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New Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett helped Aaron Rodgers hit a late-career apex. He led the NFL in passer rating and ESPN QBR in each of the last two seasons, something Rodgers had not done in nearly a decade, going back to when he was the NFL’s most-efficient passer in 2011 and 2012.
But for most of his time as an NFL offensive coordinator, Hackett has had to do more with less at the quarterback position.
In 2013 as Buffalo’s offensive coordinator, Hackett had then-rookie EJ Manuel for 10 starts, with Thaddeus Lewis and Jeff Tuel starting the rest of the season. A year later, he had Manuel and Kyle Orton. And then in Jacksonville, after a 23-game stint as quarterbacks coach, he moved back into the offensive-coordinator role eight games into the 2016 campaign, which was squarely in the heart of the Blake Bortles era.
Manuel, Orton and Bortles each got to double-digits in total starts with Hackett.
What all have in common is higher passing-efficiency ratings with Hackett than without him.
- Bortles: 82.5 rating with Hackett, 79.5 without
- Orton: 87.8 rating with Hackett, 79.9 without
- Manuel: 78.5 rating with Hackett, 73.4 without
None of those ratings will beat the world. But if a measure of coaching is in guiding a player to be better than one was, then Hackett has succeeded. Bortles and the Jaguars were a top-10 offense in 2017, Hackett’s only full season as Jacksonville’s play-caller.
“What he did in Jacksonville, I think was pure magic,” Rodgers told The Pat McAfee Show earlier this month.
So, why has Hackett succeeded? His creative teaching methods play a part in that. But more important is his skills in relationship-building, which played a role in him landing the Broncos’ head-coaching gig.
In 2014, while Hackett worked with Orton, the then-34-year-old coach reflected on the coordinator-quarterback dynamic, and why some partnerships succeeded and others failed.
“That’s why the game is so great, and the relationships that you gain, it might not be about the player, it might not be about the coach, it’s more about how they work together and how their relationship is,” Hackett said then, via the Syracuse Post-Standard. “Because if you get that, that’s what’s special. That’s why some quarterbacks are at one place and they’re not good, and they go another place and they’re good.
“It’s a people game. It’s all about how people work together.”
Hackett maximized Orton. He did the same for Bortles, as well — who was never better than he was down the stretch of the 2017 season and into the playoffs. Together, they got the Jaguars within four points of a Super Bowl appearance.
What happened with Hackett and Rodgers, that’s what you expect. A Hall-of-Fame-bound quarterback and a bright offensive mind helped the Packers win 39 regular-season games over their three seasons better before falling short in those postseasons, including two NFC Championship Game defeats.
If the Broncos find a pot of gold wearing jersey No. 12 at the end of their rainbow in the coming weeks, it’s fair to expect the duo to pick up where they left off.
But they don’t, it’s in Hackett’s work with Orton and Bortles that you find hope for whatever the Broncos’ Plan B ends up being.