ENGLEWOOD — Nathaniel Hackett is different. And after six straight seasons without a playoff berth, the Broncos needed a jolt.
Hackett, 42, caffeinated the building when he arrived in January, talking fast, moving fast, and embracing technology as if he were a member of Best Buy’s Geek Squad. He is a man of many interests, from hip hop to pop music, Star Wars movies and Will Ferrell flicks.
He likes to have fun. But for football to be fun, you have to work hard and win. And that’s where all eyes will shift to Hackett as he operates his first training camp beginning Wednesday.
In my latest Denver7 storylines piece, I examine how important Hackett remains to lift the Broncos out of the abyss. Russell Wilson is central to this process. The Broncos spent the past six seasons employing an offense as annoying as a robocall (No, I don’t need a new car warranty or another fake jet sweep by Jerry Jeudy).
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Six months into the job, Hackett has earned high marks for changing the culture and focusing on building relationships and trust. Players’ eyes widened in meetings when they played hoops games, trivia challenges and heard Hackett wish them happy birthday. This was all part of the plan to accelerate learning and chemistry. It was work disguised as fun, an ode leading what Hackett refers to as the “YouTube Generation.”
“Coach Hackett, he’s a funny dude. He brings the energy. He always jokes around and that brings that energy,” receiver Jerry Jeudy said last week. “And that’s the kind of coach you like. The coach you can relate to, the coach you can talk to. Yeah, it’s exciting to be around him.”
It feels like he has tapped into something to create longer attention spans, while making presentations more interesting.
However, three keys exist for Hackett to pull this off and restore the Broncos’ to their past glory. Let’s examine:
The first is easy. He must fuel the offense with nitromethane, creating an attack that can average somewhere between 25 to 28 points per game, the standard for contenders. He is introducing a wide zone blocking scheme in the run game — it’s why projected starting guards Dalton Risner and Quinn Meinerz have dropped weight — while leaning on a timing passing game that will feature plenty of deep strikes. Wilson has a reputation for coloring outside the lines to create big plays, but it also comes with sacks. Wilson has averaged 44 sacks per season over the past five years.
If the blend of Hackett’s vision and Wilson’s strengths works, the quarterback will improve his accuracy because of easy short passes, while shaving down some of the sacks because an effective running game will create wide open play-action gash plays.
Both Hackett and Wilson are grinders. Hackett began working out with his coaching staff daily in February at 6 am Wilson typically rolls into the facility — where he has his own office — around 5:45 am these two are driven to make this marriage work, knowing there is little patience for a long transitional period given the Broncos’ recent past.
Typically, a first-time head coach working with a future Hall of Fame quarterback presents problems. But Hackett spent the past three seasons working with Aaron Rodgers, resulting in back-to-back MVP awards and Rodgers calling Hackett, “amazing, like a brother.”
The second thing sounds obvious, but cannot be taken for granted. Hackett must create accountability. No one disputes that Vic Fangio knew football. But his lack of interest in the offense and special teams created fissures. When a team struggles to score 17 points a game at home and gets booed by its fans, a head coach must step in and demand change in players’ usage, play-calling. When the special teams sabotages winning every week without consequence for the coordinator, it sends the wrong message.
It’s not about firing people, but stepping in, addressing the issue head-on, and making coaches and players equally accountable. If players are punished, it sets the wrong tone and generals only trust.
In my questions to Hackett, he has said repeatedly that he has no problem making people uncomfortable and challenging them. This is critical. He aims to develop a relationship where players will listen, then push them. Multiple sources have said Hackett has created a standard and has made it clear to the players, and it has helped because the assistant coaches and others on staff no longer have to constantly play the role of disciplinarians.
“He’s not afraid to make guys uncomfortable and hold guys accountable. He constantly does it. He’s going to hold you accountable, let you know when you do something wrong. He’s going to push you out of your comfort zone,” Risner told Denver7 recently . “He wants to win games, man. We haven’t done that the last few years. We all respect that.”
Finally — and it’s related — Hackett must hold himself accountable. He presents himself as someone with keen self-awareness. This cannot be overstated. The best Broncos coaches I have covered — Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak — would admit to their players when they were wrong. This was an acute problem for Fangio, who came across as blameless when he mismanaged timeouts, tried to siphon the clock with all running plays at Indianapolis, leading to Joe Flacco’s meltdown, or elected to punt the ball back to Patrick Mahomes with the game on the line.
Players notice this stuff. When a coach falls on the sword — not often like Tom McMahon, making it meaningless — it fosters a “We” mentality that everyone is pulling on the same end of the rope.
The challenge starts in earnest on Wednesday. His first impression has been a Febreze breath of fresh air. Can he translate this energy and accountability to the season with a rejuvenated offense?
It’s time to find out. Giddy up.