Nathaniel Hackett‘s first seven games as Broncos head coach have generated considerable attention. The ex-Packers OC’s 32nd-ranked scoring offense has produced eye-popping numbers in third-quarter scoring (three points) and red zone production (23% touchdown rate), leading to Denver’s unexpected 2-5 start.
Questions about Hackett even finishing his first season have surfaced, and ESPN.com’s Dan Graziano notes league chatter has placed the Broncos’ London game as a possible do-or-die spot for the embattled HC. While Graziano expressed skepticism on the prospect the Broncos would fire a first-year coach after eight games, GM George Paton doubled down on his Hackett support.
“I believe in Nathaniel,” Paton said. “I support Nathaniel 100%. He’s been in this seven games as a head coach. The scrutiny he’s faced is unprecedented. We’ve had four prime-time games, so he’s kind of had to learn in front of the entire world. But I really like how he’s kept the team together. They’re connected. He’s kept our building together, and I appreciate how he’s fought through that.”
It is obviously arguable the Broncos are not “through” anything just yet, having lost four straight games and having failed to score more than one touchdown in all but one contest (a Week 4 loss to the Raiders). Denver’s 100 points through seven games double as the franchise’s worst at this point in a season since 1966. Hackett encountered unusual game management issues in Weeks 1 and 2, leading to the hire of assistant Jerry Rosburg, and his team leads the NFL in penalties (58).
Hackett, 42, said he is keeping the status quo for this week’s game against the Jaguars, but Graziano notes staff adjustments or role reassignments may be in play if the Broncos cannot beat the 2-5 Jaguars in England. That could include ceding play-calling responsibilities, as the Broncos continue to generate listless second halves under a coach brought in to jump-start an offense.
That said, the Broncos have dealt with injuries to many top players. Starters Garett Bolles, Javonte Williams, Tim Patrick and Ronald Darby are out for the season, but Hackett is on the one-and-done radar, given how his team has performed relative to expectations.
The other scrutinized presence during this start, Russell Wilson, is on track to return in Week 8. The Broncos acquired Wilson when he was tied to a Seahawks-constructed contract that ran through 2023. The team extended the 33-year-old passer — on a five-year, $245M deal with $124M fully guaranteed — in order to beat a market that stands to see the $50M-per-year barrier crossed by multiple passers come 2023.
“We wanted to get ahead of the contract cycle. We had seen how Russ was in the offseason and training camp and we felt really good about Russ. We feel really good about Russ,” Paton said, via 9News’ Mike Klis (on
Twitter). “We didn’t want a lot of distraction during the season. We feel really good about it. I feel good about that deal. I feel like it will hold up. I feel good about Russ.”
After nine Pro Bowl seasons in Seattle, Wilson has not transitioned to Hackett’s offense well. He sits 29th in QBR. Even during a 2020 season in which his play tailed off after a hot start and a 2021 campaign that produced post-injury struggles, Wilson placed in the top 10.
The Seahawks did not want to proceed with a third round of Wilson extension negotiations, and select staffers with the NFC West team viewed its former franchise centerpiece as a player in relative decline. Wilson’s age does not support this just yet, but his play in Hackett’s offense has certainly sounded alarm bells.
The Seahawks also expressed doubt about Wilson’s willingness to keep using his legs. Attempts by the likely Hall of Fame-bound player to run have been fairly scarce, and Wilson has cited scrambles against the Raiders and Chargers as the reasons for his shoulder and hamstring injuries, respectively. Operating more as a pure dropback passer in Denver, Wilson is viewed by some as unwilling to play the way he did for much of his Seattle stay, Albert Breer of SI.com notes. Wilson’s elusiveness helped the Broncos mount a game-winning drive against the 49ers this season, but the NFL’s No. 4 all-time quarterback rusher (96 yards this season) has largely drifted away from that style over the past two years.
“I am not concerned,” Paton said (via Denver7’s Troy Renck) when asked if Wilson is already showing decline signs. “We are in it for the long haul with Russ, not just the first seven games. We believe in Russ; I believe in Russ. We just need to play better on offense, the timing the rhythm. We need an identity. We really don’t have an identity with offense. I think that comes with time. And hopefully it comes soon.
“He’s trying to learn the staff, the staff’s trying to learn him and all of our players. We know what Russ is capable of. It’s our job to get the best out of Russ and our entire offense. I know we’ll get there. You’ve seen the flashes with Russ, whether it was the first half of the Raiders [game], the first half of the Chargers [game]. You see the arm strength, the accuracy, the mobility.”