• Maybe Nathaniel Hackett would have failed regardless. But, with the benefit of hindsight, you could see in his first game as Broncos coach on Sept. 12 that things might go this way.
On Monday Night Football, there were coaches, league-wide, who noticed how Russell Wilson seemed to have control over game management in the final moments of the Denver’s 17–16 loss to Seattle—as a now infamous situation unfolded—with the Broncos failing to call a timeout, and letting 40 seconds bleed off the clock to force a 64-yard field goal try from Brandon McManus with 20 seconds left. The Broncos’ staff seemed to just stand there, waiting for something to happen, maybe for Wilson to do something, as the quarterback let seconds, and opportunity, melt away.
The theory, of course, followed a summer full of stories of the office space Wilson was given in the Broncos’ facility, the staff of folks he had in the building, and then, most notably, how a five-year, $245 million extension, including $124 million guaranteed, was brokered with two years left on his old contract.
So the season started that way and seemed to fit where the team and its new quarterback, and coach, had been, and as it turns out, where they were going.
The truth is, the minute the Broncos traded for Wilson, Hackett became a supporting actor in the show Wilson brought to Denver—a place where he’d finally get the sort of setup, both logistically and schematically, that he never could’ve had in Seattle. And when things went wrong? New ownership, with that contract, was tethered to Wilson in a way it wasn’t to Hackett or anyone else in the building. Which left Hackett and his staff without much leverage to change anything, even if they’d wanted to.
On the day Hackett was let go, it’s important not just to outline how things went so horribly wrong for a fired 15-game head coach. But, it’s also important to explain what happens next for the Broncos and their ownership.
Because wherever the search takes Broncos CEO Greg Penner and the Walton family, that background colors what would be my one nonnegotiable—the next guy has to have the leverage to stand up to Wilson. And with that as the backdrop, my feeling is the next guy probably should come from one of these three categories:
Established head coach: Obviously, Sean Payton’s name was always going to be the first attached to this opening, and there’s no need for explanation on why. But does the 58-year-old former Saints coach really want to take his next, maybe last, shot in the NFL with Wilson? I’m not sure he does.
Assuming it won’t be him, it’s worth mentioning that last week, before the mess of the past couple of days, I heard Jim Harbaugh’s name connected to Denver for the first time. And the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. His record was exemplary in San Francisco (44-19-1), with internal strife, not losses, leading to his exit. There, he helped resuscitate the career of Alex Smith and launch the career of Colin Kaepernick. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s won. He has a relationship with John Elway—from his time as a player and Stanford coach. And he would most certainly stand up to Wilson, whom he coached against in the NFC West.
The drawback, of course, would be that Harbaugh can wear people, and his welcome, out. Just like he did with the Niners and in other places. That, as I see it, makes him a sort of modern-day Bill Parcells—a guy who comes in, shakes things up, gets results fast and then, in time, winds up gone before people thought he’d be. Given the situation the Broncos are in, with their quarterback and core of in-prime players, you could argue that sort of coach could be just what the doctor ordered for a Denver organization that’s sort of stuck in the here and now.
I don’t know if Harbaugh’s ready to leave Michigan, his alma mater, with the program riding high undefeated at 13–0 heading into the College Football Playoff semifinal against TCU. But I do know he’s long felt there is unfinished business for him in the NFL. And he’d be one of my first calls.
George Paton–connected name: We’re gonna find out in the coming weeks how tied the new ownership group really is to Paton, the Broncos’ GM—Penner said in his statement that he’ll lead the search with Paton’s help, while falling well short of declaring anyone safe. But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Penner is set on keeping Paton in charge.
If that’s where we are, then Dan Quinn is the name, as it was last year, that makes the most sense. Quinn worked with Paton in Miami under Nick Saban, and was Seattle’s defensive coordinator in 2013 and ’14 in Wilson’s two Super Bowl seasons. The Cowboys DC could also bring Dallas consultant Brian Schottenheimer, who was Seahawks offensive coordinator from ’18-20, with him to reconnect with Wilson and build an offense for him.
Quinn’s way wouldn’t be as gruff as Harbaugh’s, and his ability to build relationships with players is well known and well regarded in NFL circles, a quality that’d be useful in Denver.
Strong ex-player: The success of the Titans’ Mike Vrabel and the Vikings’ Kevin O’Connell as younger program leaders should get the attention of owners—both were able to come in and establish a culture quickly with players they inherited, and get the most out of them on both sides of the ball. So someone such as 49ers DC DeMeco Ryans or Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo (who interviewed for the Broncos job last year) would make sense.
Mayo or Ryans would command instant respect. A big question, of course, would be whom those guys would hire as assistants. But if Denver’s going to go the first-time head coach route again, with the circumstances being what they are, I’d think it’d almost have to be someone like them, who could easily and naturally stand at the front of the room.
And that, by the way, is no affront to a pack of bright young offensive coaches who deserve a shot. It’s just that this probably isn’t the place to give someone, or get, that sort of chance.
Hackett, I’m sure, could tell you why.
• The one other thing we should mention here—resources won’t be a problem for the Broncos, now that they’re led by one of the world’s wealthiest families. That could be an x-factor with someone such as Payton, who was offered a four-year, $100 million deal by Miami last year and won’t come much cheaper than that. It also opens up some wild possibilities, and leaves very little off the table.
Bill Belichick? Nick Saban? You can let your mind run wild, because there’s an owner here with a historic franchise, a desirable city to live in and a wide-open checkbook.
