The six tiny little fires that turned into a scorching mess and fried Nathaniel Hackett
DENVER — In retrospect, perhaps we should have seen this coming.
Because the signs of the failure of this season — and Nathaniel Hackett being a one-and-done coach, and not even making it to the end of that lone season — were there, all the way through.
A look back at a few dates that ended up defining a coach whose dismissal became the second-quickest coach firing since 1978.
MARCH 16: RUSSELL WILSON INTRODUCED
It isn’t anything that Wilson said at the gala press conference that heralded his arrival. Or any answers to media questions from Hackett, Wilson or general manager George Paton.
But when Hackett strode to the lectern, he showed a sign of how the relationship between coach and player might not be what was needed.
Nathaniel Hackett: “WOW! Come on, you all, Russell Wilson!"
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) March 16, 2022
In the enthusiasm of the day, everyone went along with it. It was a feel-good moment. Fans and media alike saw this as the moment when the Broncos’ woes would end.
But it was a sign of things to come. As the months progressed, the Broncos needed a forceful presence who could get Wilson in line. Instead, their coach sounded more like a fan or an eager young staffer rather than the commanding presence that the Broncos needed — and that they will likely seek in the coming weeks.
Two months later, after OTAs, Russell Wilson and his family spent vacation time with Hackett and his family in England.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a close relationship with a QB. And Hackett’s pure humanity and decency will always be what I remember positively about him. He is a quality human being.
But as things devolved, the Broncos didn’t need a buddy for Wilson. They needed a boss. And when forcefulness was required, it was hard to go in another direction.
In 1979, Herb Brooks told his U.S. Olympic men’s hockey players, “I’ll be your coach, but I won’t be your friend.”
The Broncos will need that sort of mentality from their next head coach.
JULY-AUGUST: TRAINING CAMP
When it came to camp operation, it was the Great Experiment. The Broncos did not run a single seven-on-seven repetition. And they had “jog-through” practices. Depending on the cycle of practices, they at one point had two down-tempo sessions in a three-day span.
And nearly all of their starters didn’t play in preseason games.
It was all about keeping players healthy. And when it came to the preseason games, Hackett mentioned an experience of his father, who was the Jets’ offensive coordinator in 2003 when they lost Chad Pennington to a preseason injury. Pennington was the NFL’s top-rated passer the previous season. But he was never the same after that.
But a fat lot of good it did. Denver spent much of the league leading the league in percentage of its salary cap on injured reserve. Twelve different Broncos missed at least one game to hamstring injuries. And by Week 15, only three players had started every game: D.J. Jones, Kareem Jackson and Pat Surtain II.
And with the jog-through days cutting into the number of available repetitions, the Broncos offense often looked labored and unprepared. Even the defense struggled early, as Kareem Jackson said after the Broncos gave up 17 points in the first half of their Week 1 loss, “Not having no preseason definitely, in my opinion, played a factor in that.”
The Broncos got rest. What they needed was work. And their camp didn’t help them stay healthier.
It was an experiment that failed. Spectacularly.
SEPTEMBER 11: THE END-GAME MISMANAGEMENT
Some of the issues on a raucous Monday night in Seattle to open the regular-season were beyond Hackett’s control. Two fumbles near the goal line by Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams, for example.
Eliminate one of those fumbles, and the Broncos don’t need a late-game drive to try and steal a win in front of perhaps the most hostile crowd Denver has faced in recent memory.
But the Broncos did trail 17-16. And while they dawdled as they tried to drive the final moments, the Broncos had first-and-10 at the Denver 49-yard line with 1:24 left and three timeouts.
And yet they ended moving just 5 more yards and settling for a desperate, 64-yard field-goal attempt to try and win. Kicker Brandon McManus told coaches that .
After falling into second-and-14, Hackett managed the game as though 64 yards was the target, not the maximum range.
At that moment, kickers since 2012 attempting field goals of at least 60 yards in open-air stadiums were 10-of-45. Hackett gambled on a 22.2-percent shot, eschewing a fourth-and-5 — which teams convert an average of 46.5 percent of the time.
This showed showed a fundamental misunderstanding of game management. And in a way, it got worse six days later.
SEPTEMBER 18: THE COUNTDOWN
“5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …”
In the Hackett era, the Broncos often failed at the simplest things. Like getting in and out of the huddle and snapping the ball in a timely manner.
The Broncos beat the Houston Texans, 16-9. But few remember the score, or Eric Saubert’s game-winning touchdown catch from Wilson.
