The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Broncos had big hopes. Now they have a problem.

The Denver Broncos are 2-3 and have looked uninspiring under first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett. (Jack Dempsey/AP)
7 min

The Denver Broncos have a coaching problem. Time will tell if they can fix it. Or, perhaps more to the point, how much time will be allotted to doing so.

Rookie coach Nathaniel Hackett has been under fire since a mismanaged Week 1 loss at Seattle and already has brought on a longtime special teams coach to help him with in-game management. He also has overseen an offense that has been dreadful, not particularly malleable and acutely worrisome in the red zone. Hackett, his staff and Denver’s front-office regime were inherited by new owner Rob Walton, and the one splurge the billionaire made was agreeing to a $245 million pact with quarterback Russell Wilson, who was acquired by Denver General Manager George Paton in the offseason before Walton took the reins.

Suffice to say, Wilson is not absolved from blame for Denver’s offensive struggles. But whatever Wilson and Hackett have cooked up has been so odious that it led already frustrated fans — who have been booing Hackett — to leave in droves Oct. 6 with the eventual defeat to the Colts still in the balance. That sort of image tends to resonate deeply for someone who parted with $4.65 billion to acquire a once-glistening franchise. Wilson, of course, is going nowhere, which has led to plenty of chatter around the league about just how patient this new ownership group will be — or should be — with a product that has been well below professional grade.

Conversations with executives, evaluators and coaches who have watched the Broncos closely paint a bleak picture of their game-day operations and offensive scheme and identity, with problems so prevalent they wonder whether a largely unproven staff can get it righted. Several suggested the need at least to bring on other outside consultants to try to spark more immediate gains, and fairly or not, Hackett’s ability to survive his first season on the job is being debated in other teams’ headquarters and around the league.

“I hate to say it because it’s only six weeks,” said one NFL general manager who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to discuss other teams’ front-office decisions publicly, “but [Paton] needs to start separating himself from the coach. I like George a lot, and that’s what my advice to him would be. Keep trying to give [Hackett] help, if he’ll take it, but you also may have to be willing to admit it was a mistake far sooner than you ever imagined. This owner didn’t hire either of them. You have to be careful how hard you fight to prove this can work because it’s been a disaster so far. And if you aren’t careful, you’re going to get fired, too.”

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Another longtime personnel executive, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of similar restrictions and who has also watched the Broncos closely, said: “Unless something changes quickly, I don’t think he gets through the year. It looks too big for him. It looks too fast for him. The red-zone play-calling has been awful. I don’t see enough adjustments being made.”

Questions abound about this offense, but some outside evaluators are baffled that Wilson isn’t being put in more run-pass option situations or option reads to better integrate his legs in the offense. (However, another personnel executive — who weighed trading for Wilson this offseason — suggested that Wilson’s days as a dangerous runner are finished.) Others wondered why the Broncos aren’t using more motion to try to create favorable matchups; Denver is 25th in implementing it, per TruMedia. Somehow, the Broncos have just three touchdowns in 14 trips to the red zone, a 21.4 percent success rate; the next worst team is Seattle at 38.5 percent, while the NFL average is 57 percent.

“Some of that is on the quarterback, certainly,” the rival general manager said, “but they don’t seem to have a lot of ideas when the field gets tight, and I don’t think they have the right people in that building now to fix it.”

Many have questioned the composition of Hackett’s staff, which lacks experienced offensive coaches or as many proven coordinators and former head coaches as dot the staffs of other novice head coaches, aside from defensive-minded former head coach Dom Capers, a senior defensive assistant. (Hence, special teams assistant Jerry Rosburg being rushed in last month). Some suggested Hackett could divest himself of involvement in game-calling to try to get his overall operation more in order.

One possible Hail Mary to help steady the ship if needed? Gary Kubiak.

The beloved former Denver quarterback won a Super Bowl coaching the Broncos; his son, Klint, is on Hackett’s staff as quarterbacks coach. Gary and Klint worked together recently on the Minnesota Vikings’ staff before Gary’s retirement, and you couldn’t find a steadier hand. Maybe Gary Kubiak could join Denver as an adviser or perhaps, gulp, as the interim head coach, with a bye looming at the end of the month after games against the Los Angeles Chargers, New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars (in London). The beleaguered fan base probably would be on board with a hero returning.

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The Chargers escaped the Cleveland Browns last week despite another ultra-aggressive fourth-down call by Coach Brandon Staley that went awry and despite Staley’s defense getting shredded again. (The unit ranks 27th in expected points added, according to TruMedia.)

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Los Angeles again has been beset by injuries, but when healthy this roster is held in high regard, and a frugal ownership group made a significant financial commitment in the offseason. And that’s before star quarterback Justin Herbert becomes eligible for a contract extension in January. That is a roundabout way of saying, should Year 2 with Staley not provide an acceptable outcome, owner Dean Spanos could have his pick of potential replacements — including former Super Bowl winner and longtime offensive guru Sean Payton.

“That’s the job I think Sean really wants,” said one longtime NFL personnel executive who has worked with Payton in the past. “Spanos doesn’t like to pay his coaches, but once your quarterback starts making $50 million a year, you’re really going to be cheap about your head coach? Sean loves living in Southern California. You’ve got Herbert and some other blue-chip players. That’s the fit.”

Washington’s upcoming dilemma

There is plenty ailing the Washington Commanders, who escaped Thursday night with an ugly win over the Chicago Bears, and one personnel executive who has faced them this year mentioned another looming issue.

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The franchise put so much draft capital into the defensive line, with little reward in terms of postseason wins (let alone regular season glory) to this point. The investment comes at a cost. We most often think of NFL windows through the tenure of a quarterback, but with so many top picks in one position group — including some who already have departed — what are the odds they stay together?

“That’s a very good defensive line, but where are they going to be a year from now, two years from now?” said the executive, who is under similar restrictions about discussing other organizations. “They’re not going to sign all of them to extensions. That’s almost impossible. Some are going to want to hit the market.

“You can’t get them all done, even if you really wanted to. So now you are using comp picks to help fill those holes, and doing it after going years without addressing other position groups at the top of the draft because of taking so many defensive linemen. Look at San Francisco. They did it, and they made it to a Super Bowl, but even they decided to trade [tackle DeForest] Buckner when it was time for him to get $20 million [a year]. Where’s that going to leave Washington?”

Perhaps in football purgatory, at best. Alas, that’s nothing new in Washington.