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Nathaniel Hackett is doing too much, and it’s hurting the Broncos

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Minnesota Vikings v Denver Broncos
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Hackett needs to get out of his own (and the Broncos’) way

We’re two weeks in and the Broncos are a far cry from the Super Bowl hopeful everyone believed they’d be with Russell Wilson. There’s no one single reason Denver is looking so hapless, but the buck stops with head coach Nathaniel Hackett, who has been woefully out of his depth as the man tasked with taking the Broncos from a middling franchise, and turning them into a team that can hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

The narrative leading into this season was that the Broncos were poised to follow in the wake of the Rams and Buccaneers to become the next team to upgrade at quarterback, and immediately contend for a title. On paper this shouldn’t have been much of a problem. Denver’s defense was solid, their offensive line was good, and they had two burgeoning receivers in Cortland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy, 1,000 yard threats each who were easily good enough weapons to contend. The difference between the Broncos, Rams and Bucs is Hackett, and he isn’t remotely on the same level as Sean McVay or Bruce Arians yet. It’s showing.

Russ can’t cook when the recipe is garbage

One of the big selling points for the Russell Wilson era in Denver was this idea that we’d see him “unleashed” for the first time in his career. It’s no secret that Wilson’s time in Seattle was defined by success, but often in spite of a Pete Carroll game plan that deemphasized quarterback as a focal point. Conceptually the idea was that if Wilson could put up MVP-worthy numbers in an system where he wasn’t asked to be the nexus of the offense, what could he do in a system that asked him to be “the guy”?

The problem is, we just haven’t seen that. Everyone is aware of the debacle that happened on Thursday Night Football against the Seahawks that saw the ball taken out of Russ’ hands with the game on the line, but the offensive decisions of the team thus far have been about balance. That’s fine if you’re trying to mitigate a mediocre passer, but the Broncos are paying Russ one of the biggest salaries in the NFL, which by extension puts the pressure on him to make things happen — but that isn’t manifesting itself in playcalling.

This is having a negative effect on Wilson. When passes are called he’s taking risks he normally wouldn’t, like he’s trying to make a statement with every pass, justify his contract. Russ has an aggressive pass rate of 23.3 percent this season, meaning he’s forcing a ball downfield on almost a quarter of his passes — it’s the third-highest rate in the NFL this season behind Dak Prescott and Mitchell Trubisky. Last season Wilson was 20th in the NFL in aggressive passing, in 2020 he was 41st in the league, dead last.

Wilson’s greatness comes from identifying holes in the offense and taking what a defense gives him. In Denver he’s either being asked, or feels pressured to push the ball downfield, and that is a recipe for disaster that’s playing out on the field.

Hackett is trying to do too much

You know the saying “you gotta walk before you can run?” Well, Hackett is running full sprint into a brick wall. A lot of this comes from the pressure of being a first time head coach and wanting to succeed on his own terms, but it’s hurting the Broncos as a result.

As it stands, Hackett is trying to manage the game as head coach AND call plays while on offense. There’s no doubt a large part of this is due to Hackett wanting to put his stamp on the football team and asset himself as its leader, but he has to acknowledge that both clock management and playcalling is suffering by him trying to run the whole show himself.

There’s no shame in needing someone else. Whether it’s adding a designated clock manager, as Norv Turner had for much of his NFL career, or trusting the staff he’s put together to manage the offense so he can focus on the big picture. The problem is that Hackett didn’t put any experience on his staff, hiring Justin Outten to be his offensive coordinator. Obviously Hackett doesn’t trust Outten enough to call the plays, so it’s all turning into a big mess where he’s overthinking the process.

The Broncos are playing scared football

This team gives off a prevailing feeling of playing scared. It’s as if Hackett expected that Wilson’s magic would run the offense without need for coaching adjustment, so the changes he is making are like someone who is terrified of losing a game, and hurting his franchise QB in the process.

To be fair, it’s been a brutal two weeks. Opening in Seattle was incredible for the NFL’s drama, but awful to get this team off on the right foot. When that followed with a boo-filled first half at Mile High it shattered the confidence of Hackett.

Now it’s a put up or shut up time. Starting 1-1 isn’t necessarily bad, but starting 1-1 against two of the worst teams in the NFL is. Next up are the 49ers, then the Raiders — football tests that far exceed anything the Broncos have faced up to this point. They cannot win placing scared football, and need to follow the mandate this team started with: Put the ball in Wilson’s hands, let him know you have faith in him to get it done, and watch him do it.

Denver can turn this around

The misfortunes of the last two weeks don’t need to become permanent, but there has to be some soul searching.

  1. Wilson needs to be allowed to play his brand of football again, without feeling the need to force passes down field.
  2. Hackett needs to trust someone to call plays, or bring on someone with experience who can guide his coaching development.
  3. The Broncos need to play like a team with confidence, not a scared team terrified of being booed.

If those three things can’t happen we can forget a Super Bowl this year, and any chance at a playoff run for that matter.

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