“Happy cocoon of love.”
It’s a Saturday afternoon in late May and Hackett, the Green Bay Packers’ offensive coordinator, is holed up in a conference room inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for a QB Collective training clinic. Hackett has the difficult task of explaining to these teens the basic tenets and cardinal sins of quarterbacking — while also keeping his audience awake and engaged.
In between bullet points on ball security and commanding the huddle are highlights of Brett Favre and Rodgers. There are detailed practice clips to show the nuances of a play-action fake and there are clips of plays gone awry and the ensuing rage from fans — “This is what they do! They freak out! Don’t throw across your body!” Hackett screams — all delivered with Hackett’s signature comedic touch.
“His presentations are legendary, they really are. He finds ways every single week to come up with new cool ideas,” Rodgers said. “He’s got infectious energy. He’s hilarious.”
For about an hour, the young quarterbacks learned what Rodgers and many others in both college and the pros have learned: Hackett, the son of former NFL assistant Paul Hackett, has a lifetime of football knowledge, the presence of a performer and the relatability of a best friend. He’s a former linebacker and long snapper at the University of California Davis, who also majored in neurobiology, nearly became a doctor, taught hip-hop dance classes, is a wine connoisseur and has a gravitational pull to the greatest, biggest challenges he can find for himself.
Hackett is, in short, a Renaissance man with a childish fervor who has a love for teaching, a love for football and a mental library few can match. Who else has sung Justin Timberlake over his headset when giving play-calls to a quarterback in the huddle?
“It doesn’t take more than five minutes of talking to him to realize this guy’s really not like the rest of them,” said quarterback Blake Bortles, a former first-round pick who played four years for Hackett in Jacksonville.
Yet after more than 12 years as an NFL coach, including the past three as one of the masterminds behind Green Bay’s blended offense, he’s oddly remained a hidden gem; Hackett, 41, has interviewed only once for a top NFL job, with the Atlanta Falcons this year.
But that could soon change. After helping the Packers to another 5-1 start before they host the Washington Football Team on Sunday, Hackett’s short list of suitors seems bound to grow.
Finding the challenge
Since Hackett joined Green Bay in 2019, he, Coach Matt LaFleur and Rodgers have led the Packers to a league-best 31-7 record, while marrying the old with the new — some West Coast principles to which Rodgers is accustomed to a heavy dose of play-action and run-pass options. The glue is Hackett who, after seven years of calling plays and trying to turn projects into contenders, was enticed by the chance to create something new — with a loaded roster.
Hackett grew up in the West Coast system, after watching his father learn from its architect, Bill Walsh, and take it with him to various stops in his coaching career. Hackett also learned early on that the success of any team, and thereby any coach, is dependent on a deep understanding of the quarterback position, so he gladly jumped from defense and special teams in college to focusing on quarterbacks and the offense as a whole as a coach.
After four years as a college assistant, he’s gone from quality control coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Buffalo Bills, to a do-it-all coordinator at Syracuse, to an NFL play-caller in Buffalo and then Jacksonville, where he helped the Jaguars snap a 10-year playoff drought.
“Really, the things I wanted to learn was the outside zone and the play pass,” Hackett said. “Those were the things I did in the past, but they weren’t as cool and as explosive as the ones that you see with Kyle Shanahan, the L.A. Rams, the Atlanta Falcons when they went to the Super Bowl. Things were like, ‘Holy cow.’
“This was an opportunity to take my experience on how to teach people and how to coach, and also take this amazing system and merge it with the stuff that I had done in the past.”
Hackett’s greatest competitor has always been himself. When he was the quarterbacks coach, tight ends coach and offensive coordinator at Syracuse from 2011-12, he’d have his quarterbacks over at his house for what he called “Q-School,” a week of comprehensive film study in the summer during which every one of their plays during the season was reviewed. Afterward, he’d challenge them to a gantlet of field-day activities, seeking competition even in games of tag and corn hole. Practices with his players were no different.
“He would compete with us in our quarterback drills on some days and try to win,” said Charley Loeb, a former Syracuse quarterback who is now a private quarterbacks coach. “He would always say, ‘I’m going to find a way to win. I don’t care, I’ll throw underhand.’”
When Hackett was young, his father told him that there are three aspects to a young man’s life, and he can only be great at two of them: sports, social activities and academics.
So Hackett, naturally, set out to prove him wrong: He would succeed at them all.
He was captain of his football team. He was student-body president. He taught dance classes, was a straight-A student, planned to become a doctor, then decided to embark on a career in coaching, working in nearly every department of an NFL team’s football operations before arriving in Green Bay in 2019.
“Whatever the challenge is, that always kind of pushed me,” Hackett said. “And now that I’ve decided to be a football coach, every year it’s finding what that challenge is.”
Throughout his teens, Hackett spent his summers in dorms as a ballboy and unofficial equipment manager, folding towels with Marcus Allen, carrying the pads of Derrick Thomas and watching his father interact with players who became more like family.
“I would get yelled at by Marty Schottenheimer if I spotted the ball wrong,” Hackett said with a laugh. “It was a big part of my life. A lot of who I became is because I grew up in a locker room. My dad always joked, ‘Yeah, I apologize every day that he had to grow up in a locker room because he's a little wild.'”
