Broncos GM George Paton should be “safe” but not bulletproof

DENVER, COLORADO - SEPTEMBER 18: General Manager George Paton of the Denver Broncos walks on the sidelines prior to the game against the Houston Texans at Empower Field At Mile High on September 18, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. ( (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
DENVER, COLORADO - SEPTEMBER 18: General Manager George Paton of the Denver Broncos walks on the sidelines prior to the game against the Houston Texans at Empower Field At Mile High on September 18, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. ( (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /

The NFL is a brutal, brutal business. One day you are the hero for a franchise, and nine months later, you could be on the hot seat or even gone completely. Denver Broncos general manager George Paton was revered by many in Broncos Country after pulling off the Russell Wilson trade back in March, but nine months later, the luster has worn off and nobody knows whether Wilson is even the long-term (or short-term) answer at QB for the team.

The Wilson trade will go down as the “defining” move for Paton as general manager of the Denver Broncos, but depending on who you ask, the jury may still be out on that one. If you ask me, I think Wilson deserves another year with different coaches to prove that 2022 was a fluke and an outlier based on a 10-year career of great to average play at the very worst.

A general manager should not be defined by one big swing, however. If we’re using baseball analogies, Paton taking a swing on Russell Wilson was like getting the green light signal on a 3-0 count and hitting a home run…but foul. Is the batter out at that point? No, it’s just a 3-1 count and he put a massive charge into one already. We’ll see what happens on 3-1.

If that analogy doesn’t resonate, essentially what I’m saying is this: Firing George Paton based on the Russell Wilson trade would be absolutely insane. It was a massively celebrated move when it happened and nobody had a clue that we would see Wilson play this poorly in 2022.

The move that really defines Paton, for the time being, is the move to hire Nathaniel Hackett over a wide variety of other available coaching candidates, some of which were not even interviewed by the Broncos.

Broncos GM George Paton deserves plenty of criticism

  • Mike McDaniel, Miami Dolphins (not interviewed by Broncos, team is 8-7 and contending for a playoff spot)
  • Brian Daboll, New York Giants (not interviewed by Broncos, team is 8-6-1 and contending for a playoff spot)
  • Doug Pederson, Jacksonville Jaguars (not interviewed by Broncos, team is 7-8 and currently 1st place in the AFC South)
  • Kevin O’Connell, Minnesota Vikings (interviewed by Broncos, presumably a “finalist”, team is currently 12-3 and has locked in a playoff spot

The Broncos hired Nathaniel Hackett who became just the third NFL coach since 1994 to be fired in his first year on the job. He joins a short list which includes, as of last year, Urban Meyer.

Paton allegedly was very torn about the decision to fire Vic Fangio last year. He put his name and stamp on the Hackett hire and after Hackett was hired, many in Broncos Country were almost certain it was a sign that Aaron Rodgers was coming to town. Perhaps the Broncos were as well. We may never know the story there, but what the Broncos have said all along is that Russ was their top target.

Even if Wilson was a consolation, he was a very good one at the time. If the Broncos couldn’t have a back-to-back MVP, getting a guy who has been a mostly top-10 QB for his entire career wasn’t exactly like thinking you were trading for Rodgers and then swinging a modest deal for Teddy Bridgewater.

When you look at the decision Paton made to hire Hackett over the other candidates who have been doing so well in year one with their respective franchises — including first-year rookie head coaches — it makes you wonder just how “safe” or “committed” the new ownership group in Denver is to Paton.

What they have said publicly is that they believe in Paton. While it sounds, for the time being, that Paton is safe with the Broncos, I think it’s important to make the distinction that “safe” does not mean the same thing as “bulletproof”.

What am I talking about?

Let’s examine for a moment. Let’s say the Denver Broncos compile a target list of head coaching candidates that vastly exceeds our current imagination. I think projections, at this point, are rather modest with people thinking that retreads like Dan Quinn or Frank Reich will be the top candidates. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what if the Broncos have something massive up their sleeves? The early betting favorite, shockingly enough, was Sean Payton, formerly of the New Orleans Saints.

That’s an option that not many people gave very much thought because, well, it just doesn’t seem like the Broncos would want to invest the capital required to get Payton away from the Saints and what if he wants roster control? What if he wants to be a head coach/GM at this stage? The Broncos can’t offer him that with Paton in place.

So let’s ask this question then — If Sean Payton is the best candidate. why would this new ownership group not do whatever it takes to get him in the building? Safe, not bulletproof.

What if the same is true of a candidate like Jim Harbaugh? Harbaugh coming to Denver has been presented by some media members as unlikely, but why? Because he wants the GM position as well as the head coach position? Why would the Broncos’ ownership group draw that line in the sand after Paton’s decision to hire Hackett a year ago?

They wouldn’t, at least not in my opinion from the outside looking in. I don’t think Broncos ownership is so committed to George Paton that he’s bulletproof, even as this head coaching search progresses. Someone like Jim Harbaugh was serious enough about listening to NFL offers that he considered the Vikings’ opening last offseason when that team wasn’t a playoff team and had to do quite a bit of roster reshuffling.

Why would Harbaugh not be serious if the Walton-Penner group, along with other advocates and ambassadors for the Broncos like Peyton Manning, came calling?

I’m not saying that the Broncos are for sure going to fire George Paton the first chance they get, but for the right head coaching candidate, they might be willing to part ways with Paton if they have to. You just can’t count anything out at this stage, even with the things that have been said publicly.