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Five Takeaways From Russell Wilson’s Disappointing Return to Seattle

Wilson’s first game as a Bronco came with sloppy penalties, questionable decisions from his head coach, and an opponent in the Seahawks who looked better than advertised

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A wild Week 1 came to a close Monday night when the Seahawks held on to beat the Broncos 17-16 in Russell Wilson’s return to Seattle. The game was predictably weird, given its participants, and gave us a first look at how some new faces look in new places. Here are five takeaways:

1. Nathaniel Can’t Hackett

Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett’s debut could have gone a lot better. His team played sloppily and got flagged 12 times, costing Denver 106 yards. The pre-snap operation was particularly messy. His offense had some embarrassing sequences at the goal line, where it consistently operated out of the shotgun, for whatever reason. And that might have influenced a questionable decision to settle for a field goal midway through the fourth quarter with the Broncos down by four and facing a fourth-and-goal from the 8-yard line.

Hackett’s worst impression, though, was the last one he gave. With about a minute left in the game and the Broncos trailing by a point, Denver’s offense stayed out on the field for 39 seconds of clock time on fourth-and-5 before Hackett finally called a timeout. Following that, Hackett opted to send kicker Brandon McManus out to try a 64-yard field goal instead of keeping the ball in quarterback Russell Wilson’s $245 million hands. McManus missed, and the Seahawks went on to win.

Much was made of the partnership between Hackett and Wilson in the leadup to this game, and there’s lots of time left for them to define it this season, but in the moment it counted most on Monday, Hackett’s decision was to Let Russ Look.

Models vary, but Football Outsiders’ win probability calculator found that the decision to kick a field goal instead of passing in that situation cost the Broncos nearly 30 percentage points.

McManus is a good kicker who benefits additionally from playing half his games in the Denver altitude, but he’s never made a kick of more than 61 yards—and this game was in Seattle. Not to mention across league history, NFL kickers are only 2-of-41 on kicks of 64 yards or longer.

To underscore how truly befuddling this decision was, Seattle had also used its final timeout to ice McManus, and he missed that attempt, as well. At that point there were only 20 seconds left in the game, and McManus actually did have the distance on that kick that didn’t count, if not the location. But it’s still shocking that even with extra time to reconsider, um, asking a player who’d thrown for 340 yards already to throw for five more instead of asking a kicker to make a career-long kick, Hackett didn’t.

Hackett confirmed after the game that he never thought about going for it, either before or after the timeout, then said that 64 yards was McManus’s range and that “Brandon gave it his best shot.”

He may have to offer further explanation this week, especially given that Pete Carroll said he was never expecting the Broncos to kick in that situation.

“I was surprised that they took Russ out at the end,” Carroll said. “We weren’t thinking field goal there, we were thinking it was fourth down and they were still going. It gave us a chance to win the game on that play. We were fortunate there.”

2. Let Geno Cook?

Starting his first Week 1 game in eight years, Geno Smith gave the Seahawks everything they could have hoped for. He completed 82 percent of his passes (23-of-28) for 195 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.

Smith began the game with a fan-base-appropriate 12 straight completions and threw two touchdowns in the first half before the Broncos defense clamped down and held Seattle scoreless after halftime. But Smith’s output in the opening two quarters was enough to get the win and, more importantly, show that he can run the offense the Seahawks wanted to deploy last season when they hired offensive coordinator Shane Waldron away from Sean McVay’s Rams staff. Smith threw mostly short, over the middle, and to his right (his yards per attempt average was 5.1, according to Next Gen Stats). He got the ball out on time, with an average time to throw of 2.85 seconds, and he used play-action on a heavy 37 percent of his dropbacks.

He wasn’t flawless, though. His willingness to stand in the pocket is welcome in Seattle, where Waldron wants his quarterback to play on schedule, a preference that had been a difficult fit with Wilson. But there were multiple plays when Smith was too willing to do so, standing still when he should have climbed up in the pocket to avoid pressure and wound up getting hit by a pass rusher coming around the edge. At least once this happened when Denver outside linebacker Bradley Chubb won a rep against Seahawks rookie offensive tackle Charles Cross, which is nothing to fret about, but it was one negative tendency that showed up in the game. Overall, though, Smith executed the offensive game plan well, which bodes well for a Seattle team in an NFC West that didn’t look as foreboding as expected in Week 1.

3. New Team, Same Russ

We should not have expected anything else. No matter what offense he’s in, Russell Wilson runs his own offense, and that’s what happened Monday night. A major preseason talking point in Denver was that the Broncos wanted to operate with a lot of tempo—but when the game started, Russ took his time, threw it deep, and broke the pocket liberally. His average time to throw was 3.04 seconds, with a 7.3 average yards per attempt.

This is not a complaint! Wilson went 29-of-42 for 340 yards and a touchdown, and without two goal-line fumbles from running backs Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams, Denver probably would have won. The Broncos offense outgained the Seahawks by nearly 200 total yards, 433-253. It’s just another reminder that if Hackett is the offensive coach who gets Wilson to alter his style, he will be the first to have done it.

4. More Rust for the Resters

The Broncos joined the likes of the Rams, Bengals, and Packers as teams who heavily prioritized rest over reps for starters in training camp and the preseason, then had sloppy first games. Though some of the Broncos’ penalties can be explained by the noise at Lumen Field, it was still a severe issue. Two lost fumbles didn’t help, either (though Seattle had three fumbles and was lucky to recover two of them). Denver was so cautious about the preseason that even when the Cowboys visited for a joint practice—something many coaches use to ramp up physicality because they can see their players against another team while having more control than they would in a preseason game—it wound up being a light day of work.

Seattle, meanwhile, joins teams like the Giants and Steelers who, in part because of quarterback competitions or evaluations that needed to happen, gave more reps and physical practice time to starters before the season and pulled off upsets in Week 1. Some coaches would probably say that injuries are a bigger concern than rust, but it’s worth watching to see whether the trend continues.

5. Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams Do Everything Together

Denver apparently takes this running back committee thing fairly serious. Gordon and Williams split touches nearly evenly Monday night, with Williams getting 18 to Gordon’s 14. (They also each had a fumble at the goal line.)

Williams was far more productive, with 43 yards on seven carries and 11 catches for 65 yards in the passing game. Gordon had 12 carries for 58 yards and two receptions for 14 yards. If the disparity in production continues to be that wide, it would seem obvious that Williams would start getting the larger portion of the workload. But that hasn’t happened yet.