In his NFL head coaching debut, Denver Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett’s pall extended beyond football notoriety. On the same night Quinta Brunson accepted her Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series over the still body of Jimmy Kimmel, Hackett played dead during what should have been a defining moment for Russell Wilson.
Wilson arrived at Lumen Field dressed like a mint chocolate chip, wearing a teal suit and bowtie, then got upstaged by his coach. At least Jimmy Kimmel’s reputation won’t be scarred by class clown behavior. Hackett choosing to kick a 64-yard field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-5 was our first impression of him. Pray for Denver Broncos fans if this is the sort of brain-dead game management they have to look forward to. Hackett didn’t just glitch out on the final drive, he steadfastly defended his mental fart.
“We were right on the line [of McManus’ range],’’ Hackett said in his postgame media availability. “... Brandon gave it his best shot. ... obviously, I wish we would have gotten a lot closer, it put us in that weird spot because we were in that field goal range. ... We just made that decision and take our shot there.’’
Ummm...he could have gotten closer — by going for it. In this analytics-heavy age of football, every tactician knows it’s advantageous to go for it on fourth down in short yardage situations, but that’s especially true in the circumstance Denver found themselves in. Ben Baldwin of The Athletic runs a bot that determines whether teams should have gone for it on fourth down, kicked, or punted it. Somehow, Hackett broke the bot, which didn’t post because going for it was Hackett’s only choice.
Baldwin’s bot calculated that a field goal attempt gave Denver a zero percent win chance while going for it resulted in them having a 34 percent chance of victory. In 2021, teams converted 49 percent of their attempts on fourth-and-5 anywhere on the field. On third down, Hackett had Wilson throw another screen pass to Javonte Williams after his first down screen pass to Javonte Williams was blown up for a four-yard loss.
Attempting a 60+ yard field goal with the game on the line is gridiron suicide if your kicker is not Justin Tucker, Tom Dempsey, or playing at Mile High altitude. According to ESPN’s Stats and Info department, since 1960, kickers attempting a field goal of 64+ yards have made two of 42 attempts, which calculates to 4.8 percent odds. Hackett would have been better off asking his punter to pin the Seahawks down inside their 10 and holding Seattle for three down instead of making his putrid choice.
Denver’s odds of completing a hail mary would have been 9.9 percent. Brandon McManus is a league-average kicker who is 1-of-8 from 60 yards or more in his career. Maybe in the thin air at Mile High, you could argue a 64-yarder is a reasonable choice for a kicker, but this was at sea level in Seattle. In 2013, Matt Prater drilled a 61-yarder on the road at SoFi Stadium in Week 18 earlier this year. Wilson is a well-established clutch quarterback who has led countless game-winning drives.
Moreover, in Wilson’s career, he’s converted 57 percent of his fourth downs when he’s needed four to six yards. Up until that point, Wilson had thrown for 340 yards and set a new team record for Broncos quarterbacks in their team debut. He was eviscerating Seattle everywhere but the red zone.
After a weekend in which Rodrigo Blankenship’s cross-eyed kicking lost one for the Colts — as well as his job — Evan McPherson kicked like he had a wooden leg, Chris Boswell produced crossbar music and Randy Bullock’s 47-yarder fizzled out in New York, Hackett came across like a goofy, football neophyte instead of the football whiz he’s been portrayed as. Somewhere in his head, Hackett decided that attempting the lowest probability play with an inadequate leg was Denver’s best opportunity.
Afterward, Wilson defended Hackett for doing the same thing that ended Wilson’s partnership with Pete Carroll by taking the ball out of his hands in crunch time and not letting him cook.
“We got the best field goal kicker maybe in the game,’’ Wilson said after the Broncos’ loss, via ESPN. “We got there and unfortunately it didn’t go in. ... I believe in coach Hackett, I believe in what we’re doing, I believe in everything.”
Wilson should have immediately been forced to enter the concussion protocol for talking about McManus as if he was an elite kicker. That sort of unblinding faith in kickers is cult speak he’s gotta snap out of. There is only one kicker who can be trusted in the NFL. The rest are just Nigerian prince email scams, waiting until they get paid to twist the knives in their team’s backs.
Maybe that’s a little harsh. They mean well, but Hackett might be the only one who trusted his kicker more than he would his $245 million quarterback. The odds were already against Denver in a stacked division with Kansas City, the Los Angeles Chargers, and Las Vegas. They don’t need their coach to further stack the cards against them.