Just two weeks away from Black Monday, the Denver Broncos decided to no longer delay the inevitable.
Just a day after being shelled 51-14 by an injured Los Angeles Rams team, the Broncos decided they had seen enough and fired first-year coach Nathaniel Hackett. It’s the fifth time in NFL history (and the first time in back-to-back seasons) that a head coach has failed to make it out of their first season with the team. For context, the recent names on that list include Urban Meyer’s reign of chaos with the Jaguars and Bobby Petrino bailing out of a terrible year with the Falcons for a return to college football. This time, there was no scandal or cushy college job that forced a coach out, just prolonged and infuriating ineptitude.
The optimism that had so clearly defined the Broncos’ offseason has long but given way to despair and anger. A team once viewed as a playoff contender is now staring down the barrel of potential long-term futility. But what happened to cause this?
All we have to do here is rewind back to a simpler time: 2015. The Broncos were riding high, with Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips masterminding a near-perfect squad. Sure, Peyton Manning was well past his prime and his understudy in Brock Osweiler was inconsistent, but the offense had enough skill players like the late Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson, and Ronnie Hillman to compensate. It was a good complement to the main source of Denver’s success: the defense. There’s a reason why the 2015 Broncos defense is hailed as one of the greatest the sport has ever seen. It’s pass rush was near unstoppable, led by an All-Pro in Von Miller and a quality veteran in DeMarcus Ware. Young players like Shaquille Barrett, Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, and Shane Ray would all get their pound of flesh as well. The linebacker duo of Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan were quality options, while the secondary was loaded with a mix of veterans (Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, Darian Stewart) and youngsters (Chris Harris Jr., Bradley Roby). A 12-4 season that culminated with the ultimate prize: a Super Bowl humiliation of the 15-1 Carolina Panthers. MVP Cam Newton was powerless to stop the onslaught, and the Broncos became champions.
Since then, however, the Broncos have had to deal with instability. Peyton Manning rode off from the mountaintop into the Colorado sunset, while Brock Osweiler elected to go to greener pastures with the Texans. After a disappointing 2016 where they failed to make the playoffs, Kubiak and Phillips would also depart the organization. With the architects gone, the Broncos had to make do with what they had, but nothing seemed to work. Young draft picks like Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch failed to become franchise quarterbacks, while established options like Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater were little more than stopgaps. Coaches like Vance Joseph and Vic Fangio failed to replicate the success of Kubiak and Phillips. While the Broncos had talent at the time, fans always had to wonder how far they could go if they only had a franchise quarterback and coach.
Fast forward to this past offseason, and the Broncos began to ask the same questions. Fangio was gone, there was no QB in the pipeline, and rumors of a sale were starting to swirl. With talks of a nice quarterback trade market forming, this was the time to strike. Their first target would be none other than the biggest fish of all: Aaron Rodgers. The Packers had already drafted his heir apparent in Jordan Love, and it felt like the Packers were ready for a transition. The Broncos quickly pounced by signing Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick to extensions, investing serious money in pass-catchers. They even hired Packers offensive coordinator Hackett, whom Rodgers had spoken highly of, to be their new head coach. Everything was lining up perfectly…until the Packers thought twice and locked Rodgers into an extension.
However, shortly after Broncos fans’ hopes of seeing Rodgers in the orange and blue were dashed, a new potential savior became available: Russell Wilson. Wilson had reportedly become frustrated with Seattle and Pete Carroll’s playcalling, and he decided it was time for a change. Denver fans were pleased and bragged about how they had fleeced Seattle, but that never seemed like the right take. The Broncos had to give up a fair share of pieces to make the deal happen, such as a developmental quarterback in Drew Lock, emerging pass-catcher Noah Fant, and two years’ worth of first and second-round picks. The massive extension the Broncos signed Wilson to before a game was even played meant they had even less margin for error. This was no longer a trade that would decide the Broncos’ short-term fortunes, but one that would directly change the franchise for the foreseeable future. The more accurate catchphrase would have been “Broncos Country, let’s ride or die.”
