two seasons with the Chargers, he reunites with Sean Payton.

Denver has Two Defensive Quality Control Coaches

Addison Lynch has twelve total years as a coach. Including six seasons with Florida State before being hired by the Chargers. He was ironically replaced by Shewmaker when he left for Vegas. He spent the 2021 season with the Raiders, 2022 with the Lions, and now joins Denver.

Isaac Shewmaker spent five seasons at the collegiate level before being hired by the Chargers in 2021. He spent the past two seasons helping the team transition to a 3-4 front before moving on to Denver in 2023. He brings valuable experience and should be an asset to the team.

Sean Payton’s Offensive Staff

Joe Lombardi, Offensive Coordinator

Lombardi returns to Colorado for the first time in his career since college. Having attended the Air Force Academy for his college career, he began coaching defensive line for Dayton before moving on to VMI to get his first experience coaching offense overseeing tight ends and tackles. He returned to coaching defensive line for the final time with Bucknell for one season. In 2001 he got his first chance to coach at the professional level with the first iteration of the XFL. He served as the tight ends and running backs coach for the New York Hitmen. Unfortunately the XFL didn’t make it to season two, and this left Lombardi to return to the college level.

He would spend four more seasons at the collegiate level before getting his first job in the NFL. He spent one season with Atlanta as a defensive assistant before joining Payton and the Saints in 2007. From there Lombardi climbed the ladder from assistant to position coach, then offensive coordinator for the Lions by 2014. His stay with Detroit was short, like many other coaches around this era, he was let go after just two seasons. He returned to the Saints in his same position. In 2021 he received another offensive coordinator position with the Chargers. He again spent two seasons there before Payton offered him the job in Denver. Lombardi has coached under Payton for twelve seasons, he is essentially his right hand man on offense so this hiring made a lot of sense, even after being fired by the Chargers following a playoff loss in 2022. Let’s hope we don’t see Russell Wilson attempting 1,371 passes over the next two seasons. There needs to be way more balance on offense.

Coaching Staff

John Morton, Passing Game Coordinator

John Morton is a former player, who never quite broke into the NFL as a regular contributor. Bouncing around on practice squads, and in the CFL or NFLEL, he ultimately retired after the 1997 season. Jumping into coaching with the Raiders who had been the NFL team he spent the most time with. He would go on to coach with the Raiders for seven seasons serving various roles. In 2005 he spent one season with San Diego University before Sean Payton and the Saints hired him in 2006 as their Passing Game Coordinator/Wide Receiver Coach. This lasted just one season before Morton took a job with USC.

This began a four year stint with the University ending with two seasons as their offensive coordinator. After this stint he was hired by the 49ers to coach their wide receiver room where he stuck until 2015 when he returned to the Saints to coach wide receivers for two years. In 2017 he would join the Jets as the offensive coordinator but it lasted just one season. He spent 2018 out of coaching, and returned home to the Raiders in 2019 staying until he was hired by the Lions in 2022. He spent one year with Detroit before reuniting with Payton in his old position.

Morton and Lombardi are far and way the elder statesmen on this offensive staff. In fact Denver hired several first time NFL position coaches:

Davis Webb, Quarterback Coach

If you want to talk about interesting hires, look no further than the move to hire Davis Webb as the quarterback coach. Not only is this his first time coaching quarterbacks, he literally ended his playing career after just six seasons to make the leap into coaching. Similar to Kellen Moore in Dallas, the former 3rd round pick has transitioned into coaching early. Could he be a name to watch as a future offensive coordinator?

Keary Colbert, Wide Receivers Coach

Keary Colbert is another former player just beginning his NFL coaching career, however he has been involved in the college game for a decade now. Another former alternative football player, Colbert spent the 2009, and 2011 seasons playing in the UFL. He however also served as a coach for the first time in 2010 with USC, his alma mater as a graduate assistant. After four seasons at other colleges he returned to USC, climbing the coaching ladder. He ultimately served as offensive assistant, tight ends coach, inside wide receivers coach, and then finally wide receivers coach. He would hold the same position in 2022 with Florida before being hired by Denver. After 13 seasons coaching, and 7 as a player, including a brief stint in Denver, Colbert is fully prepared to oversee this unit.

