When Broncos general manager George Paton hired Nathaniel Hackett to his first NFL head coaching job 11 months ago, he hoped he was infusing a jolt of energy and offensive creativity back into a proud franchise in the midst of a six-year playoff drought.
Instead of Mile High offensive fireworks, however, Hackett installed and oversaw the worst offense in the league — a mess no number of resolute news conferences or tweaks to the coaching staff structure could solve.
Hackett was fired Monday after the team fell to 4-11 with an embarrassing 51-14 loss at the Los Angeles Rams, the team announced, ending an unsuccessful and brief run at what once looked like a promising landing spot.
How many times during the 2022 season did Broncos observers wonder if rock bottom had arrived? It wasn’t a 12-9 overtime loss to Indianapolis at home. It wasn’t getting swept by division-rival Las Vegas Raiders, who made a habit of blowing leads against everybody except Denver. And it wasn’t scoring 10 points out of the bye week at Tennessee.
Maybe it actually came Nov. 27 in Charlotte, when Denver was outplayed across the board by 3-8 Carolina — a team already operating with an interim head coach and backup quarterback after firing Matt Rhule five games into the season.
“It’s unacceptable,” Wilson said of Denver’s overall performance after that game. “Bottom line.”
Wilson, though, repeated that line almost verbatim after the latest embarrassment on Christmas Day against the similarly disappointing Los Angeles Rams.
A national television audience watched Denver fail to force a punt, turn the ball over four times and allow a team that had scored 24 points only twice in a season to roll up 31 before halftime and more points than any Broncos opponent since 2010 overall.
“That was a bad game. Embarrassing game,” Hackett said.
We have parted ways with Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett.
A statement from Broncos Owner & CEO Greg Penner: pic.twitter.com/1tWMjHv6em
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) December 26, 2022
Paton and the franchise’s new ownership group ultimately arrived at the same conclusion about the entire season after a collapse that unfolded faster than nearly anybody could have imagined.
After all, Paton hired Hackett, 43, on Jan. 27 after a cross-country search that saw 10 candidates interviewed. Six weeks after Hackett arrived in Denver, the team traded five draft picks (including a pair of first-rounders) and three players for Wilson. That move simultaneously increased expectations for the franchise and the Broncos’ new head coach.
From the start, though, Hackett stumbled out of the gate.
He and Wilson set about marrying the offensive concepts they were most familiar with, but also had to teach their stuff to the Broncos players. The coaching staff Hackett assembled skewed young, particularly on offense. Players, management and others around the organization glowed about the energy and spark Hackett brought to the building, but key players started dropping to injury midway through training camp (wide receiver Tim Patrick) and the barrage has hardly stopped since.
Not only that, but what figured to be a steep learning curve for Wilson proved to be an even larger burden than expected. The Broncos showed promise in a season-opening loss to Seattle with 433 total yards, but failed four times in the red zone and suffered the first of multiple high-profile embarrassments when Hackett opted to attempt a 64-yard field goal with the game on the line rather than use a timeout and go for it on fourth-and-5.
The next week, more game management issues cropped up in a 16-9 home win against Houston, prompting Hackett to make a change. He hired former Baltimore Ravens assistant coach Jerry Rosburg to help with game operations, and that element largely smoothed out.
The offensive output didn’t, though, and the Broncos lost 10 out of 21 games after starting 2-1. That skid came despite Denver rolling out one of the best scoring defenses in the NFL for most of the season. That group, led by one of Hackett’s best friends in first-year defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, was the primary reason each of Denver’s first seven losses came by single digits. The former Los Angeles Rams assistant will likely be a candidate to replace Hackett going forward.
None of the 17 coaches who came before Hackett in Broncos history oversaw a shorter tenure than his single season. Vic Fangio coached three seasons and finished 19-30. Before him, Vance Joseph went 11-21 over two seasons. The last head coach to depart Denver with a winning record? Gary Kubiak, who led the Broncos to a Super Bowl title in the first of his two seasons at the helm.
“A big talk we’ve had recently is about culture and as players, taking onus,” safety Justin Simmons said after Denver lost to Las Vegas at home Nov. 20, falling to 3-7 and capping a season sweep at the hands of the Raiders. “It’s Year 7 for me. Coach Hackett is my fourth head coach and that’s just wild to think about. There is so much turnover. Everyone wants to point the blame on certain people. I was just having a talk with a lot of the guys that have been here, the select few that have been here over the years, and we talk about culture.
“We have a tight-knit group, but something is not going right, obviously. It’s our job, my job, a guy that has been here now for a while, to figure that out.”
Hackett is the first full-time Broncos coach to not make it to at least 10 wins in his tenure since Mac Speedie went 6-19-1 in 1965-66. That ’66 squad had the distinction of engineering the worst scoring offense in Denver history at 14 points per game, a record that hadn’t been seriously threatened until this fall.
The Broncos scored just four offensive touchdowns in their first five home games and scored multiple touchdowns twice in their first 12 overall.
In London in late October, CEO Greg Penner said he had high expectations for the second half of the season and that, “our goal is to win as many games as we can in the second half.”
One day later, Denver beat Jacksonville, 21-17 at Wembley Stadium. Then the Broncos lost four straight out of their bye week and scored three touchdowns total in that stretch despite Hackett giving up play-calling duties to quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak.
Hackett, though, is certainly not the Broncos’ only problem. Whoever succeeds him will be tasked with getting Wilson back to, if not his peak, then at least a level of play efficient enough to prevent his $245 million extension through 2028 from becoming a lead weight the sinks the franchise for multiple seasons.
Whoever succeeds him will have to find a way to eradicate the culture issues Simmons referenced and instill not only belief that wins will come but also arm a team with the tools to make them.
Who will that be? Can the franchise afford to hire a first-time head coach for the fourth consecutive time after failing with Joseph, Fangio and Hackett in succession? They’d have to in order to turn the keys over to Evero. Would they revisit one of the other candidates they passed on for Hackett? One of them, Kevin O’Connell, ended up in Minnesota and could be the NFL’s coach of the year, but others like Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, New England linebackers coach Jerod Mayo and Cincinnati offensive coordinator Brian Callahan will garner interviews around the league again this winter.
Or perhaps they will go another direction entirely, toward Philadelphia offensive coordinator Shane Steichen or San Francisco defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans or somebody else.
That the Broncos are in this position again is an indictment on more than one rookie head coach and the question becomes if the next person to lead the football team can help fix the franchise’s myriad problems.