Are we sure this marriage between Russell Wilson and Nathaniel Hackett isn’t some sort of Nathan Fielder bit?
The plan: hire a coach who can’t count; trade a boatload of draft picks and players for an aging, “mobile” quarterback who seems increasingly immobile; to hand that quarterback a $245 million five-year contract with $165 million guaranteed at signing; to hire a set of coordinators who have never coordinated units or called plays before; to sell one of the league’s most prestigious franchises to an owner who doesn’t know the Commissioner’s name.
The goal: to tilt the credit for the Seahawks’ near-dynasty further to Peter Carroll and the Legion of Boom.
So far the scheme is working. It’s been a rough start to life in Denver for Wilson. The Broncos’ attack has been slow, the whole operation on matchday has been mismanaged. Hearing Broncos fans counting down the game clock to give their quarterback a heads-up that a penalty was coming was (hopefully) the low point. But around the mass of procedural punishments, there was a general sense of malaise — a sense that these guys may not know what they’re doing.
Sometimes you can see a coach sitting over their heads. It could be the look in their eyes on the sidelines, or a loss of mood at a press conference. Let’s call it the Freddie Kitchens zone, which was a one-off in Cleveland and would have shipped in a fortnight if the Browns (of all franchises) could have tolerated the embarrassment. After two weeks, Hackett is on track to give that particular zone a quick rebrand.
This was always going to be a tough coach-quarterback marriage at first, especially if Hackett and his company chose to go ahead with the traditional Wilson offense. They did, and the results were grim: The Broncos are 1-1, scoring a total of 33 points in two weeks of games against the hapless Seahawks and a very average Texan side.
Hackett’s credentials for the Broncos head coach job were questionable at first. Before taking the Denver job, he had only played in one spot – as the Jaguars’ offensive coordinator in 2018 – and was sacked mid-season. Throughout his career, he has overseen more heinous offenses than decent ones. His main legitimacy was that he had a close relationship with Aaron Rodgers, who was believed to be about to explode Green Bay. By employing Hackett, the Broncos thought, the Broncos might have had a head start in the race to acquire the back-to-back MVP.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the Broncos sent a slew of picks and players to the Seahawks to take over Wilson, with seemingly little regard for how the partnership would play out. At Green Bay, where Hackett spent three years with Rodgers, the coach helped build a quirky passing game that brought some of the quarterback’s freelance excellence into a more structured format.
The idea of involving Wilson in what the suckers call a “multi-progression” passing game is enough to make even the strongest Wilson cynic spin. But that’s not what has happened so far. Throughout the roar of the ‘Let Russ Cook’ years, an online movement determined to push Seattle away from a run-dominated attack into one that Wilson aired was a forgotten truth: The Seahawks always led the Russell Wilson attack. It didn’t matter who Pete Carroll came in as the play-caller, they all end up in the same style as their predecessor. Whenever a dispatcher tried to install something new, they quickly realized they were wasting their time.
That’s fine! Wilson is one of the best quarterbacks in the sport. He has set fools on fire throughout his career by doing things his way. But the Russell Wilson of 2022 is not the Russell Wilson of 2019 or 2020. He doesn’t move quite the same way, he’s not quite the same off-script playmaker – both were fundamental parts of his ability to make a foul downfield.
Moving to Denver, with a new franchise and a new staff, meant an opportunity for Wilson to redefine his game as he got older. Instead, the Broncos have doubled down on what Wilson likes to do, hiding the entire offense. The core problem: Wilson’s reluctance to attack the center of the field.
A ton of Hackett’s best work with Rodgers was designing so-called pay-off plays that fell in between the numbers. Under the Matt LaFleur-Rodgers-Hackett axis, the Packers attacked the center of the field less than the average team. But it was there that they wanted to hit their big plays. It’s a simple football philosophy: throws are in the middle of the field supposed to be the safest throws, so why not save them for when a foul tries to hit an explosive play?
Wilson has long chosen to do the reverse, targeting the perimeter and clearing the most valuable real estate on the field. The wonder of Wilson is that he throws the lowest percentage on the highest clip in the competition; there hasn’t been a better deep-ball pitcher in the NFL since he entered the league. But that approach started to catch up with him in his senior year with the Seahawks and has continued this season. Defense can shield the sidelines in the full knowledge that RussBall means he won’t target the area between numbers.
In two games this season, Wilson has focused on the center of the field with only two throws over 10 yards, resulting in incompleteness and interception. In his final season in Seattle, he averaged just 2.3 such throws per game. The year before, he was a blemish below the three-per-game mark.
It’s not a height problem either. It’s a common chorus that Wilson doesn’t throw to the middle of the field because he can’t see over his linemen. But compare Wilson’s middle-class numbers to Drew Brees, a future Hall of Famer and co-founder of the 5ft 10in quarterback club (don’t let them fool you into believing they’re 6ft). In his last five seasons in the league, Brees average eight throws a game of 10 yards or more between numbers. Throughout his Saints career, he averaged 118(!) pitches per season in the linebacker safety corridor, three and a half times more than Wilson. Kyler Murray, another short, mobile quarterback, is closer to Brees in the middle of the field spectrum than Wilson.
With his athleticism starting to wane, Wilson can’t get away with shutting down part of the field. It’s too restrictive – and the defense has caught up with it.
Hackett and Wilson will probably figure this out. They have an easy pre-season schedule to work out the teething troubles for a brutal six-game period 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-to-go situations and score zero touchdowns, according to Sharp Football Stats. Those numbers should drift toward the average as the season progresses. Hackett is a shrewd attacking mind, even if his general head coach skills make him resemble Curly’s lost brother Larry and Moe. And Wilson remains one of the best quarterbacks in the game, even when the defense knows what’s coming. That alone will make the Broncos competitive.
But being competitive isn’t good enough when you’re pledging your future to a quarterback who’s supposed to make instant championship success. And the early weeks of the season should serve as a neon warning sign for a franchise that just signed its star quarterback to a five-year mega-money deal: Wilson’s game isn’t aging well, and he’s having to adapt.