For Russell Wilson and Nathaniel Hackett, Patience is Key
NFL Week 5 - For many in the NFL, patience can a difficult virtue to grasp. Just ask Denver Broncos fans. After making one of the biggest blockbuster trades in an offseason chock-full of them, the new-look Broncos led by Russell Wilson and first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett were set to take the league by storm. Wilson was enough of a talent to thrust a team that finished last in their division into the playoff conversation of a loaded AFC.
Throughout the offseason, where hope springs eternal, theories of the Russell Wilson-Nathaniel Hackett offense worked on paper. Hackett said in the weeks following the deal that he was prepared to build the whole playbook around Wilson. A West Coast disciple, Hackett seemed like a natural complement. The horizontal nature of the scheme and the emphasis on short passes played to Wilson's strengths and shortcomings simultaneously, while folding in shades of the Air Coryell offense could maximize his deep-throwing capabilities. Hackett also had a pair of speedy young receivers in Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton to execute the vision.
Prognosticators bought in, with Hackett and Wilson both contending in Vegas preseason odds for end-of-season superlatives. Ownership bought in, handing Wilson a five-year, $245-million contract with $165 million guaranteed before even taking a snap. Even Football Outsiders bought in: the Broncos were projected to be ninth in offensive DVOA during preseason.
Then the Broncos went to Seattle.
In the four weeks that have followed, things haven't exactly worked out as anticipated in Denver. The 2-2 Broncos rank 24th in offensive DVOA, propped up by a pedestrian 11.5% passing DVOA (17th). Their mediocrity has been consistent, ranking fourth in variance against the 20th-hardest defensive schedule. Their 66 points scored through that time barely beats out the Chicago Bears for third-fewest in the league.
Russell Wilson hasn't exactly been Mr. Unlimited, either. His four touchdown passes through four weeks are the worst opening to a season for Wilson since his 2012 rookie year. From 2017 through 2020, Wilson finished in the top five of CPOE, per NFL Next Gen Stats. While Wilson finished 16th in 2021, his +0.2 was still positive. Through four games in 2022, Wilson's -4.8 CPOE is tied for the fourth-worst in the league. Wilson sits at a 27th-best -0.5 ALEX, ahead of only Davis Mills, Carson Wentz, Cooper Rush, Matt Ryan, and Daniel Jones. He also leads quarterbacks in both defensive pass interference calls (five) and total DPI yards (116).
The offense on the whole is a statistical oddity. Denver has the second-most completions of 20-plus yards, but ranks 11th in yards per pass attempt and 16th in total passing yards. They manage one of the slowest offenses in the league, ranking 25th averaging 29.5 seconds per play. The only time they play fast is with a seven-plus-point lead, lapping the rest of the league with a blazing 9.7 seconds per play.
Then, there are the red zone woes. Denver's offense is dead last in red zone DVOA at -67.3%. Their goal-to-go DVOA is second-worst in the league at -89.3%—and that's up from -155.5% through the first two weeks. In those first two games, the Broncos had five goal-to-go situations, failing to score a single touchdown and turning the ball over twice. Three of those goal-to-go situations were a direct result of defensive pass interference calls in or near the end zone. The result of those gifts: one field goal, two turnovers.
Were it not for the team's defense, which allowed a combined 19 points in Denver's two wins, Broncos players might have already started booking mid-January vacations.
What Hackett promised upon Wilson's arrival—the decision to mold the offense around Wilson—has been put into place. Wilson operates just as he did in Seattle: he works the sidelines and splits his targets between short passes and deep heaves. The expectations for said offense, laid out as recently as the preseason (which Wilson did not participate in, by Hackett's decision), has yet to come to fruition.
"For us, we talk about the intention of the play, what we're trying to accomplish and what we're trying to attack and why," Hackett said when discussing Wilson in August, via the Broncos team website. "So that he knows when to throw to that No. 1 [read] or progress on to 2. As a coach, you always plan on never getting past 2. But the reality of it is, sometimes that happens. The idea is to limit those as much as possible. We don't ever want him to get touched."
Instead, quite the opposite has been true thus far. Wilson, through the vast majority of his first three games, was deeply reliant on checkdown options to get the ball moving on offense. Most of the time, these checkdowns came after Wilson held the ball and scrambled, looking to somehow salvage a play and make something out of nothing. If the deep shot wasn't there, Wilson would look to the flats. No in-between.
Look the average depths of target from Denver's top pass-catchers:
|Broncos Skill Players ADOT By Target Share
(min. 10 targets)
|Courtland Sutton, WR||27.8%||12.0|
|Javonte Williams, RB||17.5%||-1.1|
|Jerry Jeudy, WR||16.7%||11.7|
|Albert Okwuegbunam, TE||7.9%||2.7|
|Melvin Gordon, RB||7.9%||0.7|
The usage cases represent the all-or-nothing approach that the Broncos offense has taken for most of this season. If Wilson can't find the deep shot, he looks to the flats for his bailout option.
Some of this can be chalked up to poor offensive line play. Wilson has been sacked 12 times and Denver's 8.3% adjusted sack rate is ninth-worst in the league. According to Stathead (Pro Football Reference), the Broncos have accrued the seventh-most pressures (44) despite seeing the fifth-fewest blitzes (tied at 32).
When the line isn't allowing pressure, it's holding onto jerseys in order to stop it. The Broncos not only lead the league in offensive holding calls (eight), they lead the league in total penalties against with 37.
The myriad of problems for this new-look Broncos team leaves us asking one question: Why? Why isn't any of this working? A system tailor-made to complement a quarterback, whose previous teams finished in the top 10 of offensive DVOA in eight of his ten prior years, is producing one of the lowest-scoring offenses in the league through four weeks.
Occam's razor easily consolidates all these problems down to one word: inexperience.
