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Getting to know a Denver Broncos coaching candidate: Nathaniel Hackett

Andrew Mason Avatar
January 12, 2022

SECOND IN A SERIES

Aaron Rodgers doesn’t want to lose Nathaniel Hackett. But he knows the time is probably coming for his offensive coordinator to take the next step in his career.

“I’m really happy for Nathaniel,” said Rodgers on The Pat McAfee Show Tuesday when asked about Hackett interviewing with the Broncos. “I think this is a little overdue, to be honest …

“… He’s a great coach, I love spending time with him. He’s a fantastic teacher. He’s incredible in front of the room, and I’m really happy for him.”

What makes Hackett such a terrific teacher, as Rodgers notes? It starts with his willingness to embrace new concepts — something which has occasionally been lacking for the Broncos.

As you may recall, recent editions of the Denver Broncos have not always been at the forefront of innovation. For example, in 2018, the Vance Joseph-led team eschewed the use of virtual-reality training for its quarterbacks — even though Case Keenum, the passer the team signed in the offseason, had used VR at length during his career campaign with Minnesota the previous year. The Broncos had analytics staffers, but at times, the actual application of analytics to game plans and in-game tactics was scattershot.

Hackett, on the other hand, is at the forefront of innovation, creativity and enterprising thought.

For example, as he related to The Washington Post in October, he spent downtime during the height of the COVID-19-caused shutdowns in 2020 working on an interactive-learning system with a friend of his who is a high-school teacher.

The goal? To create a playbook that is entirely digital, with methods that help players absorb the information faster — and aids in remote instruction, something that has become more essential in the last two years whenever clusters of positive tests force teams to conduct meetings remotely.

“Same deal as doing a presentation in front of a group. You want that ‘wow’ factor,” Hackett told the Post. “So making the tutorials and still making it so that they feel like you’re with them, and creating these videos and making these fun tests that aren’t, ‘Oh crap, I got to do this.’

“It’s something that can work on their iPad, they can do it anywhere they want, and it’s like I’m right there with them.”

Many teams had challenges teaching over video conferencing, to the point where it became a problem that hindered development. Hackett is the type who looked for — and found — a solution.

During four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars — including a stint as offensive coordinator that ran from the final two weeks of the 2016 season to his dismissal 11 games into the 2018 campaign — Hackett found a solution that made journeyman Blake Bortles into a viable starter who could guide a top-10 offense.

During the 2017 campaign — which ended with the Jaguars losing at New England in the AFC Championship Game — Hackett’s attack finished sixth in total offense and fifth in scoring offense. The presence of bell-cow running back Leonard Fournette helped, but Hackett was able to guide the turnover-prone Bortles to a season in which he had a career-best interception rate of 2.5 percent, while also completing 60 percent of his passes in a season for the first time.

“What he did in Jacksonville, I think was pure magic,” Rodgers told The Pat McAfee Show on Tuesday. “Getting them within a quarter of the Super Bowl was incredible.”

One way he did that while keeping his players engaged was by having fun with some of the mundane aspects of offense, such as the names of pre-snap checks. He’ll use pop songs and movie characters.

All of it has a purpose: to facilitate his players’ learning and retention.

Of course, Hackett is not the first to do this sort of thing. But it’s a hallmark of smart coaches.

His methodology evokes memories of the late Sam Wyche — who worked directly for Bill Walsh, the schematic predecessor of the Shanahan/Kubiak concepts and coaches having so much success today — used to pepper his calls with code words. For example, Wyche’s code word for the running back picking up a blitzing strong safety was “Bruce” … because the first letters of “back on strong safety” spell out “BOSS,” which is the well-known nickname of rock-and-roll icon Bruce Springsteen.

That sort of reference resonated with the 1980s generation like a Star Wars or Justin Timberlake reference would today. Both of those have found their way into the Hackett lexicon — although a Timberlake reference comes with a twist.

“That was a play that we probably ran five to seven times a game when we were together, and every time he’d say it, he’d say it in his Justin Timberlake voice and kind of sing it,” Bortles told the Post.

Everything old eventually evolves and becomes new again. With his new-school thinking and old-school lineage in football taken from being the son of long-time pro and college offensive guru Paul Hackett, Nathaniel Hackett has positioned himself to make the leap to running his own show.

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