What most remember is the countdown from the stands.
Denver had twice as many delay-of-game penalties in the first two weeks of the season than it did in the entire 2021 campaign. First, the fans booed. Then they took maters into their own hands.
“I don’t blame them,” Hackett said after the game. “I was booing myself. It’s frustrating.”
25 penalties in two weeks — the most in a two-game span in Broncos history.
Three false-start penalties … again.
Two delay-of-game penalties … again. And somehow, both on placekicks. Didn’t even mention burning a timeout before a punt return. pic.twitter.com/XnI2w9UQLq
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) September 19, 2022
In the wake of two weeks of game-management breakdowns, the Broncos hired Jerry Rosburg to help fix these issue. By and large, he succeeded. The Broncos have just two delay-of-game penalties in their last 13 games.
On a team where so much went wrong, Rosburg did his job well.
But it shouldn’t have been necessary to pluck Rosburg out of retirement to fix a glitch that never should have happened.
NOVEMBER 13: AN OFFENSIVE COLLAPSE
The Broncos went into their bye with optimism after defeating Jacksonville in London. It evaporated on a cool autumn afternoon in Nashville, when Denver’s offense faced a Titans defense missing five starters and ground to a halt, finishing with 10 points.
And only a coverage bust leading to a wide-open Jalen Virgil prevented the Broncos from finishing without a touchdown. Tennessee bided its time and eventually surged for a 17-10 win that dropped the Broncos to 3-6.
The thing is, it’s not just about today. It’s not about a single frustrating, injury-plagued loss. It’s about the fact that we’ve seen the same types of low-offense, stout-D losses over … & over … & over … for 6 years.
My postgame thoughts, brought to you by Twin Peaks. pic.twitter.com/I5Cnc3nPzv
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) November 13, 2022
It showed that the 21-17 win over Jacksonville was a mirage. It revealed that the Broncos had fixed none of their offensive woes — although an injury to KJ Hamler that week and in-game injuries to two offensive linemen exacerbated the woes.
Denver’s average of 13.0 points per game in the five games culminating with the defeat in Nashville finally was the breaking point. As a result, Hackett ceded the play-calling to Klint Kubiak.
It said a great deal about Hackett that he was willing to hand off responsibilities to try and affect change.
But in the weeks that followed, Hackett struggled to find his role. He paced the sideline. He encouraged. In practice, he would sometimes aid the scout team. But for the first time in his football life, Hackett didn’t have a clearly-defined role in practice and on game days.
It was difficult to watch, to see a coach who walked in with boundless enthusiasm struggling to find his way and his role as the Broncos continued collapsing.
DECEMBER 25: THE HOLIDAY MELTDOWN
It wasn’t that the Broncos lost on a toasty Christmas Day in California. It was how they lost.
And not even the margin: by 37 points.
It was Dalton Risner shoving Brett Rypien on the sideline. It was Randy Gregory punching Oday Aboushi in the postgame handshakes on the field. It was Courtland Sutton apparently losing track of where he was on the field, gesturing for a first down when he was 10 yards short.
In short, it was a team that appeared to lose its collective mind. The Broncos resembled the crazy relative at a holiday dinner who ruins the occasion by making political pronouncements and turning the occasion into a verbal food fight.
An embarrassing loss. The Broncos hit rock bottom, melting down in every way a team possibly can. My @1043TheFan postgame wrap from the lump-of-coal game, brought to you by Twin Peaks. pic.twitter.com/uQIWOi3tKm
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) December 26, 2022
In the run of play, the Broncos couldn’t force a single punt for the first time in their last 786 regular-season games. And their $245 million quarterback lobbed up three interceptions.
And in this game, injuries could not be considered an excuse. The Rams were as banged up as the Broncos. Three of their core four stars didn’t play. Their quarterback wasn’t on the team just three weeks earlier.
That team, with a hollow roster, looked like champions at the expense of the hapless, flailing Broncos.
And after that, Greg Penner followed the advice of former Florida athletic director and Mike Shanahan confidante Jeremy Foley:
“What should be done eventually, must be done immediately.”
Penner chose to swallow hard and eat three years of a contract rather than staying the course
And the coach he didn’t hire is out after just 15 games — and not even 24 hours being seen having a pregame chat with Penner, Carrie Walton Penner and Rob Walton.
Hackett is a good man. But his tenure will be remembered as one of the biggest debacles in Broncos history. And the signs of disaster were present long before the actual end.