Lou Ayeni, Running Backs Coach

The Broncos have always been known for their rushing attack, especially under Mike Shanahan but even since then with guys like Javonte Williams, and Melvin Gordon the team has always tried to have talented players who can carry the load. Now they bring in a first time NFL coach to oversee the position. Most recently Coach Ayeni served as the running backs coach and recruiting coordinator for Northwestern University where he was hired in 2018. He has spent over 15 years now coaching running backs and somehow found a 1,000 yard rusher at every stop. Can he continue this success in Denver with Javonte Williams coming off injury and Samaje Perine as the top backup?

Zach Strief, Offensive Line Coach

Strief spent his entire playing career under Sean Payton, and overall has spent just one season not working with him in 2022. Strief was drafted in the 7th round by Payton and the Saints in his first season as head coach. After five years as a depth piece for the Saints he took over as a starter and never looked back. He helped New Orleans win a Super Bowl before ultimately retiring after the 2017 season was cut short due to an injury A few facts ring true in a lot of coaches, they often coach a position they once played, and they often served as a captain during their playing career displaying traits of a leader early on. Both are true for Strief. He was a captain for the Saints from 2012 until he retired, and later also served as the Player Rep for the NFLPA Board of Representatives again being recognized as a leader. He began coaching as the assistant offensive line coach with the Saints in 2021. When Payton returned, he brought a player that proved crucial to the first twelve seasons of his head coaching career back to his staff. A great move even though it came at the cost of a legend of a coach who previously held the position.

Austin King, Assistant Offensive Line Coach

Austin King is another former player. He spent four seasons playing center in the NFL with the Buccaneers and Falcons. Last playing in 2006. In 2012 he began his coaching career with Toledo as an offensive quality control assistant. He spent two years with Toledo, before holding the same position for Syracuse. In 2015 just his fifth season as a coach he was hired as the Dayton Offensive Coordinator a position he held for five seasons leading a record setting offense his final year before making the jump to the NFL with the Raiders as the offensive quality control coach. In 2021 he was promoted to tight ends coach, then in 2022 he joined the Bears as an assistant offensive line coach, and later moving to Denver for 2023.

Declan Doyle, Tight Ends Coach

For the tight ends position Payton again tapped a coach he knew well from his time with the Saints, and another very young coach. He got his start in 2018 with Iowa as a student assistant before the Saints hired him as offensive quality control in 2019. He served in that role for four seasons, sticking in 2022 under Dennis Allen. In 2023, Payton offered him his first chance as a position coach. He is one of the few assistants with Saints ties who weren’t involved in the Super Bowl Victory.

Two of Three Offensive Quality Control Coaches in Their First NFL Season

Logan Kilgore is a former quarterback signed by the Saints in 2014. He didn’t last with the team long but wound up in the CFL instead. He spent time with the Toronto Argonauts, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and Edmonton Eskimoes before ending his playing career to begin coaching. He began his coaching career in 2021 with Arkansas where he served as an offensive assistant before making the jump to the high school level where he oversaw quarterbacks and called plays as the offensive coordinator. He would commit to returning to Arkansas only to get the call from Denver and opt to make the leap to the NFL instead. Payton taps another former quarterback on his staff.

Favian Upshaw is YET ANOTHER former quarterback on this coaching staff. This time Upshaw was a college quarterback form Georgia Southern. He would have a promising career being named MVP of the Go Daddy Bowl in 2015. He began coaching in 2018 with Tulane before stops with Benedict College, Savanah State, and finally his alma mater in 2021. Two seasons later he would get the call to join an NFL team for the first time.

