Denver Post Broncos writer Parker Gabriel posts his Broncos Mailbag weekly during the season. Submit questions to Parker here.
Can you ask an insider if it’s more likely the chicken (Russell Wilson) or the egg (Nathaniel Hackett)? Wondering if we should be concerned long term that we’re stuck with a lemon in Wilson or if it’s an easier fix at head coach?
Also, how in the world did GM George Paton allow Hackett to hire a staff of coordinators with no previous coordinator experience? Has he been asked why he allowed that to happen?
— Brandon Brown, Rogers, Minn.
Hey Brandon, what if Hackett was the chicken and Wilson was the egg? OK, let’s not make it confusing. The answer, as frustrating as it can sound for people who like black-and-white answers — or people who want one direction to point blame — is that it’s both.
Given the way the Broncos are situated, with Russell Wilson under contract through 2028 and, in a worst-case scenario, still likely in Denver a minimum of two years after this one, the critical element is for him to play better. Period. If he is incapable of that, a lot of people will be surprised, including many who would perhaps try to say otherwise. I don’t know that he’ll ever be MVP candidate Russell Wilson again (also don’t know that he won’t be), but something this season has not worked.
Is that just learning this system? Other quarterbacks have had tough first seasons and then blossomed, but Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan, for example, didn’t struggle to this extent. Is it that Wilson’s strengths and Hackett’s eye for offense just don’t mix well? Hackett should have enough experience in the NFL that he can find stuff that works well for Wilson. But that hasn’t happened yet and there’s no guarantee Hackett gets a second chance.
Wilson’s going to be here for a while, so Denver’s not going to leave any stone unturned to try to help him elevate his level of play. They don’t really have other options.
On the second part, Hackett brought on Dom Capers and Bill Kollar as veteran voices on the defensive side of the ball and special teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes has a veteran in Mike Mallory as an assistant, too. The only place there’s not really that true veteran voice is on offense. Perhaps Hackett thought he’d be it. Instead, there are several key people doing their specific job for the first time and the results have not been pretty.
Is there a sacred rule at Dove Valley that says the Broncos must use the three-wide formation? For two years, Pat Shurmur stubbornly used this formation despite the fact that it didn’t work either with Drew Lock, who was not suited for it, or Teddy Bridgewater. And here we go again with Russell Wilson in the shotgun using the three-wide set way too often even though it’s not working at all. What am I missing?
— Yoann, Beine-Nauroy, France
You know how sometimes you notice something, even a small thing, it annoys you and, as such, you can’t help but feel aggravation every time it happens? That’s what the 11 personnel conversation feels like sometimes. And, full disclosure, I sit up in the press box, too, and wonder why they sometime seem stubborn about being in the shotgun. Hackett got asked about it a couple of weeks ago and he said, more or less, that they’re doing what Wilson is most comfortable with. If they’re in the gun a lot, that’s part of the reason why.
As for 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers), a little digging through NFL game data shows the Broncos have deployed it 58.5% of the time this season. That includes 120 times on first-and-10 (65% pass in that scenario). They’ve had two receivers on the field for 115 first-and-10 snaps this season, with most of those some variation of two-TE sets. And, for good measure, they’ve got a dozen first-and-10 snaps of 13 personnel, or three tight ends and one back. That included the first snap of the game against Las Vegas at the outset of that 92-yard scoring drive recently.
Think it’s pretty clear: Denver needs a TE-only offense. Kidding.
They started in 11 personnel against the Panthers and the receivers were Courtland Sutton, Jalen Virgil and Montrell Washington. When training camp started, that trio might have been Sutton, Tim Patrick and Jerry Jeudy.
In 2021, per Sharp Football, 58.5% would have ranked No. 23 in the NFL in terms of 11 personnel frequency. Want to guess where Denver was? 61%, more than this year.
Hi Parker! Can you give us a silver lining on this humongous storm cloud hanging over the Broncos that maybe we are not seeing?
— Del, Lamar
Del, thanks for writing. A silver lining, eh? Certainly there have been some strong individual performances — Baron Browning’s been a revelation as an edge player, Pat Surtain II’s ascendance, Dre’Mont Jones’ emergence as a force, Greg Dulcich’s bright future, etc. And Ejiro Evero’s defense, though it’s come off its peak the past couple of weeks, is one of the better ones in recent franchise history, particularly when it’s healthy.
General manager George Paton is a scout at heart and the Broncos have done some nice things in player acquisition in the past year. How critical have free agent signings K’Waun Williams, D.J. Jones and Alex Singleton been to the defense this year? But the two big ones last offseason — the trade for Russell Wilson and the signing of OLB Randy Gregory — have not panned out well so far. No matter what happens the rest of this year, stocking the roster via the draft and free agency with not only premier talent but also just good, solid football players, is always going to be important.
Parker, I have two questions for you. First, it seems like we were getting good production with Greg Dulcich prior to the bye week. Since then, he’s only had seven catches for 52 yards in the last three games. Is there a reason why he’s not getting more targets?
Second, is our pass-rush stalling since the Bradley Chubb trade? It doesn’t seem like we’re getting quite the pressure we were getting earlier in the season. In the last game, we only had two hits on the quarterback.
— Mike, Denver
Mike, astute points on both sides of the ball.
Defenses likely took notice of Greg Dulcich’s hot start and are at least having to account for him in the passing game. I do think it’s worth noting, too, that a couple of his big plays came working in tandem with KJ Hamler. Hamler, out three weeks now with a hamstring injury, has the kind of speed that draws defenders’ eyes. That’s helped spring Dulcich down the field on multiple occasions. Maybe we’ll see an uptick for Dulcich again if and when the team gets Hamler and Jerry Jeudy back on the field.
As for the pass-rush, yes, Chubb’s trade had a major impact. It certainly doesn’t help that Baron Browning missed time with a hip injury and that Gregory remains out with a knee problem. Remember those first four weeks when all three were attacking quarterbacks? That’s not coming back, but long-term, the Broncos need Gregory, Browning and Nik Bonitto to form the backbone of the group and they’ll probably try to keep adding, too.
It’s hard to imagine Nathaniel Hackett here for much longer. Who would step in as the interim coach until a new search begins in the offseason?
— Page, Colorado Springs
Yeah, Page, two general schools of thought in this hypothetical where Denver is looking for an in-season interim head coach.
One would be to make Evero the guy and essentially make it a test drive for the full-time job. That does have contractual consequences if he doesn’t end up getting the head coaching job, but if Hackett’s fired and Evero doesn’t get the head coaching job, perhaps he’d be looking for an opportunity elsewhere anyway.
The other would be to give the interim tag to a veteran like Capers and leave Evero as unaffected as possible. Then he can continue going on about his business as he has and Capers handles the more day-to-day organizational duties. Would be interesting if Jerry Rosburg got a look since he’s been helping Hackett with game management stuff anyway, but it’s hard to imagine just in the sense that he only joined the organization in Week 3.
Perhaps all that talk about an interim won’t be necessary. Six weeks left in the regular season. It’ll fly by and feel like an eternity all at once.