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The Broncos No Longer Have A Nathaniel Hackett Problem

The Denver Broncos Head coach Nathaniel Hackett takes the field on December 25, 2022 in Inglewood, Colorado. The Los Angeles Rams take on the Denver Broncos during a Christmas Day game at SoFi Stadium.
RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

It was not the week the Broncos wasted a minute to set up a failed 64-yard walk-off field goal attempt, but actually the following week—when the Broncos committed three false starts and two delay-of-game penalties so embarrassing that Broncos fans began to count down the last seconds of the stadium play-clock—that the team hired veteran coach Jerry Rosburg to help first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett with clock management. “I knew we had something, especially myself, that I had to address,” Hackett said after bringing Rosburg aboard. Rosburg’s job now is, appropriately, to run out the clock. On Monday, the Broncos named him interim head coach, and fired Hackett after 15 discouraging games in Denver.

Hackett joins a small club of NFL head coaches not invited back for a second season and an even smaller club of head coaches unable to finish a first. Urban Meyer, Bobby Petrino, Pete McCulley, and Lou Holtz precede him. An elite squad, and still, Hackett's tenure stands out from the rest. It is said all literature can be distilled to two plots: the stranger comes to town and the hero goes on a journey. Meyer’s and Petrino’s and Holtz’s failures in the NFL differ in the particulars, but all had to do with their foreignness to pro football. Their stories have in common the theme of mutual suspicion. In all three cases, both stranger and town were happier for the stranger’s leaving. 

There was nothing strange about where Nathaniel Hackett ended up. To be an NFL head coach was something like the very thing he was born to do. His father, Paul, a 25-year NFL coaching veteran, has described Nathaniel’s upbringing as preparation for this line of work. “He was always pressed into situations that were about meeting people, meeting new people, different kinds of people. The theme being football,” Paul told the Broncos' website last February, when his son was named head coach. “He was always sort of a natural. A great confidence having been around the finest athletes in the world in the game of football was part of his life from a very young age.” 

Never has someone so in his element looked so out of it. For 15 games, Hackett simply went on his strange little journey, learning important lessons along the way. Some of those lessons had to do with his own capabilities. It was probably an inauspicious sign that he spent the early part of his head coaching career casting off responsibilities he realized he could no longer handle. Not long after he hired Rosburg, he turned over play-calling duties to quarterbacks coach and fellow Football Son Klint Kubiak. "It's allowed me to look at more things," Hackett said of the move. This is not to sneer at the genuinely important work of delegating or to say it cannot be a successful model for head coaching in the NFL. But a head coach who doesn't call plays and can't be trusted with in-game decisions should at least contribute something else. What was Hackett there for? Morale? The low point of the Broncos season came in Sunday's blowout loss to the depleted Rams, when cameras caught a big sideline argument between backup quarterback Brett Rypien and guard Dalton Risner. In the end, the Broncos just realized they had no use for the uninspiring, offensive-minded head coach of the NFL's very worst offense.

When they hired Hackett for the role, the front office imagined him the penultimate puzzle piece, the great offensive mind who could lure Aaron Rodgers to Denver. The job looked much more appealing then. Now? Josina Anderson tweeted a list of names "being discussed" for the coaching vacancy, and I think all of them, even Darrell Bevell, could and should do better. The sole draw of this job is less an actual reason than it is the principle of regression to the mean, which says that Russell Wilson surely can’t be this bad two years in a row.

Broncos rubberneckers have taken pleasure in the team's near-atomization this season. The defense has been one of the stronger units in football, and you can hardly blame them for wanting nothing to do with their counterparts on offense. Hackett's firing comes about a month after defensive lineman Mike Purcell yelled at Wilson as he walked over to the sideline. ("Frustration," Purcell called it.) A funny report from Tom Pelissero says defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero was offered and declined the interim job, deciding “it was best for the team if he keeps working with the defense.” A wise move. Best to keep your head coaching résumé clean a little bit longer.

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