Nathaniel Hackett’s tenure with the Denver Broncos came to an end on Monday, when the team’s new ownership announced the firing of its rookie head coach with two games remaining in the regular season.
“Following extensive conversations with (general manager) George (Paton) and our ownership group, we determined a new direction would ultimately be in the best interest of the Broncos. This change was made now out of respect for everyone involved, and it allows us to begin the search for a new head coach right away “In a statement, Broncos co-owner and CEO Greg Penner said.
“We recognise and appreciate this organization’s championship history, and we recognise that we have not met that standard. Our fans deserve better, and I can’t thank them enough for their support during this trying time for our team.”
Whether or not the Broncos have a championship history (they have won the Super Bowl three times), the Hackett chapter puts an exclamation point on the franchise’s more recent record of ineptitude. Since winning Super Bowl 50 to cap the 2015 season, Denver has not played in a playoff game. Except for the New York Jets, no team has a longer postseason drought.
The Broncos, who are finishing their sixth consecutive losing season, have had an especially stunning fall from grace. Prior to that, they had not had consecutive sub-.500 seasons since 1972. Hackett’s replacement will be the club’s fourth coach in six seasons. Whoever it is will face a mountain of challenges in order to restore Denver’s place among the NFL’s elite.
Situation at the quarterback
The much-publicized trade for Russell Wilson in March was supposed to be the panacea for a team that had been without a true sheriff at the helm since Peyton Manning retired after winning Super Bowl 50. The Broncos faithful must have believed that their team’s recent run of bad luck was about to end.
Wilson poses a far more serious threat than other post-Manning replacements such as Teddy Bridgewater, Joe Flacco, Case Keenum, Drew Lock, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, Mark Sanchez, and Trevor Siemian… to name a few. Wilson has looked every bit his 34 years, missing two starts due to injuries while posting some of his worst numbers of his 11-year career (60.1% completion rate, 12 TD passes, 12/9 TD-to-INT ratio, 82.6 passer rating). A player who had never had a losing NFL season before going 6-8 in 2021 – his final year with the Seattle Seahawks – has lost 10 of his 13 starts this season.
Wilson has also been sacked 49 times, which is a league high. And, while his offensive line was frequently chastised in Seattle, 2022 has served as a reminder of Wilson’s penchant for holding on to the ball for too long, as well as highlighting a newfound concern about fitting a player who thrived while freelancing for the Seahawks into the structure of a different offensive scheme. This season, Wilson and Hackett have dominated the league’s lowest scoring offence (15.5 points per game), with Denver being the only team in the previous ten seasons to score fewer than 17 points in 11 of its games.
And it hasn’t been pretty to watch, with Wilson too often unable to flash the deep ball he used so successfully in Seattle while schematically resembling a square peg in a round hole. Even when the score was still close, Denver fans have left games early. Wilson’s reputation for being difficult to work with in a locker room has resurfaced as the losses have piled up.
Salary cap Per Over The Cap, the Broncos are projected to have roughly $16 million in cap space in 2023, which is relatively small for a team with obvious personnel shortcomings. Wilson is a big reason they’ll be restricted in free agency… He agreed to a five-year, $245 million contract extension before the season, effectively tying him to the team for the foreseeable future and making Hackett the more tidy scapegoat for 2022.
Releasing Wilson after the season would result in a dead cap charge of $107 million, and even a trade would add $82 million to Denver’s 2023 budget. Both “options” are ruled out. For all intents and purposes, the Broncos are stuck with Wilson until at least the 2024 season and will have to get creative with their financial options to retool around him.
The Wilson trade cost Denver first and second-round picks this year, as well as first and second-round picks next year. And the Seahawks look even better now that Wilson’s replacement, Geno Smith, has developed into a Pro Bowler. Due to the Broncos’ poor season, Seattle currently stands to pick third and 36th overall with the Broncos’ organic picks. However, Paton was able to limit the damage by trading pass rusher Bradley Chubb to the Miami Dolphins before the trade deadline, recouping a first-round pick in 2023, albeit one that was originally owned by the San Francisco 49ers and will be much lower on the draught board. Denver will make two selections in the third round.
There is some good news. FS Justin Simmons, Patrick Surtain II, Jerry Jeudy, and Courtland Sutton appear to be the team’s mainstays. If LT Garett Bolles (broken leg) and RB Javonte Williams (torn knee ligaments) are able to play effectively in 2023, so could they be. Under rookie coordinator Ejiro Evero, the Broncos have fielded a fifth-ranked defence despite a lack of marquee players in the defensive front seven, particularly since Chubb’s departure. Still, Paton must reload the pass rush, fortify the trenches on both sides of the ball, and prepare a backup in case Williams’ recovery stalls.
The Broncos face a slew of known issues, one of which is their location in the unforgiving AFC West, a division ruled by Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, and the Kansas City Chiefs since 2016, a team that has beaten Denver in their last 14 meetings. The Los Angeles Chargers, led by rising star quarterback Justin Herbert, also project as a rising power.
However, there are some significant X-factors at work. The upcoming coaching search will be the first under Walton-Penner Family Ownership, which was built on Walmart’s fortune. Penner, who inherited Hackett, will lead the effort to replace him despite having no NFL experience. It’s unclear whether he’ll go after a proven coach like Sean Payton, a hotshot assistant like Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen or San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, or a more unconventional candidate. Penner stated on Monday that Paton, who hired Hackett and traded for Wilson, will be heavily involved in the search as well.
The coming weeks should be exciting. The Broncos were widely expected to be playoff contenders in 2022, so the next coach will not be walking into an empty stable. Nonetheless, Wilson presents an intriguing quandary as the centrepiece of a team that will almost certainly be expected to return to relevance immediately.