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Broncos’ early gaffes raise a question: Can Nathaniel Hackett hack it?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/23/2022 Des Bieler
“Heck, I’d be booing myself,” Nathaniel Hackett said of unhappy Denver fans. “I was getting very frustrated.” (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images) © Justin Edmonds/Getty Images “Heck, I’d be booing myself,” Nathaniel Hackett said of unhappy Denver fans. “I was getting very frustrated.” (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

After a string of game-management miscues, it’s fair to say Nathaniel Hackett’s tenure with the Denver Broncos has gotten off to a, well, rocky start. If the 42-year-old former Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator isn’t already on the hot seat after only two games, it might start getting a little toasty unless he begins showing signs he is up to the task.

“I just want to be sure that I am the most efficient that I can possibly be and communicate the best way that I can,” Hackett said Monday. “To this point I haven’t done that, and I can do a lot better.”

That comment came a day after Broncos fans went to the extraordinary length of counting down the play clock as it neared zero during a 16-9 Denver win Sunday over the visiting Houston Texans. The chanting was provoked by yet another Broncos delay-of-game penalty, the kind of gaffe more commonly associated with visiting teams.

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Including a season-opening loss at the Seattle Seahawks, the Broncos have incurred four delay-of-game calls, two more than any other team. By contrast, over the previous six years — a span encompassing three different head coaches — Denver averaged fewer than four such penalties per season. Hackett’s squad has also been flagged for a league-high six false starts, and its 25 total penalties far exceeds the 18 racked up by the next-most-penalized team, the Philadelphia Eagles.

That lack of discipline would reflect poorly on any NFL coach, but Hackett also has struggled with a lack of decisiveness, not to mention some highly questionable choices when he did finally make a call.

The most notorious episode came at the end of the loss to the Seahawks before a national TV audience on “Monday Night Football" eager to watch Wilson take on the franchise with which he spent the first 10 years of his career. With Denver down by one with about a minute left and facing a fourth-and-five just beyond midfield, Hackett let the play clock nearly run out before calling a timeout with 20 seconds left and sending in kicker Brandon McManus for a 64-yard field goal attempt. Predictably — given that NFL teams are 2 for 42 on attempts of such length since 1960 — the kick failed and questions immediately sprang up about why the debuting head coach preferred that Hail Mary-esque option over letting the highly paid and experienced Wilson try to pick up five yards for a first down.

“Looking back at it,” Hackett said after the 17-16 defeat, “we definitely should have gone for it.”

Last week brought a better result, but given that it was a close, low-scoring affair against a Texans squad widely expected to be one of the worst in the league, the quality of the win could still be questioned. Unfortunately for Hackett, so could his ability to translate his area of expertise — offense — into results.

Hackett has responded to his early difficulties by tapping veteran coach Jerry Rosburg to serve as a senior assistant in the hopes of improving Denver’s game management, according to KUSA-9. Rosburg, who was last a special teams coordinator and associate head coach for the Baltimore Ravens, officially joined the Broncos on Friday.

The Broncos are one of just two teams yet to score a touchdown in the red zone. This despite the fact that Denver has made six trips inside its opponents’ 20-yard line. By comparison, the offensively struggling Chicago Bears and first-year coach Matt Eberflus have three touchdowns on four trips into the red zone.

Denver is 0 for 5 scoring touchdowns in goal-to-go situations, and while Hackett has been criticized for taking the ball out of Wilson’s hands in some situations, he also has gotten dinged for calling too many passing plays near the end zone. Inside their opponents’ 10-yard line, the Broncos have run the ball just four times while throwing it 12. On those passes, Wilson has just four completions. By managing just 16 points in each of its games, Denver is on pace for its worst per-game scoring mark since the 1971 Broncos stumbled to a 14.5-points average.

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Hackett was brought in not only for his reputed offensive prowess but as the antithesis, in many ways, of former head coach Vic Fangio, a one-time defensive coordinator in his 60s known for a somewhat gruff demeanor. The considerably younger and more charismatic Hackett is thought to have the people skills Fangio lacked, and he promised to bring welcome changes this year in energy and an analytical approach.

What Hackett did not bring was Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. There was speculation that the former Green Bay assistant was hired by the Broncos specifically to lure the superstar quarterback to Denver, but a person familiar with the situation said the team decided Hackett was its best choice regardless of its quarterback.

If Rodgers was the preference, the Broncos got quite a consolation prize in Wilson, who came over from Seattle in a blockbuster trade and was promptly given a five-year contract extension worth $245 million, including $165 million in guaranteed money. The 33-year-old Wilson said Wednesday, “I trust coach Hackett tremendously,” and cited his own newness to the team as a factor in its offensive issues.

One sequence in the Texans game exemplified much of what has Broncos fans so frustrated. On third-and-one late in the third quarter, with Denver down by three but having reached Houston’s 35-yard line, Hackett called for an H-back option featuring a little-used tight end/fullback, Andrew Beck. The former undrafted free agent wasn’t able to beat defenders to the edge and lost a yard. Now facing fourth and two, Hackett eventually sent out McManus, who tied the score with a 54-yard field goal. But wait — delay of game! Pushed back five yards but still well inside Texans territory, Hackett opted to punt rather than attempt a 59-yard field goal that would have been five yards shorter than the one he went for in Seattle that did not have the benefit of Denver’s thinner air.

The home crowd booed as the CBS broadcast crew questioned Hackett’s play-calling and described the penalty as “brutal.”

In the fourth quarter, Hackett had to burn his second timeout when Denver prepared to field a punt with only 10 men on the field. The missing player happened to be the team’s punt returner, Montrell Washington. The coach then used his third and final timeout with more than seven minutes left because the play clock was about to expire on a second-and-11 pass play following a Texans penalty.

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Little wonder, then, that Broncos fans felt compelled to start letting Wilson and Co. know when another delay-of-game flag was becoming imminent.

“I guess that was helpful,” the ever-upbeat quarterback said with a chuckle after the game. “That was great our fans were into it.”

In his Monday news conference, Hackett stressed the need to improve.

“We’ve got to make sure the communication is clear and concise,” he told reporters. “I need to do better at making decisions faster and quicker, and getting that information to the quarterback, and being on the same page with him.”

In fairness, Hackett has experienced some bad luck, including a major knee injury before the season to wide receiver Tim Patrick, who was expected to be a significant contributor. Starting wide receiver Jerry Jeudy exited the Texans game in the first quarter with a rib injury, further impairing Denver’s attack. In the loss to the Seahawks, both Melvin Gordon and fellow running back Javonte Williams lost fumbles on goal-line carries. If they had punched the ball into the end zone instead, the Broncos might very well be 2-0 with a more functional-looking offense. As it is, Hackett can point to his team’s third-best standing in yards per drive, at 41.2, as evidence that he is doing something right.

Still, the relatively fruitless way most of those drives have ended represents a major problem for Hackett to fix. The slow pace at which Denver has played, meanwhile, has resulted in a second-worst total of 19 drives, meaning that the team has given itself little margin for error.

If Hackett suffers more self-inflicted wounds this week, it will again be under the glare of the national spotlight — and in front of vocal Denver fans — as the Broncos are set to host the San Francisco 49ers on “Sunday Night Football.”

The first-year coach asserted Wednesday he was “doing every single thing I can to try to put myself in a position to make quicker, faster, more efficient decisions.”

“I think we’re going to have some good answers as we move forward,” he said.


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