Nathaniel Hackett was in his first game as an NFL head coach. It’s a big moment.
On Monday night, he made some decisions that almost everyone is questioning.
Hackett made two questionable calls in the final minute that cost the Denver Broncos a chance to beat the Seattle Seahawks. No one seemed to agree with what the Broncos did.
It started when Javonte Williams was tackled on a 9-yard gain, setting up a fourth-and-5 at Seattle’s 46-yard line. The Broncos had three timeouts and 1:04 left on the clock.
That’s when the failure for Hackett began. At least he went back to Denver with two breaks in his pocket.
Broncos settle for a long field goal
Let’s fast forward a bit. The Broncos ended up settling for a 64-yard field goal, a very low percentage attempt, when they had other options. Hackett’s explanation was that he was perfectly fine with a field goal from that far. When Williams picked up 9 yards, he was good to send kicker Brandon McManus for what would have been tied for the second-longest field goal in NFL history.
“I thought Javonte made an incredible play and put us in the field goal mark that we were looking for,” Hackett said in his postgame media conference.
“I have confidence [McManus]. If we have to put him in that situation again, I think he can do it.”
OK, now back to what happened before the field goal attempt.
After Williams’ catch and run, the Broncos let the clock run even though they had three timeouts.
“This is going on forever,” new ESPN post-game announcer Joe Buck said, echoing what anyone at home was thinking.
Giving Russell Wilson 1:04 to go with two timeouts is more than enough time to get far downfield. But the clock continued to run. On ESPN’s “ManningCast,” Peyton Manning frantically called for the timeout itself. It never happened.
The Broncos lined up for a play on fourth-and-5, but Wilson called a timeout right before a delay of game penalty. There were 20 seconds on the clock at that point. It appeared, based on Hackett’s comments on the field goal distance, that after the Broncos got the 9 yards on the Williams play he decided to try the field goal and wanted to let the clock run.
Everyone else seemed to assume the Broncos would want Wilson to go for the first down and get close.
“They still have time, but they’re putting themselves in a really tough position,” ESPN color commentator Troy Aikman said. “Now all that matters is that they get this down first, but even after that they’re going to be challenged a little bit.”
Aikman never mentioned the possibility of a field goal, and very few watching at home considered it.
McManus is a very good kicker, but this was not in the thin Colorado. In NFL history, only two field goals of 64 yards or more have ever been made. Since 2000, kickers are 2-of-29 on field goal attempts of 64 or more yards, according to KC Joyner of The Soccer Club. Andrew Mason of 104.3 The Fan in Denver said kickers are 8-of-69 all-time on kicks of 63 or more yards. It was a low-percentage kick, even for a good kicker. It seemed clear that letting Wilson, a newly minted $245 million quarterback, try for 5 yards was the better decision. Hackett disagreed.
The Broncos attempted the kick. McManus missed wide left.
“He had a lot of distance,” Hackett said in the postgame news conference. “He just missed it. Brandon gave it his best shot. That’s a long field goal to hit. I think he’s totally capable of it. Obviously I wish we had gotten a lot closer, but it put us in that weird place there because we were in the field goal, but we were in that fourth down situation.
“Wanted to make sure we took our chance when we had the chance.”
Wilson did not question the decision.
“We said ‘Where can you make it tonight?’ and (McManus) said ’46, left hashish.’ I think we were on the 46, left hash,” Wilson said in his postgame news conference.
“I believe in Coach Hackett and I believe in what we’re doing. Anytime you can try to find a way to make a play on fourth-and-5, that’s great too, but I don’t think it was the wrong decision. I think that he can do it.”
Hackett has questions to answer
Hackett has already been hot in Denver for benching starters through the preseason. It’s a strategy many young coaches have adopted, but a vocal group of Broncos fans complained when Denver had some preseason struggles. Using that approach can often lead to a sloppy regular-season opener, and that was the case for the Broncos.
Denver’s defense was disorganized in the first half and was picked apart by Geno Smith. In the second half the defense adjusted, but the offense scored only three points on three second-half trips inside the 5-yard line, losing two fumbles on running plays. Do those things happen if the Broncos played their starters in the preseason? Maybe, maybe not, but it will be confirmation bias for those who disagreed with Hackett’s preseason methods. The preseason angle, however, will be a footnote this week to what happened in the final minute on Monday.
It’s just one game in Hackett’s career as Broncos head coach. He could end up being a great coach for Denver and the loss to Seattle will be forgotten after many wins. But many people in Colorado still aren’t too impressed.