ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Before Nathaniel Hackett made the ill-advised decision seen ’round the world, sending out his kicker to attempt a 64-yard field goal in Seattle on the season’s opening night, the Broncos’ first-time head coach and his new quarterback, Russell Wilson, shared a confused-looking exchange on the sideline that would come to define their failed partnership.
Facing a fourth-and-5 and trailing by one point against Wilson’s former team, the Broncos gathered in a huddle with 45 seconds left, all three timeouts at their disposal. Time kept ticking as teammates looked at Wilson with puzzled expressions. If there was a play called, wide receiver Courtland Sutton indicated to Wilson he didn’t know what it was as players left the huddle. Other players wore befuddled looks as they approached the ball, realizing only as the whistle blew with one second left on the play clock and 20 seconds on the game clock that they wouldn’t be running a play at all. The broadcasters and analysts calling the game — Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on ESPN; Peyton and Eli Manning on ESPN2 — were equally perplexed.
What was happening?
It wasn’t just Hackett ultimately deciding to attempt a low-percentage kick with Brandon McManus, which was predictably off the mark in a 17-16 loss, that served as an omen. It was that coach and quarterback, the tandem selected by general manager George Paton to resurrect a long-sagging offense, didn’t appear to be on the same page about any of it. Was there a play called in that huddle? Were the Broncos supposed to attempt a fourth-down play? Afterward, Hackett took full blame for the decision, but the general look of confusion that permeated Denver’s sideline spoke to a deeper issue.
Less than four months later, as Hackett and Wilson walked off the field at SoFi Stadium following a disastrous 51-14 loss to the Rams on Sunday, that gulf seemed as wide as ever.
Hackett on Monday became the fall guy — the first one, anyway — amid one of the worst seasons in Broncos history. The 42-year-old, whose tenure lasted only 333 days, was fired after producing a 4-11 record, CEO Greg Penner announced in a statement. Denver has never scored fewer points through 15 games of a season than the 232 it has put up to this point in 2022. That dreadful, season-long performance, coupled with a disaster Sunday that included multiple flare-ups on the sideline, was enough for Penner to remove Hackett after just 15 games, making him only the second first-time head coach since 1978 to be fired before the completion of his first season.
“Our fans deserve much better,” Penner, who is scheduled to address the media Tuesday morning, said in his statement Monday.
It is largely unprecedented move to fire a first-time head coach before the end of his first season. Urban Meyer was dismissed after a 2-11 start in 2021, but that was as much to do with his off-field behavior as the results on the field. Before that, hadn’t happened in 3 decades
— Nick Kosmider (@NickKosmider) December 26, 2022
Hackett’s own mistakes played a significant role in his rapid downfall. His coaching staff lacked experience. His issues with game management early in the season led to the organization hiring veteran coach Jerry Rosburg, now the team’s interim head coach, to assist in that area. Hackett was slow to adjust his scheme to the limited personnel the Broncos had as injuries piled up, and he surrendered play-calling duties to quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak nine games into the season. In many ways, he simply didn’t seem prepared for the enormity of the job.
But the biggest miscalculation in Denver this season — made by not only Hackett, but the organization at large — was what it would take to make the partnership with Wilson work. The Broncos, in words and actions, made clear upon trading for Wilson in March that he would have significant say in how the offense was orchestrated.
“The starting point is we want to be sure that we’re doing what’s right for this team and what’s right for Russ,” Hackett said during the press conference announcing the acquisition of the nine-time Pro Bowler.
It didn’t take long for it to become clear that the things that worked best for Wilson and the things that worked best for the team often existed on two separate tracks. The organization empowered Wilson in a significant way upon acquiring him from the Seahawks for the price of five draft picks and three players. They provided him with his own office in the team facility, gave unfettered access to members of the quarterback’s personal team of coaches and trainers and handed Wilson a key role in the design and implementation of the offense he would run with his new team. Giving a player that kind of power next to a young head coach trying to establish his own authority created what proved to be a challenging dynamic, even if Hackett might have been naive to it at the start.
“I think Russ has done a great job of surrounding himself with a great support group, and they’re all great people,” Hackett said on the eve of training camp. “We know them well. As we move forward, those are things we’re going to work through and discuss what’s best for the team. I want Russ to be playing at a very high level, and I want him to be able to get to that height that he needs.”
Broncos GM George Paton, left, and Nathaniel Hackett, right, ceded significant control to Russell Wilson upon his arrival in Denver. (Hyoung Chang / MediaNews Group / The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Paton, who Penner said will assist in the search for Hackett’s replacement, said before the season that the relationship between Wilson’s team and the organization and its coaching staff was “collaborative” and “respectful of any boundaries that we have.”
“They really have become part of the Broncos family, and they’re really great people,” Paton said before camp. “Anything we can do to gain an edge — our team to gain an edge, Russ to gain an edge. We’re all about winning, and if it’s going to help us win, I’m all for it.”
The arrangement did not give Denver an edge. The results — a last-ranked offense and the worst statistical season of Wilson’s career — suggest the numerous avenues of input created game plans that lacked cohesion. There were times Hackett and Wilson didn’t appear to be seeing the same game, with audibles in goal-line situations early in the season contributing to a historically poor start in the red zone.
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Hackett rarely criticized Wilson publicly — or any other player for that matter — during the season, often taking blame for the offense’s ineptitude onto his own shoulders. But he seethed during a halftime interview with CBS on Sunday after Wilson threw two interceptions within his first three pass attempts and doubled down on that criticism after the game. The anger was evident elsewhere, too. When Wilson rolled out of the pocket in the third quarter and fired into double coverage for tight end Greg Dulcich and had the pass picked off by Jalen Ramsey, Courtland Sutton, open near the first down marker, threw his hands up in frustration. On the sideline late in the game, backup quarterback Brett Rypien approached the offensive linemen and implored them to pick Wilson, who was sacked six times, up off the field quicker. Left guard Dalton Rinser shoved Rypien in response, and running back Latavius Murray shoved Risner in kind. The players chalked it up as miscommunication, but it was all a window into a team broken by its continued failures.
The new head coach can’t have his fate tied as closely to Wilson’s performance as Hackett did. Candidates will want to know what the plan is for the quarterback and could insist on competition for Wilson in an effort to create checks and balances on the quarterback that were not in place this season.
The Broncos have learned the hard way that an equal partnership between coach and player, no matter his past success, isn’t the way forward.
(Photo: Justin Edmonds / Getty Images)
[Video] Youtube Reasons Nathaniel Hackett was fired by the Denver Broncos | SportsCenter
Reasons Nathaniel Hackett was fired by the Denver Broncos | SportsCenter
SportsCenter breaks the news that the Denver Broncos fired first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett after a 4-11 start to the season.
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