Can Klint Kubiak jumpstart Broncos’ offense as play-caller, maximize Russell Wilson and save Nathaniel Hackett’s job?


Standing courtside at a Denver Nuggets game one week after being hired, first-year Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett explained his offensive philosophy to the crowd.

“We’re just going to tear it up, it’s that simple,” he declared.

Offensive coordinator Justin Outten chimed in, “We’re going to score a lot of points.”

A month later, Denver traded for quarterback Russell Wilson, whom the franchise viewed as the final piece toward getting back in the playoffs. Wilson spoke of lofty goals such as playing for another decade and winning multiple Super Bowls.

From the start of training camp in late July, Broncos players and coaches put an emphasis on winning the AFC West. It’s painted on the walls in the team’s facility: The Team, The Ball, The West. As the 2022 season grinds to a conclusion, each has gone out the window for Denver.

Denver has not scored a lot of points. In fact, the Broncos are the worst in the NFL in that department.

They are not going to win the AFC West. Denver has not been mathematically eliminated, but, as Wilson said after last Sunday’s loss to the Raiders, “We can’t lose any more games….That has to be our mentality. If we win every game, it still doesn’t mean anything.”

If running the table comes with minuscule odds and no guarantees, then adding a fourth Lombardi Trophy to the franchise’s trophy case and second to Wilson’s this fall would be like winning the Powerball.

But Hackett and company can’t yet turn their eyes toward the future, either. There’s no sense in playing out the string in hopes of a high draft pick because Seattle owns the Broncos’ 2023 first-round pick and therefore benefits from every loss. On top of that, Hackett’s future is in question.

So the Broncos’ first-year head coach last week played the best card he had left. He gave play-calling duties to quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak in hopes that doing so would jump-start Denver’s listless offense, spark an uptick in play from Wilson and lead to wins down the stretch and optimism for 2023.

“I want to do whatever I can to help this team,” Hackett said in explaining the move. “We’re so close. We continually talk about this over and over again. A couple plays here and there, and there’s a lot of different outcomes. I have to look at myself first, to see if there’s something that I can do to give some kind of spark to the offense. So I thought it would be good if I stepped away from that.”

Russell Wilson (3) of the Denver Broncos walks off the field after Davante Adams (17) of the Las Vegas Raiders scored a touchdown during overtime of the Raiders' 22-16 win at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Russell Wilson (3) of the Denver Broncos walks off the field after Davante Adams (17) of the Las Vegas Raiders scored a touchdown during overtime of the Raiders’ 22-16 win at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Handing Kubiak the play-calling duties was not enough for the Broncos to beat Las Vegas, of course, but Wilson’s performance did tick up.

He completed a season-high 77.4% of his 31 passes. Denver scored on its first two drives and could have put 17 on the board in the first half but for a Melvin Gordon fumble at the Raiders’ 1-yard line.

Early in the game Wilson more frequently got the ball out of his hand on time, took easy yardage and completions when presented with them and beat the blitz, including three times on an opening 92-yard touchdown drive alone. Kubiak mixed in some tempo, too.

“He’s got a knack for that world of the quick game, has a real good knack for the play-action pass,” Hackett said. “In the end, you want to get every quarterback in rhythm and I think that when he gets in rhythm, you definitely feel that and see it.”

“It’s building on what we’ve been doing the past few weeks,” No. 2 quarterback Brett Rypien told The Post. “We’ve found something with our tempo packages and being on the ball. Russ really sees it well at the line of scrimmage… that’s one of his biggest strengths.”

That tracks with how Hackett views the season. He said he thought the Broncos’ win in Jacksonville was going to be the start of an offensive turnaround. He went into the bye week thinking Denver had figured out who it was offensively.

When the offense backtracked in a 17-10 loss at Tennessee after the off week, he decided he needed to give up the play-calling duty. The difference between the start of that game and Sunday’s against the Raiders is striking. Against the Titans, Wilson started 1-of-7 and Denver threw on 17 of its first 23 plays. In the first half, Wilson completed 11 of 22.

Against the Raiders, Wilson hit his first five passes, the Broncos had better balance (15 passes and 12 runs in the first half) and he completed 13 of 15 over the first 30 minutes.

“Rhythm is everything in this game because it’s hard to get it,” Rypien said. “There’s TV timeouts and injuries and when you’re able to get into a rhythm on offense and you can get the defense on its heels and you can feel that, that’s a great feeling as a quarterback.

Denver Broncos quarterback Brett Rypien (4) ...
Denver Broncos quarterback Brett Rypien (4) gets set on the line in the first quarter against the New York Jets at Empower Field at Mile High Oct. 23, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

“Getting in a rhythm is huge, but also using the tempo like we did. We’ve got to find a way to sustain that more.”

Indeed, the offense generated only six first downs and six points in six full second-half drives compared to 11 and 10 in just three first-half possessions.

Wilson said this past week he thinks the Broncos have to work with tempo more often.

“It’s something we can do really well and we’ve done it really well,” he said. “I’ve always done it well, guys have done it well and it’s something that we can get to more. It’s not something we have to do all the time, but I do think it’s something we can tap into.”

Given where the Broncos find themselves, the best thing that could happen for both the short-term offensive success and the longer-term outlook for Hackett is to get Wilson rolling down the stretch.

“Ultimately, we’re not where we want to be right now, but you’ve also got to look at it as, are we building toward something?” Rypien said. “You’ve got to be able to get better every single week no matter what your record is and block out all the outside noise, which is hard to do. That’s what’s so hard about this league. …You’ve got to win now and there’s a lot of pressure to win now.


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