ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The images were everywhere and the headlines popped up coast to coast. In the span of roughly 14 days, first-year Denver Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett went from a potential breath of fresh air to a coach whose team identity included penalties, clock management problems and puzzling end-of-game decisions.
Hackett may be the first coach in Broncos history to have his home fans frustrated enough, during what is usually the new coach’s honeymoon period, to count down the play clock before each snap in the fourth quarter of … a win.
“I love how passionate our fans are, I really do,” Broncos offensive coordinator Justin Outten said last week as he mustered a smile and echoed Hackett’s it’s-all-good sentiments. ” … You can take it sarcastic or whatever it may be, but just to show the passion, how much they love this game and how much they love the Broncos … and we are going to make them proud.”
Safe to say a lot has happened during Hackett’s first three weeks of the regular season. It’s a stretch that started with a somewhat disorganized loss to the Seahawks in a return game for quarterback Russell Wilson, who spent his first 10 seasons in Seattle.
Trailing 17-16 with 1:11 remaining, a short pass on third down set the Broncos up with a fourth-and-5 from their own 45. The Broncos had two timeouts and could have opted to have Wilson get them in better position for a field goal.
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Instead, Hackett sent out kicker Brandon McManus to try a field goal that was so long — 64 yards — only two kickers in league history have made one from that distance. McManus didn’t become the third.
Denver also was flagged for 12 penalties for 106 yards, including two delay-of-game calls, to go with curious clock and game-management decisions.
Hackett, who later admitted he should have gone for it on fourth down, found himself the topic of plenty of “what was he thinking’’ commentaries, and a video from an ESPN telecast of Peyton Manning signaling 62 times to call a timeout during that final Broncos drive went viral.
Several of those issues continued in a sloppy Week 2 win over the Houston Texans in the Broncos’ home opener, and the fans loudly counted down the play clock as it wound close to zero for much of the fourth quarter. It boiled over into a rare public admission the Broncos needed help — and fast — as Hackett hired long-time NFL assistant Jerry Rosburg as a senior assistant last week to help with game management issues. Rosburg was in the coaches’ box for Sunday night’s win over the San Francisco 49ers.
“We knew we had something, especially myself, that we had to address,” Hackett said. “And then being able to get Jerry in there, and working with the people that we have … it made me just kind of lock in and hear the information and make the best decision. I appreciate all those guys and all the extra work we put in this past week to get that process done the right way.”
The Broncos are, through it all, still 2-1 heading into Sunday’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).
Hackett’s learning curve has been on display in prime time in two of the Broncos’ first three games. They also have three of their next five games — a Thursday night game against the Colts Oct. 6, a Monday night game against the Chargers on Oct. 17 and an Oct. 30 game against the Jaguars in London — in high visibility broadcast slots, so Hackett’s progress is going to be scrutinized.
“If people want to think they know more about football than our coaches they can go ahead and believe that, but we have faith in what we’re doing,’’ said Broncos guard Dalton Risner, who grew up a Broncos fan in Wiggins, Colorado, so he understands the local passion as well as anyone. “We’re going to call those plays later, and good things are going to happen and everyone will cheer … we’re going to keep working every day to make sure that happens.’’
That’s a long way from Hackett’s preseason sunshine, when he was lauded for unconventional tactics, like his hiring of “instructional designer’’ John Vieira, who was Hackett’s neurobiology classmate at California-Davis. Hackett was commended in the preseason for his enthusiastic embrace of analytics and innovative thinking, as well as features his players heartily endorsed, such as a new players’ lounge and a basketball hoop in the team meeting room.
Hackett continues to believe Vieira’s presence, as well as the framework he’s put in place, will pay dividends. He believes the early season stumbles are more a function of a new coaching staff.
“This is the first time a lot of us have worked together,” he said. “We’re new, Russ is new, we trust in what we’re doing.”
Said running back Melvin Gordon III: “We just have to be clean. … We know that, we believe in what we’re doing, it’s early. We have time if we put in the work.’’
Wins, no matter how close, even like the 11-10 win over the 49ers Sunday night that featured 10 Broncos punts and just one trip inside San Francisco’s 20-yard line, help Hackett’s cause. A robust celebration by the players and coaches could easily be heard through concrete walls following the game.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who like Hackett is his team’s offensive playcaller, said last week Hackett’s rough start has a familiar ring to it.
“I remember my first game, I went for it four times, and they were ones I should not have gone for,” Shanahan said. “And that’s when I realized, all right, you can’t think like the coordinator. So there’s all the experiences that you go through for the first time, but he’s done this for a while … [they have] a good coach there, and a very good offensive playcaller.”
Hackett understands what comes with the role of leading a successful franchise.
“Nobody ever told me this was going to be easy,” Hackett said. “I think taking this job, you knew there was going to be some ups and downs, and that was something I embraced.
“I think that for me, it’s just about improving every day … I always want to get better at everything that I do. There’s always going to be scrutiny, whether you lose, whether you win, whether you tie, there’s always going to be something people are going to say you can do better, and I’m going to do everything that I can to get better.”