You can say whatever you want about football’s hold on America being due to gratuitous violence, gratuitous television, gratuitous militarism, gratuitous shiny uniforms, or even gratuitous fantasy leagues, but the truth is simpler than all of these things. Football is never better, truer, or more enjoyable than when the privileged heir to a football family’s legacy completely arses up the end of a game by acting like their parents—like the smartest guy in the room.
So thanks must be bestowed upon Nathaniel Hackett, the new coach of the Denver Broncos and inheritor of the family Hackett’s coaching CV, for fouling his khakis in his first real game by taking the lesser of two options in the denouement of Monday night’s Broncos-Seahawks game. To be more specific, he told the team’s $250 million quarterback, Russell Wilson, that his résumé and paycheck were regarded as less imposing than that of kicker Brandon McManus, and failed anyway. A victory for overthinking.
The Broncos had been uninspiring and uninspired in Monday’s game, matching almost in lockstep the Seahawks. The difference was that the Broncos had Russell Wilson, the man who helped make the Seahawks worthy of their green highlighter uniforms, and the Seahawks were in full starting-over mode. Wilson had been signed to reassemble the magicks that electrified northwest Washington, and a 17-16 Seattle lead with 4:02 left was just the thing to inspire the Broncos to greatness.
Only it didn’t. Denver’s structural and talent limitations kept it from moving the ball any further than from its own 22 to the Seattle 46, and Hackett was presented with his first existential choice as a head coach. He had 20 seconds and a fourth-and-5, and a scrotally constricting choice: to invest in Russell Wilson’s arm or McManus’s leg. To go boldly, or tepidly. To invest in the investment, or hope that sea-level kicking wasn’t that much different than mile-high kicking.
Hackett bet on McManus’s leg. With the example of New York Giants coach Brian Daboll’s screw-it-let’s-take-the-hill-with-the-machine-gun-turrets available to him, he decided not to bet on the man who was hired for this very moment. To explain it another way, Nathaniel Hackett had a chance to show his new team he was willing to believe in their hearts, and instead decided to fade his belief.
The kick bucked left as you suspected it would, and the Seahawks won, 17-16. Nathaniel Hackett blinked with Russell Wilson’s eyelids, and the price of that cannot yet be calculated.
The message that needed to be delivered in that moment was simple: “Russ, the richest bastard owner of them all told us you were worth a bag for moments like this, so go out there and cheat death like the mensch we are paying you to be.” The message that was sent was, “Hell in a sack. McManus, bail us out.”
Now before we take a knee in the service of people who hate kickers and kicking—people who are unspeakable bastards who need to be battered in the head with a beer stein, we might add—there is probably an analytic that says McManus is worth more than Wilson for one play. But an investment in the guy who covered all bets for a decade lingers longer than a potential opening-night loss. Hackett needed to invest in the team’s soul, and instead chose a foot.
Yes, it is as preposterous as it reads. And we now have a brand-new coach who gets to confront his own fecklessness and gets to tell his dad Tuesday morning, “Dad, this might have been your call, but it shouldn’t have been mine. I won’t do it again. How’s Mom doing? I could use some of her chocolate chip cookies.”
And we get to watch whether Nat Hackett can figure it out. Maybe he can. One misjudgment based on math doth not condemn a coach, and if he realizes that his bosses are invested in Wilson, he is honor-bound to do so as well. Maybe he’ll get it.
Or maybe he won’t, in which case he will disappear soon enough. We are not actually qualified to second-guess coaches as a general rule, but we know that a bet on the team’s heart emanates beyond a moment. Nathaniel Hackett faced his first moment, and backed away.