• Chargers coach Brandon Staley can pretty easily end speculation on his job security with a win tonight—which would clinch a wild-card spot for his team and clarify the AFC playoff picture for everyone. In the case L.A. does dispatch the Colts, it would be with the Ravens as the likely No. 5 and 6 seeds (Baltimore can still win its division), with Buffalo, Cincinnati and Kansas City fighting over the top three seeds. The AFC South champ is the four seed. And then, the Patriots, Dolphins, Jets, Steelers and Raiders would be left to fight for the last spot.
The other thing knocking out Indy would do? The Chargers won’t say I told you so on Justin Herbert. But they did. And even if they won’t say it, getting Herbert to the playoffs for the first time would be pretty satisfying for a lot of people in that organization.
“Everybody fights really hard for Justin because we know what type of person he is, what type of competitor he is, what type of leader he is,” Staley told me. “Everybody wants to play their best, coach their best for Justin. But there’s not going to be any I told you so from our organization, because we don’t operate that way. We know how special he is and we don’t need to validate him to anybody because he’s going to do that.
“And we’re going to do that as a team.“
• As for the team on the other side of the coin tonight, with Jeff Saturday’s trial run winding down, I’d expect buzz on Harbaugh and the Colts, as well. He earned the Captain Comeback moniker in Indy, and his name is in the team’s Ring of Honor at Lucas Oil Stadium.
• The Cardinals’ loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday night certainly opened the door for similar questions in Arizona, another place where Payton speculation is running rampant. But before getting to Kliff Kingsbury’s job security, the Cardinals have to figure out what to do with their front office, with GM Steve Keim out on leave and no certainty to return as the man in charge.
One thing I have heard is that ownership could consider going forward with a co-GM sort of setup (Washington is a little like that), with Adrian Wilson and Quentin Harris leading the way. Harris came up in the Arizona personnel department and is a widely respected scout, while Wilson, of course, was a legendary player in Arizona and has now spent seven years working in that department for the team.
• It’s hard to imagine that Robert Saleh unofficially ending Zach Wilson’s season Monday, in moving him to third on the depth chart, won’t have implications in March and April. I don’t doubt Saleh, and the Jets, would like to get a longer look at Wilson, after spending the No. 2 overall pick on him just 20 months ago. The problem is where his team is right now—trending toward a real breakthrough in 2023.
With good healing from Breece Hall, Alijah Vera-Tucker and Mekhi Becton, and good offseasons from Quinnen Williams, Garrett Wilson and Sauce Gardner, the Jets should be entering into a window of opportunity, with solid vets (C.J. Mosley, Laken Tomlinson, Corey Davis, Jordan Whitehead) surrounded by rising young stars on rookie deals. And that’s where it’d be tough for the Jets to sink another year into Wilson’s development.
Remember, Saleh and OC Mike LaFleur came from San Francisco, and went to a Super Bowl three years ago with a certain quarterback (Jimmy Garoppolo) who’ll be available in three months.
• Here’s hoping, first and foremost, Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa is all right as he goes back into the concussion protocol. It’s hard to imagine he’d clear by Sunday since this would be the third such event he’s gone through this season. But Miami’s playoff hopes are on the line, which makes this an interesting test as to how teams handle players in these sorts of critical situations with a lot on the line on the field Sunday.
There’s also plenty on the line for Tagovailoa, with a decision due in May on his fifth-year option and this offseason being the first in which he’ll be eligible for an extension.
• It was refreshing to hear Nick Sirianni speak honestly about the prospect of beating the Saints on Sunday, with the No. 1 seed there for the taking and how the impact of a win would extend to April, with Philly holding New Orleans’s first-round pick.
“I’m just worried about this game,” Sirianni said, smiling. “Well, this game directly affects both of those things and the draft status. So sure, but we are focused on right now in the season. It will be sweet if we can go out there and get this win, and then once we’re making the draft pick later we can say to ourselves, well, That really did help us out. That’s our goal though, is just to win this game.
“As far as your question about my mindset or what I kind of was thinking right there, I don’t know. I mean, since I’ve been here and how much trust I have in Howie, it was like, Hey, great trade. We will get our draft pick next year and pick up on extra one? Cool. I’m into that. Whatever we think we have to do to make this team better.”
• There’s been a lot of talk about the Titans and Jaguars resting starters ahead of a Week 18 game that we already know will be for the AFC South crown. I get the logic. And I’d even understand if Jacksonville were to be careful with their guys against the Texans.
I think it’s trickier for Tennessee. They’ve lost five straight. They have a rookie quarterback who needs reps. They also play Thursday, which gives them 10 days of runway leading into the Jacksonville showdown. So yeah, if it’s close on anyone from an injury standpoint, I can see where it’d make sense to be cautious. But the Titans really need to find a way to play better, and I’d bet Mike Vrabel sees Thursday as a shot to start doing that.
(Lost in this is that the game really might not wind up meaning much for Dallas. The Cowboys look pretty locked in to the fifth seed right now—their chances of winning the East are remote, and no other wild card can catch them, which means they’ll likely be at the NFC South champ for Wild Card Weekend.)
• The NFL needs to fine Mac Jones for his hit on Eli Apple. There’s no explanation for it, and the hit connects back to prior incidents against the Bears and Panthers over his first two years where Jones’s intentions were questionable. There’s a reason why a ton of players called it dirty.
Bottom line, the league’s fine system, which routinely protects quarterbacks, can’t be taken seriously if it’s not going to punish players both ways for this sort of thing.
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