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The Broncos Had to Fire Nathaniel Hackett Because They Can’t Fire Russell Wilson

Hackett’s brief tenure as Denver’s head coach was an abject disaster. But his successor won’t have an easy task trying to fix Russell Wilson and heal a dysfunctional locker room culture.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Denver Broncos’ new owners weren’t waiting for Black Monday. Instead, they fired head coach Nathaniel Hackett 15 games into his tenure after a mortifying 51-14 loss to the four-win Rams on Christmas Day.

As rare as it is for a coach to be fired before the end of their first season, the move comes as little surprise. Nothing the Broncos have done has worked under his leadership. When Hackett called plays from Weeks 1 through 10, the offense ranked 29th in DVOA. Since Week 11, when Klint Kubiak took over as play-caller? Still 29th. The offense wasn’t even the first issue—Hackett never quite figured out how to manage a game. His tenure began with a failed field goal late in a loss to the Seahawks and continued with a fourth-and-inches pass attempt in overtime against the Colts in Week 5; the team had random bursts of aggression and passivity late against the Raiders in Week 11, and the Broncos lead the NFL in penalties. By any measure, this is not a well-coached team. Nor is it a functional one; when backup quarterback Brett Rypien is getting shoved by an offensive lineman because Rypien stuck up for Russell Wilson, you know the season has gone off the rails.

While Hackett has not performed well, he is far from the first head coach to do poorly in his first season—and most of those head coaches got a second and maybe even a third chance. Before Monday, there had been only nine one-and-done head coaches since 2010, including two from last season: David Culley, fired by the Houston Texans because of how poorly his team had performed, and Urban Meyer, fired by the Jacksonville Jaguars for … well, a lot of reasons.

This makes two things true: Moving on from Hackett is a reasonable decision to improve the quality of football operations in Denver, and Hackett was the fall guy. More specifically, Hackett was fired because it is much easier to fire Hackett than it is to fire Wilson.

Hackett has seemingly done little to help the team, but the primary reason the Broncos are this bad is because of how poorly Wilson has played. As Steven Ruiz wrote for The Ringer earlier this month, the Broncos are running a shotgun quick-game passing offense at Wilson’s behest. But this is not the sort of offense Wilson has been successful in for most of his career. While Wilson styles himself as the sort of pre-snap genius and defensive surgeon who could run such an offense—a Drew Brees, a Tom Brady—he has never been that. His success in Seattle came from deep dropbacks and downfield shots off of play-action.

Accordingly, the offense doesn’t have just one problem—it has problems on top of problems. In the quick passing game from shotgun, Wilson regularly misses open receivers—just like he did in that fourth-and-inches pass call late in that dreadful Thursday Night Football game against the Colts:

When Wilson misses those quick reads and tries to scramble, his age shows—he’s 34, with a pressure-to-sack percentage over 27 percent, the highest single-season mark of his career. In the four years for which TruMedia has data, Wilson’s expected points added per dropback on pressured plays has dropped each year—and this season, he’s at his lowest mark ever. Hackett’s offense is putting Wilson in bad spots, and the quarterback is less suited to handling those bad situations than he was previously—but that isn’t wholly Hackett’s fault. It’s also Wilson’s. This is the offense he asked for.

We know what happened next. The offense has been terrible, and Wilson has been terrible in it. He has generated career-low numbers in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown percentage. The Broncos offense has scored 15.5 points per game and converted 28.6 percent of their third downs—both are league-worst numbers. But Hackett was fired, and Wilson was not. That’s not a football decision—it’s a financial one. The Broncos’ deep-pocketed new owners, Walmart heir Rob Walton, his daughter, Carrie, and his son-in-law, Greg Penner, who is the one making the day-to-day decisions, can easily afford to pay Hackett to not coach. Critically, the money the Walton-Penner group will pay out to Hackett doesn’t count against their salary cap.

If the Broncos tried to fire Wilson this offseason—just straight cut him from the roster—it would create a $107 million dead cap hit. That one would definitely count against the salary cap.

The Broncos are about as pot committed to Wilson as a team has ever been to a player. Cutting him would have astronomical effects on the Broncos’ finances. The contract Wilson signed—a five-year, $245 million deal with a whopping $124 million fully guaranteed—has a contract option built into the 2023 season. This option does not change how large the dead cap hit would be in the event of Wilson’s release—it merely changes how much money would go into which years of the salary cap, as influenced by pre– or post–June 1 releases. As Jason Fitzgerald detailed for Over the Cap, the largest a Wilson cap hit could be is $107 million on the 2023 cap—almost half of the projected total cap for next season. Other figures—less astounding, but still well above the record $40.525 million hit the Falcons took this year after trading Matt Ryan—are listed below by outcome. There’s no easy way out of this kettle of fish.