Hackett’s immersion in football was built on relationships. While Paul Hackett was offensive coordinator of the Chiefs, from 1993 to 1997, Nathaniel learned to long snap because the snappers sought any extra time they could get to sleep in. So they talked him into snapping for the punters to start practices.
Hackett parlayed that into four years as a snapper and linebacker at UC Davis — in addition to studying neurobiology and teaching hip-hop dance classes.
“There was a time that I wanted to be a backup dancer for Janet Jackson or Justin Timberlake or something like that,” he said. “I wanted to do that so bad.”
Neurobiology had Hackett on track to become a doctor. But his final class, a 10-hour lab, prompted a change of heart. The class was tasked with an exploratory surgery on chickens (they all lived), but Hackett wanted to infuse a little humor by creating a brief waterworks of chicken blood. The joke fell flat.
When he hit the football field soon after, he found the missing piece to his need for challenge: fun.
“Here I am on the grass with these football players and hitting and saying rude jokes and messing with each other, but there was still the mental challenge in football,” he said. “There was still that chess match.”
Yoda on three
After spurning a career in medicine, Hackett dove into a life of coaching, embracing the grind of being a college assistant, first at his alma mater and then Stanford, where he was thrown into helping the offense after a career on defense. In 2006, he joined his father on the staff of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a quality control coach. That was where he really found his voice as a coach.
“When I get up in front of the guys, I always want them to never have any clue what’s potentially going to pop up in front of them. I want that excitement of, ‘Oh boy, what’s going to happen?' “ Hackett said.
“So I created a library of all stuff from 1984 black-and-white clips, from Joe Montana throwing to Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon.”
Hackett’s library is loaded with old footage from his father’s days with eight NFL teams. The clips have become a staple of Hackett’s coaching.
But they’re also a part of his essence.
“He was among that early group of coaches that were very computer-savvy,” Paul Hackett said. “His father was not. But he made the transition of taking my stuff and transferring it into digital.”
When NFL facilities were shut down and meetings became almost exclusively interactive because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hackett turned to his friend, a high school teacher, to help him build an interactive learning system. It’s essentially a digital playbook, Hackett says, but for “the YouTube generation,” complete with teaching and testing tools to help those brand new to the team or returning from injury quickly get up to speed.
“Same deal as doing a presentation in front of a group. You want that ‘wow’ factor,” Hackett said. “So making the tutorials and still making it so that they feel like you’re with them, and creating these videos and making these fun tests that aren’t, ‘Oh crap, I got to do this.’ It’s something that can work on their iPad, they can do it anywhere they want, and it’s like I’m right there with them.”
Hackett’s father preached to him that “change is the norm,” and you have to evolve.
Talk to Hackett’s former players — and coaches — and that evolution will also include certain mainstays. Like those old Walsh and Montana tapes. And Justin Timberlake, his favorite musical artist. And probably Han Solo too.
While Hackett was the Jaguars’ offensive coordinator, his weekly PowerPoints regularly included Star Wars characters because Hackett is a fan.
“If we ever had mics that caught some of the plays that were different, it was usually a name that he threw out there,” Bortles said. “Sometimes it would get vetoed because me or [backup Chad Henne] were like, ‘I really don’t want to have to say that at the line of scrimmage in an NFL game.’ But a lot of the times we kind of went with it.”
Some of those? Checks and audibles named “Yoda” and Skywalker.” And there was that one play called “Dirty Pop,” named for the song by N’Sync.
“I don't even really know what that is or from, but I know it has something to do with Justin Timberlake,” Bortles said. “That was a play that we probably ran five to seven times a game when we were together, and every time he'd say it, he'd say it in his Justin Timberlake voice and kind of sing it.”
When he was coordinator (and QBs and tight ends coach) at Syracuse, his tipsheets for the offense, with notable points about its game plan and opponent, would regularly include correlating pictures or cartoons. And ahead of the team’s 2010 Pinstripe Bowl against Kansas State, Hackett infamously broke out into a dance to a song by comedy trio The Lonely Island.
“I mean, it was like a movie, just breaking into a song and dance routine between talk about coverages,” Loeb said. “But if there’s anybody in the building that would’ve been able to get away with that, it’s Nate Hackett. And there’s probably 50 to 100 stories of stuff like that happened over the years.”
Just as frequent: the times he adapted to fit his players, and the times he turned complex concepts into seemingly simple ones. Like when he abruptly scrapped the playbook at Syracuse and boiled it down to a short menu of plays.
“My junior year, right before the season started, we switched to an up-tempo, no-huddle offense to better help the whole team, and we were able to break all sorts of records with it,” Loeb said. “[The West Coast] had been what he were used to, what he had grown up with and what he did so well. But he was just able to quickly transition into something based off it, but totally new — and still be able to have good counters to what we’re doing.”
At the pro level, the feedback was the same. Even from future Hall of Famers.
“It’s understanding that every player has different motivators and everybody can respond differently to coaching, and figuring out what those buttons are on certain people to push to get the most out of them,” Rodgers said. “That’s what he does really well. He disarms guys and makes them feel really comfortable, and then he’s really good at teaching the game.
“I would hate to lose him, but I do feel like he would be a fantastic head coach.”