Months after arriving in the Denver area as the Broncos’ general manager and leading the team’s free-agent and draft efforts and outfitting his front office with new hires, George Paton finally felt uncomfortable.
Paton and his wife, Barbara, gave in on their 11-year-old son Beau’s request to play tackle football, which meant buying equipment.
Confusion quickly ensued.
“I wasn’t very good at fitting (Beau),” Paton said. “I was a fish-out-of-water at Dick’s Sporting Goods.”
Fortunately for the Broncos, Paton has been the opposite since being hired as John Elway’s replacement on Jan. 13. After a 24-year NFL apprenticeship, he has seamlessly embraced the pressure and responsibility of the Big Chair.
Armed with a six-year contract, Paton has been equal parts patient and urgent in trying to improve the depth chart. As of Friday, he had turned over 34.6% of the roster (18 of 53 players), adding quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and cornerbacks Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller and Pat Surtain II. He also recognized the core players already in place and re-signed safety Justin Simmons and defensive end Shelby Harris and retained outside linebacker Von Miller and safety Kareem Jackson.
“He’s put great order to his department and working together with the coaches and he’s just a tireless worker,” Broncos president/CEO Joe Ellis said. “He has a good vision for the Broncos, not only this year, but what’s to come in the future here for the team.”
Paton recently sat in the atrium of the Broncos’ facility in Englewood with The Denver Post for an extensive interview. Paton explained his vision for the franchise but also presented in detail was his road to Denver, his career influences and why this team at this time was the right fit.
“This is a crown jewel franchise,” he said. “I grew up in Los Angeles and the Broncos were always a team I followed. They’ve won Super Bowls here. Kind of like in Minnesota, the fan base is unbelievable. It’s all ball.”
Paton, 51, grew up in La Canada, Calif., 15 miles north of downtown Los Angeles and five miles from the Rose Bowl. Tom and Carole Paton had four kids — sons John (58), Frank (57) and George, and daughter Camille (45). Carole is in good health, but Tom, 83, requires full-time care because of dementia.
Before a successful coaching career, Tom was an offensive lineman at UCLA and lettered from 1959-61. The age difference between George and his older brothers meant he was working to keep up.
“George was always trying to chase us around and compete, whether it was paddle tennis or basketball and football in the front lawn,” John Paton said in a phone interview.
George played his youth football for the Gladiators and when his ninth-grade public school team needed a coach, Tom, who had retired from coaching, stepped in as a volunteer.
“We never lost a game; we were never behind,” George said. “He went out like a champ. I was nervous to have him coach me because he’s pretty imposing, but it was unbelievable.”
Before his sophomore year, Paton transferred to Loyola High, a private school in Los Angeles and played for coach Steve Grady. As a senior, Paton beat out Chris Rising for the starting quarterback job; Rising moved to tight end and earned a scholarship to Duke.
“It was more of a running offense,” Grady said in a phone interview. “George was a good thrower, but he was a really good runner with the triple option.”
In 1986, Paton was all-Del Ray League on offense and defense and led Loyola to a playoff berth.
“Back in those days, it was extremely rare for a quarterback to also start on defense,” said Pat Jacobs, Loyola Class of ’69 who has known Paton since ’84 in his role with the booster club and an unofficial school historian. “He played the safety position like a linebacker. He was a warhorse.”
Said John Paton: “He wasn’t on the most talented team, but they won their league and George was a big reason why they were really good because of his leadership, his hard work and his dedication.”
The big-time college programs didn’t wear a path to the Paton house. George’s dream was to follow his father and play at UCLA.
“Maybe a one-star (recruit),” George said with a laugh. “I thought I was better than I was. UCLA wasn’t knocking on my door, but they did come to my school and offer me a chance to be a preferred walk-on and I jumped at the chance.”
Paton used the aforementioned instincts to quickly realize his goal of playing in the NFL should be extinguished.
“I probably thought I could play in the NFL until my first practice at UCLA,” he said. “I saw what real NFL guys looked like — and not a lot of them looked like me.”
Paton lettered for the Bruins from 1988-91, playing special teams and seeing work as a defensive back late in his career. He wanted to stay in football, likely as a coach, but had one final itch to scratch as a player.
Player to coach to scout
Paton played pro football in Italy and Austria in 1992-93, respectively. It was a life experience that also gave him stories to tell in perpetuity. Like this one …
“They needed somebody to play everything so I played everything,” he said. “I was on the team in Milan and I think we were playing our first game in Verona. You have your rituals when you’re playing and you get to the game early and you get prepared, right? All of a sudden, our bus pulled over to a big gas station off the ‘autostrada’ and I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ They said, ‘Oh, we need to have a smoke and a coffee.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,’ and I went out to the street to warm up.
“It was a different mentality.”
Different, but it was football and Paton brought the same zeal to his overseas teams.
The first major detour of his post-college life began with a phone call from Grady, who told him he had an opening to coach the Loyola sophomore team. Paton accepted the job while thinking he would return to Europe to play after the season.
The Loyola sophomore team went undefeated in two seasons with Paton. His playing days were done.
“I attended a lot of those practices and it was amazing to see how detail-oriented he was and it was clear he loved being a coach,” Jacobs said. “The hallmark of his teams were how disciplined and focused they were and how they played in George’s personality — very physical ball clubs.”
A coach was being born … until a scout was.
