Are we convinced that this Russell Wilson-Nathaniel Hackett marriage is not some kind of Nathan Fielder bit?
The plan: hire a coach who can’t count; trading a boatload of draft picks and players for an aging, “mobile” quarterback who seems increasingly immobile; hand this quarterback a five-year, $245 million contract with $165 million guaranteed at signing; hire a series of coordinators who have units never coordinated or called front games; to sell one of the most prestigious franchises in the league to an owner who does not know the name of the commissioner.
The goal: to tilt the credit of the near-dynasty Seahawks more towards Peter Carroll and the Boom Legion.
So far, the diet is working. Early life in Denver was difficult for Wilson. The Broncos’ offense was slow, the entire game day operation mismanaged. Hearing Broncos fans count the game clock in order to warn their quarterback that a penalty was on the way was (hopefully) the nadir. But around the bevy of procedural penalties, there’s been a general sense of unease – a sense that these guys might not know what they’re doing.
Sometimes you can tell a coach is in over their head. It could be the look in their eyes on the touchline or a loss of temper at a press conference. Call it the Freddie Kitchens area, which was unique to Cleveland and would have been shipped within a fortnight if the Browns (of any franchise) could have endured the embarrassment. After two weeks, Hackett is about to give this particular area a quick rebrand.
It was always going to be a rocky coach-quarterback marriage early on, especially if Hackett and company chose to roll with Wilson’s traditional offense. They did, and the results were grim: The Broncos are 1-1, having scored 33 total points in two weeks in games against the hapless Seahawks and a very average Texas team.
Hackett’s credentials for the Broncos head coaching job were questionable initially. Prior to taking the Denver job, he had only called plays at one location — as the Jaguars’ offensive coordinator in 2018 — and was let go midseason. In his entire career, he’s overseen more horrible offenses than decent ones. His main reference was that he was close with Aaron Rodgers, who it was assumed was about to blow his way out of Green Bay. By having Hackett on staff, it was thought, the Broncos might have had a head start in the race to acquire the back-to-back MVP.
This does not happen. Instead, the Broncos sent a group of picks and players to the Seahawks to acquire Wilson, seemingly without much thought about how the partnership would gel. In Green Bay, where Hackett spent three years working with Rodgers, the coach helped build an idiosyncratic passing game that channeled some of the quarterback’s freelancing excellence into a more structured setup.
The idea of inserting Wilson into what the dorks call a “multi-progression” passing game is enough to make even the loudest cynical Wilson purr. But that is not what has happened so far. Throughout the roars of the ‘Let Russ Cook’ years, an online move determined to move Seattle away from a run-dominated offense into one that let Wilson speak was a forgotten truth: Seahawks still led Russell Wilson’s attack. No matter who Pete Carroll rode as the caller, they all end up adopting the same style as their predecessor. Each time a coordinator tried to install something new, he quickly realized that he was wasting his time.
It is very good! Wilson is one of the best quarterbacks in the sport. He’s been torching fools throughout his career by doing things his way. But the Russell Wilson of 2022 isn’t the Russell Wilson of 2019 or 2020. He doesn’t quite move the same way, he’s not quite the same off-script playmaker – who were both fundamental elements of his ability to drive an offense down.
Moving to Denver, with a new franchise and new staff, represented an opportunity for Wilson to redefine his game as he got older. Instead, the Broncos doubled down on what Wilson likes to do, constipating the entire offense. The crux of the matter: Wilson’s reluctance to attack midfield.
A ton of Hackett’s best work with Rodgers has been designing so-called paid games that hit between the numbers. Under the Matt LaFleur-Rodgers-Hackett axis, the Packers attacked the midfield less than the average team. But that’s where they looked to hit their big plays. It’s a simple footballing philosophy: shots in the middle of the field are supposed to be the safest pitches, so why not save them for when an offense tries to hit an explosive play?
Wilson has long chosen to do the opposite, targeting the perimeter and freeing up the land’s most valuable real estate. The wonder of Wilson is that he is hitting the lowest clipping percentage in the league; there hasn’t been a better deep-ball pitcher in the NFL since entering the league. But that approach started to catch up with him in his senior year with the Seahawks and continued this season. Defenses can protect the sidelines knowing RussBall means it won’t target the area between the numbers.
In two games this season, Wilson has targeted midfield with throws over 10 yards just twice, resulting in a miss and an interception. In his final season in Seattle, he averaged just 2.3 such shots per game. The year before, it was just under three per game.
It’s not a height issue either. It’s a common refrain that Wilson doesn’t throw in midfield because he can’t see over his linemen. But compare Wilson’s midfield numbers to Drew Brees, a future Hall of Famer and founding member of the 5-foot-10 quarterback club (don’t let them fool you into thinking they’re 6 feet). In his last five seasons in the league, Brees on average eight throws a play of 10 or more yards between the numbers. In his entire Saints career, he averaged 118(!) throws per season through the linebacker safe lane, three and a half times more than Wilson. Kyler Murray, another short and mobile quarterback, is closer to Brees on the midfield spectrum than Wilson.
As his athleticism begins to decline, Wilson can no longer get away with closing off part of the field. It’s too constraining – and the defenses have caught up.
Hackett and Wilson will probably understand this. They have an easy start-of-season schedule to continue working through starting issues before a brutal six-game streak to close out the season. They currently lead the league in pre-snap penalties and are the only team since 2000 to have at least five goal scoring situations and score zero touchdowns, according to Sharp Football Stats. These numbers should drift towards the average as the season progresses. Hackett is a savvy offensive mind, even if his general head coaching skills make him look like Curly’s long-lost brother Larry and Moe. And Wilson remains one of the best quarterbacks in the game, even when defenses know what’s coming. That alone will make the Broncos competitive.
But competition isn’t enough when you’re mortgaging your future for a quarterback who’s supposed to achieve instant championship success. And the opening weeks of the season should serve as a neon warning sign for a franchise that just signed its star quarterback to a mega five-year deal: Wilson’s game isn’t aging well and he needs to get better. adapt.