It took about one game for us to find the answers to our questions. It was the perfect scenario: Wilson returning to his old stomping grounds in Seattle. Pete Carroll had apparently chosen journeyman backup Geno Smith as his quarterback over Lock, and all of Denver was licking their chops to see the fruits of arguably the biggest trade in franchise history. With under a minute left and with all three timeouts still left, Hackett had a choice on 4th-and-5: does he trust his new nine-figure quarterback to make a throw to keep the drive alive, or have Brandon McManus try to kick a 64-yard field goal to win? As the clock ticked (much to the chagrin of Peyton Manning), Hackett oddly decided to go for the latter. He helplessly watched his kicker miss, and only used his remaining timeouts to delay the inevitable soul-crushing loss.
It was an inauspicious start…and it would only proceed to get worse. It felt like the Broncos were completely unprepared most games. Their red-zone playcalling was predictable and easily diagnosed by NFL defenses. The offensive line took a collective step back and allowed Wilson to get hit multiple times a game. Their top two running backs were either injured early or released due to ineptitude. Receivers either got injured or never developed as expected. Even worse, Wilson has shown serious signs of regression. Perhaps it’s learning a new offense, but that was never the problem for the likes of Brady or Manning. His twelve touchdown passes have him at a career low, while also on pace for a career-high in sacks. All of this has combined for the Broncos to score a paltry 15.5 points per game, the lowest mark in the league.
If the on-field problems weren’t enough of an issue, the Broncos on the sidelines were even worse. It started with a somewhat passive-aggressive stare from backup running back Melvin Gordon III at Wilson during a Thursday night loss to the Indianapolis Colts. It eventually devolved into defensive lineman Mike Purcell openly yelling at Wilson before the offense took the field, sparking concerns of a divided locker room. Those concerns would rear their ugly head during the Christmas blowout to the Rams, when backup quarterback Brett Rypien would get into a shoving match with offensive lineman Dalton Risner and the rest of the O-line after a sack. When things devolve this bad within your organization, that’s the sign that Wilson and Hackett have shown a tremendous lack of leadership and, consequently, have lost the locker room amidst the team’s season-long struggles.
While Hackett may sound like a convenient fall guy due to Wilson’s immovable contract, he’s been arguably the biggest piece of the Broncos’ shortcomings. The Hackett era will be defined by many things, but none of them will be flattering. The failure to devise an effective offensive scheme, the inability to get the best out of his personnel, and turning a blind eye to the obviously decaying team culture? The blame for all of that has to fall at Hackett’s feet to some extent.
The oddest part about all of this is the interim coach replacing Hackett is an odd choice. Instead of making the logical decision (in my opinion) and promoting defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero to see what he’s capable of as a head coach, the Broncos elected to go with *checks notes* Jerry Rosburg. Let me get this straight: the Broncos came to a conscious decision that a 66-year-old who came out of a four-year retirement midseason to help Hackett manage a game clock is suddenly an answer? I get that the Broncos have nothing to play for, but when a tank only helps Seattle increase their pick, why not at least see what you have in Evero before he potentially takes a job elsewhere?
Oh yeah, that reminds me. Seattle came away with Charles Cross and Boye Mafe with Denver’s picks in 2022, both of whom have emerged as solid players with the chance to become major parts of the Seahawks’ future. Now, there’s a good chance the 2023 first-round pick is a top-three selection. That means the pick could be used to draft a new franchise quarterback (likely whoever isn’t selected at first overall between Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud) or potentially traded to a team much more desperate for one in order to acquire more pieces. If Seattle becomes a consistent contender within the next few years, the Russell Wilson trade will be attributed as being a direct catalyst of such success.
I won’t go as far as saying the Wilson trade and extension are the worst in NFL history, if only because what the Seahawks do with the remaining picks is uncertain and there’s a chance Wilson has struggled to get acclimated due to extenuating circumstances. However, what if the problems bleed into next year and beyond? What if Wilson’s off year is a sign of decline? What if the Broncos make another Hackett-sized whiff at the head coaching position? What if players want to avoid going to Denver for fear of locker room toxicity? At that point, we would have to discuss this trade and extension to be arguably the worst decision in NFL history, right up there with the Herschel Walker and Ricky Williams trades. If that ends up being the case, Hackett will be just the first casualty of Denver’s colossal mistake.
It felt like only months ago we felt the Wilson-Hackett pairing was going to take Denver to another Super Bowl. Now, they may have locked themselves into a painful stretch of mediocrity…and that may be the ceiling.