Best advice for Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett, former NFL coaches say? Learn from mistakes. Also, hurry up. “You gotta do it quick.”


When you bring up Nathaniel Hackett, Dick Vermeil brings up John Wooden.

Specifically, the day the basketball icon called him into his office at UCLA back in 1974. This wasn’t long after Vermeil, then 37, was taking over the Bruins’ football program and taking on the mantle of head coach for the first time in his career.

“He said, ‘I know you can coach. I know you’re ready to coach, but I’m going to give you some sound advice,’” the 2022 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee told The Denver Post by phone. “He said, ‘Don’t read the sports page. Because what they write about you that’s all good is probably not all true. And what they write about you that’s not good is probably not all true, so why allow it to distract you? Remain focused on your job. Don’t allow doubt to creep into your mind. Go do your job.’ And it’s so true.”

Within two years, Vermeil had UCLA winning the then-Pac-8 and beating Woody Hayes’ Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl. Within seven, he led the Philadelphia Eagles to their first Super Bowl berth.

Wooden was 64 then. Vermeil is 85 now. His advice for Hackett, a first-time head coach at the age of 42, as his Broncos (1-1) host Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco 49ers (1-1) at home on Sunday night?

“Learn from your mistakes, if you made them,” Vermeil said. “If (you) did make mistakes, own up about them and move on. If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t get any better.”

“You gotta do it quick”

Some two weeks into the regular season, Hackett’s already made — well, more than a few.

In his Broncos debut at Seattle on Monday Night Football, the first-year coach’s decision to go for a potential game-winning field goal from 64 yards out rather than let quarterback Russell Wilson manage a fourth-and-5 was the talk at water coolers nationwide. While the Broncos committed 12 penalties and fumbled away the ball at the goal line twice, the Seahawks walked away with an emotional 17-16 win.

While last week’s home-opener against Houston was supposed to rekindle the honeymoon between the young coach and the Front Range, it wound up having the opposite effect.

A sympathetic and supportive crowd turned borderline hostile as the Broncos committed 13 penalties (at home!), ran their punt team onto the field without a returner, made another two trips into the opponents’ red zone without a touchdown and needed 10 fourth-quarter points to hold off the woeful Texans, 16-9.

The more the Broncos struggled offensively, the more frequent and impassioned the booing became. The cherry on top came in the second half when the fans at Empower Field at Mile High began counting down the time on the play clock in unison..9…8…7….6…  in an effort to help speed up the process.

Hackett admitted early last week that the Broncos’ play-calling operation — with a first-time head coach and first time NFL coordinators on offense, defense and special teams — wasn’t working, and that the blame started with him. For Jim E. Mora, the venerated former coach of the Saints and Colts, that confession was a crucial first step toward fixing the problem.

“You shouldn’t have 10 coaches in your ear (during the game), you can’t have that,” Mora told The Post last week. “If I was the head coach and they all started expressing their opinions, I would tell them to shut up and I would listen to one guy that I would respect, that would kind of give me his opinion and say, ‘Hey, this is probably what we ought to do.’

“It’s tough. (Hackett) said (after Seattle), a day later, that he would’ve gone for it, but he had to make that (game day) decision in a second. And he did, and it was the wrong one, apparently. If (the Broncos) had made the kick, he’d be a genius. It ain’t gonna be the first mistake he’s gonna make. It’s hard.”

Mora’s suggestion to Hackett? When in doubt, keep it simple. Also, hurry it the heck up.

“You don’t want 10 (coaches) screaming at you and you don’t want to be influenced by the people in the stands. You make the decision,” Mora continued. “If you have a coach on your staff you respect in those situations, get his opinion. But you gotta do it quick and then decide what you’re gonna do … because you’ve got more important decisions to make. It’s tough. It’s not an easy job. That’s why they get paid all the money now.”

Former NFL wideout James Lofton called the Houston game for CBS Sports last weekend and couldn’t recall ever witnessing a home crowd counting down the play clock the way Broncos fans did in Week 2. Although the experience reminded him of a conversation he had with former Bills coach Marv Levy, under whom he played in three Super Bowls back in the early 1990s.

“I asked (Levy) about coaching, because I’d interviewed in front of Marv and (former Bills owner) Ralph Wilson and the one question he always asked us in job (interviews) was, ‘What do you on game days?’” reflected Lofton, who also worked as an assistant coach for the Chargers and Raiders.

“I said (to Marv), ‘The only thing you do on game days is yell at the officials and decide whether to go for it on fourth down.’ He told me, ‘You hire good people and let them do their job.’”

Whether Hackett’s people are up to the task, Lofton noted, remains to be seen.

“It’s hard to tell, even in Week 2, what a 10-win team looks like,” the analyst said.

“There are going to be some 10-win teams when they look like they should’ve won 13 games and some 10-win teams where I’d be surprised if they won more than seven. I’d say the Broncos right now are on that lower scale of expectations (of) what people are thinking about in this division.”

Extra work is needed

Those expectations are one of the reasons Vermeil doesn’t envy Hackett’s current situation. Especially with so many conference games lurking.

For one, the coach said, the AFC West of 2022 is a rough place to learn on the job. For another, today’s combination of online media saturation and NFLPA restrictions on the time coaches can spend with players have made for an era of bigger, faster, stronger athletes who simply don’t perform the fundamentals of the game as well as their peers a generation ago.

“I feel sorry for the young (coaches such as Hackett),” the former coach of the Eagles, Rams and Chiefs said. “First off, the young guys don’t have control of what they think they need to do. They can’t practice as long as they want to, like we did. They can’t go double (practices) as often as they’d like to, like we used to.

“There are so many restrictions to the time (allowed). Normally, when a young coach takes over a coaching job, they’re taking over from a guy that wasn’t (winning). Now he can’t work any harder than the teams that were already beating them in the first place. We’d have never turned around the Eagles around or the Rams around with the rules of today.”

Despite shocked whispers from former Broncos when they saw reduced full-speed tackling and blocking in Hackett’s first training camp, the coach defended his master plan as a preventative measure for the “marathon” to come.

“When you hit the (regular) season, you want to be fresh,” Hackett said early last month. “You want to be ready to go.”

Of all the terms used to describe the Broncos’ opening two games, “ready” wasn’t exactly high up the list.

Regardless, Vermeil said he sees Hackett “(as) a fine young coach and he’s going to make some mistakes and he’s probably going to end up being a very fine coach.

“It’s harder for coaches to develop the toughness that they need to be more consistent week-in and week-out, the toughness comes through hard days of practice with pads on, with the double-days … that’s what gives the team discipline. There were some teams that opened up in (Week 1) that looked like they hadn’t practiced. I learned a long time ago that there’s no correlation between working less and getting better. Absolutely none.”


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