If DeMeco Ryans goes to Texans, Broncos' head coaching search looks even worse

Who would have thought that Nathaniel Hackett would land on his feet before the Denver Broncos did?

The Broncos fired Hackett with two games left during his lone season as their head coach, and then he was hired as the New York Jets' offensive coordinator this week. Meanwhile, an important coaching search started for Denver. It was the first big moment for new owner and CEO Greg Penner, whose ownership group bought the team last spring for $4.65 billion.

"I will lead a thorough process with input from our other owners and from George [Paton], who I have confidence in as our general manager," Penner said when Hackett was fired, via the team's transcripts. "This will be a crucial offseason for us across our football operations — that’s coaching, personnel and support staff. We’ve got to get this right."

It is not playing out how the Broncos wanted.

Denver swung big to start. And one by one, the Broncos' reported preferred candidates are dropping off the list.

Broncos losing out on top candidates

On Friday, there was a report from Ian Rapoport of NFL Network that San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans will interview with the Houston Texans next week and that there is a mutual desire for Ryans to become the team's next head coach. The Texans' plan to interview Ryans again next week "may not align with Broncos timeline," per Rapoport.

In other words, the Broncos seem to be losing another top candidate. There is a history between the Texans and Ryans, who played six seasons as an excellent linebacker for Houston, but it's still surprising that a candidate would pick the Texans over the Broncos.

But nobody has picked the Broncos yet.

Denver was linked to University of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who said he would go back to UM. Sean Payton was an apparent target, but interest seemed to cool between the two sides, though Payton tweeted that he had a "great visit" with the Broncos. Dan Quinn seemed to be next on the list but on Thursday it was announced that he was staying with the Dallas Cowboys as their defensive coordinator. And now, Ryans appears to be out of the running as well.

Things can change and perhaps Denver gets back involved with one of those candidates. But for now, Penner's first big moment as an NFL owner isn't going that well.

Denver Broncos CEO Greg Penner (background) listens as general manager George Paton responds to a question during a news conference in December. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Denver Broncos CEO Greg Penner (background) listens as general manager George Paton responds to a question during a news conference in December. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Who will the Broncos hire?

There are plenty of good candidates left, even if Ryans ends up in Houston. Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero has gotten some interest from other teams. Names like former Stanford coach David Shaw and former Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell have been floated. Other candidates could emerge if the Broncos widen their search.

The Broncos will end up with a coach they can be excited about. But it can't feel good for a once-proud franchise to struggle to land a head coach, especially with none of the other openings being that attractive. The Broncos haven't been to the playoffs since the end of the 2015 season, they are coming off a truly horrendous season and there are questions about Russell Wilson after a mega-trade for the quarterback led into a bad season for him.

It's probably also a lesson for Penner on the difficulties of stepping into NFL ownership. It's a competitive business and it's rarely as easy as identifying the biggest names for a coaching search and landing whoever you want.

The Broncos still have plenty of time to find a great new head coach. It has just been a bumpier ride to this point than anyone anticipated.