Russell Wilson Future Cap Hits

Year cut Option? Before June 1 Dead cap hit Dead cap hit (following year)
Year cut Option? Before June 1 Dead cap hit Dead cap hit (following year)
2023 Not exercised Yes $107,000,000 $0
2023 Exercised Yes $107,000,000 $0
2023 Not exercised No $77,000,000 $30,000,000
2023 Exercised No $61,000,000 $46,000,000
2024 N/A Yes $85,000,000 $0
2024 N/A No $35,400,000 $49,600,000

So the Broncos fired Hackett in lieu of trying to take one of the few ugly trapdoors available in the Wilson contract that they signed. For general manager George Paton, who hired Hackett, executed the Wilson trade, and crafted the Wilson extension, this was the best avenue to make any of his franchise-defining moves seem anything more than complete travesties.

But the head-coaching vacancy in Denver will not be easy to fill. Because the Broncos are seemingly committed to Wilson’s whale of a deal for at least another season, the head coach that the Broncos hire must knowingly hitch his wagon to this aging, particular quarterback. An innovative offensive designer like the Eagles’ Shane Steichen or Giants’ Mike Kafka would not get to design, scheme, and create to the full extent of their capacity because only one offense has ever worked for Wilson, and it’s one Wilson wanted to escape.

Early buzz has the Broncos favoring the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, who was a candidate for their head-coaching job in the 2021 cycle—and Quinn could reportedly come with Brian Schottenheimer, Wilson’s former offensive coordinator and a current Dallas consultant. If Quinn keeps the Broncos defense humming and Schottenheimer installs the same run-heavy deep-pass offense the Seahawks won with in the mid-2010s, then yes, the Broncos could become an AFC contender—but is Wilson going to get on board with the same treatment he tried so hard to escape in Seattle?

Independent of the schemes deployed by the new head coach is his management of the locker room and team culture. Even if the Broncos get a quality offensive schemer in the building—whether as their head coach or his offensive coordinator—and even if Wilson buys into the scheme and runs the offense well, the incumbent Broncos players still have to want to play with Wilson. Courtland Sutton, the star receiver shown frustrated on the field in this week’s embarrassing 51-14 loss to the Rams, must want to play with Russ—as must Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler. The offensive line, last seen fighting with the backup quarterback on the sideline after another Wilson sack on Sunday, must want to play with Wilson. The defense and all its standouts, who delivered a heroic effort this year under rising star defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, must want to play with Wilson—especially if the new head coach, presumably hired to fix Wilson, does not retain Evero (who should be in the mix for head coach openings next month). Evero, it should be noted, was offered the Broncos interim job first but passed on it before it was given to senior assistant Jerry Rosburg.

The Wilson experience in Denver has highlighted what a stellar job Pete Carroll did managing the locker room in Seattle. Ex-Seahawks defenders K.J. Wright and Richard Sherman said just this year that Wilson received special treatment from Carroll; Doug Baldwin lauded Carroll’s locker room management of the Sherman-Wilson conflict following the Super Bowl loss in 2015. Wilson’s antics—from incessant, oblivious optimism in the face of horrible play to performative preparation with high knees at 30,000 feet—are more public now that he’s left Seattle and become the face of the league’s most disappointing team.

But Carroll is not walking through the field house door. Coaches with that deft of a hand are hard to find—maybe even harder to identify from afar. Sean Payton, longtime Saints head coach and current free agent, might be one—but why would he commit to Wilson when Payton’s reportedly been connected to the Chargers and the Cowboys, both teams with more talented and younger quarterbacks? Frank Reich, ousted from Indianapolis despite a winning record with a carousel of veteran quarterbacks, makes sense on paper—but if Reich elects to follow the route of his coaching mentor Doug Pederson and take a sabbatical, then the Broncos are still left empty-handed. Former head coaches might feel like reliable bets, especially if the Broncos want to try something different after the Vance Joseph–Vic Fangio–Hackett hiring failures, but culture is a fickle thing. The Broncos have already been thoroughly burned for believing that what once worked on a different team would work on their team as well.

So it’s not just Wilson’s contract that pushes Denver into an impossible corner in their head-coaching search—it’s his behavior as well. Whoever Denver hires next—a veteran culture guy, a branch of the Seattle offensive coaching tree, or a zippy offensive name to reignite hope—won’t solve the problem. Denver went chasing a white whale with the Wilson trade and ended up with a wild goose instead. What’s left is a test of patience and restraint for a new ownership group. How many more chips will they shove in on the Wilson contract, and how much—and for how long—will it hurt when they finally cut their losses?

At the very least, they are giving Wilson another swing at the plate, with a new head coach and offensive staff. For as dire as things look in Denver, where preseason expectations went unmet so spectacularly this season, the right man for the job will become a true panacea. Fix the offense, and Wilson’s bad contract becomes moderately palatable. Keep the players happy, and while they may not rival the Chiefs, at least the franchise is not bleeding talent to true contenders. What was true about Denver before remains true about Denver now: This can work. But the rapid demise of Hackett’s head-coaching career serves as a reminder of just how thin of a needle the Broncos must thread. If there was ever a time for the perfect hire—and far be it from me to identify who that perfect hire is—it’s now.