In 1997, Bill Rees, a UCLA assistant when Paton played for the Bruins, was hired as the Chicago Bears’ college scouting director. Rees heard Paton was back in the Los Angeles area and gauged his interest in an internship. Paton was initially hesitant.
“I really wanted to coach and I didn’t really know the scouting deal,” he remembered.
His big brothers stepped in for a little chat that had big implications.
“Myself and Frank kicked him in the butt,” John Paton said.
George took their advice, traveled to Chicago for an interview and was hired.
“He took a leap of faith, had a lot of confidence in himself and did a great job,” said Rees, now the director of scouting at Notre Dame. “George did a little bit of everything. College scouting. Pro Scouting. Cutting up videos. Investigating a lot of different prospects. A broad brush of responsibilities.”
Paton had found his passion.
“I loved it from the day I got there,” he said. “It was such a great learning tool.”
Paton was promoted to pro scout in 1998 and assistant pro personnel director in 2000. In ‘01, he moved on to Miami.
Learning every day
Paton was the Dolphins’ pro personnel director from 2001-06 and worked for general managers Rick Spielman and Randy Mueller. Spielman was fired after the ’04 season and replaced by Mueller, who was hired by coach Nick Saban.
“I didn’t know George before I got there, but I remember our visit the very first day I was there and he was very team-oriented, matter-of-fact, blue-collar and just put-his-head-down-and-grind,” Mueller said in a phone interview. “That’s the way I grew up, too, so I felt an instant connection.”
Previously the general manager in Seattle and New Orleans, Mueller retained Paton with his same title. Saban had final say on personnel and went 9-7 and 6-10 before leaving to build his empire at Alabama.
Paton said his responsibilities jumped “quite a bit” in his first director’s job. He had to canvas the league for players along with two pro scouts, was in charge of advanced scouting procedures, met with coaches more often and, closer to the draft, also evaluated prospects. He hadn’t known Saban before Miami.
“His process is unmatched,” Paton said. “This guy knows what he wants from every position on the field, every position in the building. He touched everything. There’s a reason why he’s winning all these games at Alabama. He taught me about team building, how he sees a team, how he sees a player.”
In the front office, Paton became Mueller’s chief resource for soliciting opinions on players.
“Every general manager needs a go-to guy and George was that for me,” Mueller said. “I look for guys who have opinions but don’t have an agenda. He was never a guy who sought credit for anything. He was happy just shutting his door, hanging in his office and doing his job. That’s what I loved about him.”
Spielman joined Minnesota in 2006 as vice president of player personnel. Mueller let Paton out of his contract to move to the Vikings.
It was with the Vikings that Paton fine-tuned every part of his skill set, working under titles of director of player personnel (five years), assistant general manager (three) and assistant general manager/vice president of player personnel (six years). Spielman moved up to general manager in 2011.
The Vikings went through several transitions during Paton’s time — quarterbacks Tarvaris Jackson, Brett Favre, Joe Webb, Case Keenum, Kirk Cousins and Bridgewater all started playoff games.
“I learned every day on the job there,” Paton said.
Spielman and Paton grew so close as working partners that Spielman is Beau Paton’s godfather.
“What was unique is that we worked together for so long, it’s like you almost don’t have to even say anything, you just look at each other,” Spielman told reporters after Paton joined the Broncos. “He knows what I’m thinking and I know what he’s thinking.”
Many thought Paton would become a general manager years before he joined the Broncos, but he turned down opportunities to interview and came up short with other clubs he did talk to.
Was the right fit going to ever materialize?
“I wasn’t sure,” John Paton said. “Early on, I don’t think he thought he was ready. He was waiting for the right spot. There were a couple he thought he had (San Francisco and Indianapolis), but didn’t work out.”
But then the Broncos called.
A day after a miserable 5-11 season, Elway stepped down as general manager and moved up to president of football operations. One league source quickly identified Paton as the leading candidate, but didn’t think he would be interested because of the Broncos’ uncertain ownership situation.
Paton, though, was intrigued and after the initial virtual interview with Elway and Ellis, became extremely interested.
“Definitely,” Paton said. “It was just really comfortable. It was John, Joe and myself and it was about football. My vision. Their vision. I thought we were aligned and like-minded.”
During the process, Paton was getting additional low-down on the Broncos from his nephew Rob, who is John’s son and a scout for the team. Those around George quickly believed this was The One.
“I did because George thought a lot of Elway and he recognized the team was going through some changes as far as the owners, but that wouldn’t necessarily screw him up,” John Paton said. “He also liked (coach Vic Fangio) and the vibe. When he flew out to Denver, I said to myself, ‘OK, this is going to be pretty good.’”
Paton flew to the Denver area and hours after dinner with a Broncos contingent that included Elway and Ellis, he agreed to terms.
Paton’s offseason grind included staying at a local hotel while his family remained in Minnesota. The post-draft season included making front office hires and promotions, buying a house and helping with the move, taking a family vacation to Costa Rica for day-long body-surfing and all-night hanging out and, of course, finding the right football pads for Beau.
A trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods may challenge Paton, but those close to him believe he is ready to navigate the Broncos back to respectability.
“No question in my mind,” Rees said a quarter-century after giving Paton his NFL start. “He’s very good with people, he’s an excellent listener and he’ll get a number of opinions but has tremendous confidence in himself to pull the trigger and make a decision. Denver is really lucky to have him.”
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