Sean Payton at a Denver Broncos' press conference on July 28, 2023. Jul 28, 2023; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton dresses the media after training camp at Centura Health Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In an exclusive interview with USA Today Sports’ Jarrett Bell that was published Thursday, current Denver Broncos’ head coach Sean Payton used remarkably harsh language on his predecessor, Nathaniel Hackett. Payton described last season (where the Broncos went 5-12 overall and fired Hackett after he put up a 4-11 record) as an “embarrassment,” and said the Broncos spent “so much (expletive) time trying to win the offseason.” He also claimed the New York Jets (who have Hackett as their offensive coordinator) are doing the same thing this year with Hard Knocks (despite the team making it very clear they didn’t want to be on the show), and went off on “what was allowed, tolerated in the fricking training rooms, the meeting rooms.”

Those comments caused quite a reaction, including pushback from Jets’ receiver Randall Cobb and head coach Robert Saleh. But many media members argued that Payton’s comments were “strategic” to get blame off of quarterback Russell Wilson. However, in a press conference Friday, Payton himself offered a different explanation. There, he said he made comments that he would have made as a NFL on Fox analyst (his role last season), but shouldn’t have made as a coach. He also said he regretted the comments soon after making them, and cited them as the team’s one offseason misstep so far:

“Listen, I had one of those moments where I had my Fox hat on, and not my coaching hat. I said this to the team in a meeting yesterday, we’ve had a great offseason relative to that, you know. And 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. There’s a pound of flesh for these guys, and as a coach, you stick up for them. And after a while, you know, we’re past that season last year.”

“I said what I said, and obviously I needed a little more restraint. And I regret that. That being said, what I told the team is it can happen. And I think I’m pretty good at working with the media, and relatively savvy, and I just had one of those moments. Jarrett’s a good friend, real good at his job, and two lattes in the morning, first one I see, and 40 minutes later, I’m regretting it. So it is what it is.”

There are several interesting things there. For one, this doesn’t necessarily completely wipe out the “strategic” analysis from media, as shifting blame away from Wilson could still have been Payton’s goal (and he certainly managed to get Broncos’ conversation to not be particularly about Wilson). And it’s even possible that Payton was deliberately harsh and all along had a plan to walk his comments back slightly. But if that isn’t the case, his comments may still have been strategic in intent, but less solid in execution. And he probably could have made some of these points and shifted blame from Wilson in a less controversial way. And it’s notable that Payton doesn’t really walk back his criticisms, just the language used, with lines like “I need a little bit more filter.” (It is also interesting that he has become yet another sports figure to blame aggressive comments on caffeine.)

Beyond that, though, it’s significant that Payton views his past Fox role as something that allowed him to be more critical than his current role as a NFL head coach. For him, that’s probably true; Payton was pretty open and even pretty critical of teams in his Fox work last year. But many former NFL players and head coaches elect not to be too critical when they head to TV. And that’s especially true with those who have aspirations of working in the league again (as Payton made it clear he did).

This is also notable for the flip side of that discussion, which is Payton thinking that head coaches can’t be publicly critical of past coaches or other teams. Given the way these particular comments went over, he may be somewhat right (at least when it comes to the harshness of criticism and the specific language used), but that’s not necessarily great. Specific open potshots of this kind may not be great for the coach that utters them and may create some of those always-despised “distractions” for teams, but they’re certainly interesting for media and fans. And they’ve been a big part of some of the NFL’s most famed rivalries in the past.

And even if coaches decide not to throw haymakers of quite this sort publicly, it would still be good for them to be able to offer at least some commentary on other coaches. A “we’re all friends here” public appearance isn’t the truth. And there obviously are NFL coaching mistakes, and different opinions on coaching approaches. Those obviously get discussed by media members, including on TV panels like the one Payton was part of, but it’s not a bad thing to have them discussed by players and coaches as well. Just maybe without so much latte-fueled vitriol.

[James Palmer on Twitter]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.