Zach Grossi, Offensive Quality Control

Grossi is an interesting coach. He got his start immediately after college joining his alma mater as a graduate assistant. This lasted just one season as he was hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the following season. He would spend the next five years with Tampa holding various roles including assisting the scouting department, offensive quality control, and also serving as an assistant to the head coach. In 2019 he was hired to coach quarterbacks for Hampton. In 2020 he received a promotion being hired as offensive coordinator/QB coach for Southern University and A&M College where he stayed until Denver hired him in 2022. Last year he assisted the receiver position helping Jerry Jeudy to a break out season.

Special Coaches to Oversee Special Teams

Combined the three men overseeing the Special Teams unit have just under 50 years of coaching experience. Mike Westhoff is a legendary special teams coordinator serving as the Assistant Head Coach and assisting with the unit he is best known for.

Denver Broncos

Westhoff began coaching special teams in 1982. Outside of a one year stint with the USFL coaching offensive line in 1985, he has steadily run special teams units until the 2018 season. He stepped away due to some health issues in 2019 after two years working with Sean Payton and the Saints. He was away from the game for four seasons before Payton brought him back with Denver. With 32 years of total experience he is an asset to the Broncos and coordinator Ben Kotwica.

Ben Kotwica is a fifteen year coaching veteran who began coaching special teams with the Jets in 2007 after two seasons as a defensive coordinator with a prep school. With the Jets he went from Quality Control to Assistant Coordinator to Coordinator in a matter of seven years. He was hired by Washington after leaving the Jets. He spent five years running the special teams unit with the Redskins before moving on to Atlanta where he spent two seasons, and finally Minnesota last season, before being hired by Denver. 

Chris Banjo, Assistant Special Teams Coordinator

Mark my words, in three years or less Banjo will be running his own special teams unit, thanks to his ability to learn under Westhoff and Kotwica in Denver. Chris Banjo is a former defensive back who made his living on special teams in the NFL. Retiring following the 2022 season to join the Broncos Coaching Staff. Going undrafted in 2013 he latched on with Green Bay where he stuck for four seasons. From 2016-2018 he played for Sean Payton’s Saints seeing a lot of action on coverage units. He finished his career with a three year stint in Arizona. Banjo played ten seasons split between three teams collecting 143 tackles in 131 appearances despite just 7 starts his entire career. This was a smart move, and one that Bridges the gap between the veteran coaches and their players. This could prove crucial to the Broncos this season.

Paul Kelly, Assistant to the Head Coach

Paul Kelly was hired to oversee a lot of the day to day operations and allow Payton to focus more on coaching the team. Kelly has held this role, or one like it for over 20 years at the NFL level. Spending time with Oakland, Tampa Bay, Washington, and now Denver. He was a part of the Raiders team that went to the Super Bowl against Tampa Bay where he would later be hired. Kelly is one of those unsung heroes of the team that may never be mentioned aloud, but he will always be making an impact.

Broad Overlook

This coaching staff has several members that have been to the Super Bowl, and some that have led teams to college championships. One thing seems to ring true on this staff; experience. The Broncos seem to have sought out coaches that Payton knew personally, who had prior knowledge of his expectations, his system, and the culture he wanted to incorporate in Denver. This will be a huge help in transforming the mindset in Denver, where it’s been many years since they had a consistently competitive team. Even during their Super Bowl run under Gary Kubiak, there was a lot of luck involved as the team was led by Peyton Manning on his last legs.

The Broncos haven’t won more than 9 games since that 2015 season, and they haven’t had a winning season since 2016 in which they went 9-7. Kubiak would then step away as head coach beginning the chaotic run we have witnessed over the past six seasons. Payton brings a certain respect given his career as a head coach and what he was able to do in New Orleans even if Bounty Gate did smudge his legacy. That fact can’t be undersold, and that’s why you find coaches across this roster that deserve that same level of respect in their specific roles.

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