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Is Nathaniel Hackett’s Tenure With the Denver Broncos Already Doomed?

Denver has made a series of high-profile mistakes and looked generally inept through two weeks. Why are things going so poorly at Mile High?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When the Denver Broncos traded for Russell Wilson, it came as a shock. It was shocking because the Broncos weren’t on Wilson’s list—you remember, the four teams Wilson would want to land on should he be traded, even though he totally didn’t want to be traded. It was shocking because Pete Carroll stood at the NFL combine podium less than a week before the trade and said, “We have no intention of making any move,” just as Ian Rapoport said on the Pat McAfee Show that the Seahawks wouldn’t trade him until they had “a better option for them to compete next year.”

It was also shocking because Wilson was clearly and unequivocally the Broncos’ plan B. Sure, they surged forward with the Wilson trade as if it had been their intent all along, sending multiple first-round picks, multiple second-round picks, and multiple players in one of the biggest trade packages ever cobbled together. Earlier this month, the new Walton-Penner ownership group signed Wilson to a massive five-year, $245 million extension that featured the third-most total guaranteed money ($165 million) all time—all the while waving away the fact that they hadn’t initially wanted Wilson. They’d wanted Aaron Rodgers.

It wasn’t hard to watch the dominoes fall. On January 27, the Broncos filled their head-coaching vacancy with Nathaniel Hackett, the Packers offensive coordinator who had been working with Rodgers for the past three years. Then they waited for the long-disgruntled Rodgers to make his choice. But on March 8, Rodgers signed his extension with the Packers—and later that day came the first leaks that Wilson was to be traded to the Broncos. Wilson was kept in a big glass case for the Broncos to break in case of emergency—and once Rodgers stayed, they activated their fail-safe.

Hackett was a defensible hire in the same way that every head-coach hire ever has been a defensible hire. Owners say things like “culture” and “leadership,” general managers talk about a “shared vision” for the team, the head coach introduces himself and talks about being “aggressive” and maximizing the players and not just running his own system. Then you rattle off some of the places he’s coached before, talk about how long he’s been in football and how much he loves it, and call it a day. Good work, team.

Don’t ask about Rodgers, though. As GM George Paton said when asked whether Hackett had been hired in part to entice the four-time MVP to Denver: “Absolutely not.”

Hackett probably was. There is nothing discernible on Hackett’s résumé that would qualify him for head-coaching status otherwise. Of course, other franchises have made similarly uninspired hires at head coach—but at least in his relationship with Rodgers, Hackett had a selling point that other sons-of-NFL-establishment, longtime-coordinator-with-multiple-bad-offenses-on-his-résumé candidates did not. Paton couldn’t say it, because he couldn’t tamper, but the Broncos likely hired Hackett to try to get Rodgers. Rodgers himself said in November 2020, “I hope [Hackett] doesn’t go anywhere … unless I do.”

If we can all accept that the Broncos hired Hackett to attract Rodgers, the next part becomes much easier. Because now that Rodgers is not a Bronco, Wilson is a Bronco, Hackett is still the head coach of the Broncos, and we’ve seen the Broncos play two games under Hackett … well, it’s tough to figure out what Hackett does as the head coach of the Broncos.

Head coaches set the direction of the football team. They hire coordinators, positional coaches, and additional assistants to round out the staff that will implement their vision. Hackett reportedly wanted to hire Adam Stenavich, his offensive line coach with the Packers, as his offensive coordinator in Denver; the Packers blocked the hire and promoted Stenavich to Hackett’s old job, so Hackett hired another Packers offensive coach, ex–tight ends coach Justin Outten, for the position. As his defensive coordinator, Hackett hired Rams passing game coordinator Ejiro Evero, and as his special teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes, the Rams’ assistant special teams coordinator.

Hackett, who calls plays for the Broncos, didn’t call plays in Green Bay, and last did so in Jacksonville in 2018, when he was fired midseason. Outten has never been an offensive coordinator. Evero has never been a defensive coordinator or called plays. Stukes has never been a special teams coach. Add in the new quarterback in Wilson, and the Broncos were the only team this year who entered Week 1 with a new quarterback, head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator.

Head coaches set the direction of the football team, and Hackett set a direction of newness. He hired young coaches without much experience, and to his credit, tried to account for that by helping those young coaches grow. He hired John Vieira, an instructional designer from his time in Green Bay, to help the coaches learn how to use new technologies and methods to teach their players more effectively. Hackett also hired a game manager, citing the role during his introductory press conference as one of the first he wanted filled on his staff, saying “the starting point is getting a great game management guy. We see it every week and it’s the difference in a lot of games and it’s having somebody good who can be there to guide you going into a game.” Hackett hired Brad Miller as the team’s football strategy analyst, and Hackett has said himself that Miller is “always in [his] ear, giving you the go if you want to go for it on fourth down, when to take a timeout.”

