AFC West HC Hierarchy: Sean Payton Falls

Sean Payton's stock has fallen with all the questions plaguing the Denver Broncos in 2024.

Last season, the AFC West boasted two of the best offensive minds in the NFL: the Kansas City Chiefs' Andy Reid and the Denver Broncos' Sean Payton. The Los Angeles Chargers fired head coach Brandon Staley in January, landing a massive upgrade in former San Francisco 49ers and Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh.

On the heels of firing Josh McDaniels, the Las Vegas Raiders hired linebackers coach Antonio Pierce as head coach after his impressive run as interim. Pierce is the man officially. 

The deck has been reshuffled in the AFC West, so it’s time to figure out which teams were dealt the better hand in the division. Let's examine the current hierarchy. 

1. Andy Reid

Until another AFC West rival can figure out how to take the division from Reid and the Chiefs, he will sit atop the hierarchy as the best coach. Even in a season where his offense was devoid of reliable pass catchers, he managed to keep his offense afloat.

Having Patrick Mahomes — the best quarterback in the NFL — helps, but he was turnover-prone for a good portion of the season, with four fumbles and 15 interceptions. Reid rallied his Chiefs going into the playoffs, where they bested Miami, Buffalo, and Baltimore en route to another Super Bowl berth.

No other AFC West team could topple the Chiefs in their most vulnerable season as they appear in their fourth Super Bowl in five years. Reid is hands down the best coach in the NFL today.

2. Jim Harbaugh

Harbaugh is coming off winning the National Championship Game at Michigan and is ready to take another crack at the NFL. It may seem odd to have a coach who hasn’t been in professional football since 2014 ranked as the second-best coach in the division, but there are a few reasons.

Unlike the Raiders and Broncos, Harbaugh gets to work with a young franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert. Herbert has fantastic talent as a signal caller and will finally have a coach who will get behind him.

Wherever Harbaugh has coached, he’s made an immediate impact, so there's no reason it won't happen for the Chargers. Herbert’s numbers won’t be off the charts, but he’ll be more effective overall under Harbaugh. Kansas City vs. Los Angeles will be a must-see TV in 2024.

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3. Sean Payton

Payton would be No. 2 on this list if not for the albatross of Russell Wilson's contract weighing down the Broncos. Wilson is out as the Broncos starter going forward, so Payton will be looking for his replacement via free agency or the draft.

In addition to the quarterback situation, the Broncos' roster is full of holes on both sides of the ball while the team sits at $24 million over the salary cap. Star players like safety Justin Simmons and wide receiver Courtland Sutton have been floated in trade rumors since Denver’s season ended.

The team is starving for draft picks and young talent, and it’s expected that three or more starters could be moved to other teams. A rebuild is in order, but Payton proved he can keep a team competitive despite a lack of talent, and he finally snapped Kansas City's winning streak over the Broncos that dated back to 2015.

Seating him as the third-best head coach is what it is. It'll be interesting to see how Payton navigates free agency and the draft with limited resources.

4. Antonio Pierce

Last but not least, Pierce became the full-time leader for the Raiders after he did a decent job getting a spark out of his team. His players, especially on the defensive side, pounded the table for him to be their next coach. He has the locker room on his side, which goes a long way.

However, Pierce doesn’t have a difference-maker at quarterback after benching Jimmy Garoppolo, who proved he’s just a guy when he isn’t in a system run by Kyle Shanahan. Aidan O’Connell played as well as you’d expect a fourth-round rookie to, which was unspectacular.

Pierce sits at the bottom of the AFC West without any pedigree as an NFL head coach. As long as the bowl-cut extraordinaire Mark Davis is in charge of the Raiders, it’s hard to see them having sustained success.

The AFC West will be the most competitive it’s been in years. Reid and Harbaugh are undoubtedly in better situations than Payton and Pierce and will battle for the AFC West crown year after year.

The latter two must find footing fast if they want to keep up with the big dogs. 

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