This approach isn’t working. The Broncos have made an astounding number of procedural missteps through a mere two games of the 2022 season. Denver is 0-for-5 on goal-to-go drives, having scored all of their touchdowns this season from outside the 20-yard line. They have taken multiple procedural penalties in the red zone, including a false start that wiped away a touchdown against the Seahawks and a delay of game on a fourth-and-1 from the 1 against Houston that prevented them from going for the touchdown. The delay of game issues are the most rampant—enough so that the Broncos’ home crowd took to counting down the play clock aloud for the offense’s benefit. Hackett’s hesitation on fourth-and-5 late against the Seahawks in Week 1 bled 40 seconds of play clock, even though Hackett had multiple timeouts left to use; the Broncos ended up attempting a 64-yard field goal in Lumen Field, where no field goal longer than 56 yards has ever been hit. They missed the kick, and lost the game.

The very next week, in Mile High Stadium—a stadium known for its thin air and long kicks—the Broncos took another delay of game penalty on fourth-and-2 from the 36, as Hackett remained uncertain about whether to kick or to go for it. On the ensuing fourth-and-7 from the 41, Hackett passed up a 58-yard kick—a shorter kick in better conditions than he elected to take one week earlier—and punted the football away. Against the Texans, Hackett also needed to spend a timeout to get a punt returner on the field and another to get a play call in after a first-down sack; both of these were spent in a one-score game before the fourth quarter was even halfway done. If the Broncos had been forced to run a two-minute drill on offense, they would have had no timeouts.

This debacle of in-game management reminds us of another one of the head coach’s responsibilities: He manages the game. He decides when a timeout is needed and when a field goal or a punt or a fourth down attempt is optimal. It is his job to be clear and concise, so the coordinators can get their units and personnel onto the field with ample time to execute the plan that the head coach has laid out.

Hackett has yet to manage a game. The decisions he makes on Sunday, which are apparently informed by an adviser in the booth, are unintelligible and often detrimental to the Broncos’ winning chances. He filled out this staff, and this staff cannot execute.

There are more responsibilities of a head coach than just hiring a staff and managing a game. As outside observers, we can easily overemphasize the importance of such things because they are so visible. Little graphs on television broadcasts or floating on Twitter tell us what the computer thinks the coach should do, and because it’s so easy for us to see, it’s so maddening when the coach on the screen flies in the face of it. But of the remaining responsibilities left for the head coach, we still struggle to find much for Hackett to hang his hat on.

As the play caller and chief offensive mind, Hackett is responsible for the Broncos’ offensive performance. Denver is 14th in offensive DVOA, eighth in expected points added per play, and 24th in points per game—above average by advanced metrics, but below average in the stat that decides wins and losses. With an elite quarterback in hand—remember, Russ was the quarterback they wanted all along—the offense has disappointed early. It is also difficult to find Hackett’s influence on the offense from his time in Green Bay with Rodgers. Hackett said that the offense will be “what Russell Wilson likes to do,” and to this point, it has been: long dropbacks, deep passes, and volatility in the short passing game. If the offense is just Wilson’s offense, what is Hackett bringing to the table?

Head coaches also handle culture. Hackett is clearly a beloved coach—at least by Rodgers—and has a friendly, personable approach to his job. There are plenty of grouchy coaches who can get on the wrong side of players and lose the locker room, even if they’re doing good work as schemers—Broncos fans will remember the Vic Fangio era all too vividly. It is good that Hackett is liked by his players, and as the Broncos struggle, his strong interpersonal skills will be to his benefit in keeping everyone on the train and working toward the same goals. But if this is Hackett’s calling card—that his players like him—it is very difficult to see how the Broncos’ young coaching staff, egregious procedural issues, and average offensive output are going to improve.

The point of the Hackett hire was extremely clear: The Broncos wanted Rodgers, and Hackett was a way to get him. If that wasn’t clear when it happened, it’s certainly clear now, as Hackett has yet to do any of the things that good head coaches tend to do. We’re two games in, and there’s plenty of time for Hackett to prove his stuff—but first-year Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel is handling late-game comebacks and improving his personnel; first-year Giants head coach Brian Daboll is stealing wins late with two-point conversions; even first-year Bears head coach Matt Eberflus is winning over the Bears’ locker room. The other guys are doing something. I have no idea what Hackett’s doing.

But what I think doesn’t really matter—I’m just a guy watching from afar. What matters is what ownership thinks Hackett is doing. And ownership, critically, has changed. The Bowlen Trust hired Hackett as the team’s head coach before the Broncos were sold to the Walton-Penner group. Broncos ownership did not select Hackett as their guy—they just inherited him as the horse their wagon was hitched to.

That puts Hackett on completely different terrain than the rest of these first-year head coaches, who are all vying in Year 1 to prove to their bosses that they can deliver on the bill of goods they sold in their interviews. Miami, New York, and Chicago had clarity in ownership and in the front office, and selected head coaches to complete an existing vision. Since Hackett was hired by the Broncos, the Broncos’ vision has changed.

Hackett isn’t on the hot seat. It’s September—the seats of first-year coaches don’t get hot in September, no matter how reactionary the NFL media space becomes. But Hackett is on a totally unknown seat. He doesn’t have Rodgers, he doesn’t have ownership, and right now, he doesn’t have anything on his résumé that proves he can be an NFL head coach. He has the rest of the season to change that, or the argument for Hackett as anything more than a one-and-done coach will be impossible to make.