Hackett never called plays while coaching for the Packers. He had not held that responsibility since 2018, where he was fired midway through the Jacksonville Jaguars' season. None of Hackett's coordinators had prior coordinator experience prior. Denver was forced to drag Jerry Rosburg out of retirement two weeks into the season to serve as a game manager and "senior assistant."
When looking at Hackett's decision-making through his first two games, it's no surprise Denver hired Rosburg to help out. National audiences got a front-row seat to it during Week 1's Monday night game against Seattle. We're all familiar with Hackett's poor clock management in the last minute of the game, eventually ending in Hackett's decision to kick a 64-yard field goal. Peyton Manning and Shannon Sharpe explain it better than I ever could.
Peyton was trying his HARDEST to call a TO for the Broncos 😬 pic.twitter.com/eZxNQdWpPH
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) September 13, 2022
— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ 🏈 (@NFL_Journal) September 13, 2022
That was one of the most egregious examples but there are smaller moments as well. In Denver's first goal-to-go situation against Houston, Hackett actually drew up a relatively interesting play design for the situation: 13 personnel, single back, Wilson under center, with Sutton all alone against Derek Stingley Jr. on the weak side. Showing heavy run, Wilson took the snap and immediately looked to Sutton and connected. Originally called a touchdown on the field, Sutton was declared out of bounds.
In response to a play almost working, what does Hackett call on second-and-goal? The exact same play, of course! Same personnel, same strength, same pass, no additional wrinkles. Stingley Jr. breaks the pass up the second time around, looking downright insulted. Wilson's third-down pass attempt was then broken up at the goal line.
The fault doesn't just lie with Hackett. At age 33, this is Wilson's first new head coach at the professional level. He never took the field during preseason. Coming to a new team after a decade in the same organization, having deep, well-established connections with receivers such as Tyler Lockett, can be jarring. Without live repetitions, that knowledge Wilson expects the receiver to know—the timing of the route, the placement of the ball, whether or not to bend upfield—is not there. That affects his confidence to make passes into dangerous situations, or throw to routes based on timing alone. Even the simplest checkdowns end up being head games early on, with Wilson double-clutching the ball and missing short-yardage passes well off their mark.
The San Francisco 49ers game, for a moment, looked to be a total offensive bottoming-out by the Broncos. Denver opened the game with three straight three-and-outs, accumulating 16 total yards—five of which came from a neutral zone infraction penalty. Denver showed a flash of competence on their eight-play, 57-yard field goal drive. They then punted on their next four drives: once from San Francisco's 41-yard line (5 yards closer than Hackett's Week 1 game-ending field goal attempt) followed by three more three-and-outs.
Even in these moments, though, you could see glimpses of what Hackett could one day look like once he has a full grasp on head coaching responsibilities. This below concept complements the current passing m.o. for Wilson—short passes near the sidelines. But KJ Hamler is running a corner route to the backside of this. The outside cornerback and the safety both have their eyes down around the flats, where the ball ends up getting thrown. A pump-fake and a throw deep to Hamler will be an easy touchdown later in the year.
Hackett is even getting better at directly scheming his players open. On the very next play this drive, with Sutton lined up outside and Jeudy in the slot, Sutton's inside route creates separation between Jeudy and his defender. Scheming up that kind of separation and creating space for your best players is part of the task. While Wilson has a penchant to play hero ball, making the offensive opportunities as easy as possible is paramount going forward.
Speaking of Wilson, there was one throw the quarterback made in this game that single-handedly changed the trajectory of the Broncos offense in 2022. It was the first eye-opening piece of evidence that not only showed that Wilson was getting comfortable in Hackett's offense, he's also building a rapport with his top receivers.
Saving this play for such a critical situation is great because this may only work once. The Broncos line up first-and-10 on the 49ers 24-yard-line. All the strength is to the open side of the field. The tight end on the line, two wide receivers split out, and the running back in the backfield are all to the left side, leaving Sutton in iso on the right. The 49ers show single-high safety favoring the strong side. The two strong-side corners offer the two receivers a cushion, while the corner over Sutton is running press man.
When Wilson throws this ball, Sutton has his back turned, 12 yards from where he's going to stop and make the catch. Charvarius Ward is in lock-step with the streaking receiver running down the sideline. At the 6-yard line, Sutton whips around, Ward a half-beat behind, and the ball greets his chest.
This is what comfort in an offense looks like. These are throws built on timing, repetition, and practice. These are the kinds of throws you can only make when you have a relationship with your receivers.
Two plays later, the Broncos punch in their first goal-to-go touchdown of the season. In a 10-9 game, this level of offensive production was the first step in moving past an atrocious offensive effort through the first two-and-a-half games of football.
Of course, Wilson's pass attempt for the two-point conversion was batted down at the line of scrimmage. You can't fix every problem. (Well, technically, Russ could fix this problem. It just sounds really, really painful).
The effects carried over into the Broncos' next game against the Las Vegas Raiders. The first pass of the game was a shallow post route zipped into Sutton for 15 yards. Simple? Yes, but it's executed with a level of tempo and confidence that was absent from this passing attack for most of this year.
While the result ends up being a loss on the scoresheet, the Broncos needed some kind of moral victory at this point, some glimmer of hope that win or lose, the offense can work. Things fell apart in the second half, with Javonte Williams tearing his ACL on the first play out of halftime and the Broncos punting on their first four drives (three three-and-outs). That being said, Wilson's passing chart looks improved, and the Broncos scored their highest total of the year and finished with their highest single-week offensive DVOA of the season.
Wilson'spass charts in both Broncos losses this season.
— Cale Clinton (@CaleClinton) October 6, 2022
The Broncos still have problems to work out, namely in the run game. An already-weak unit made worse by Denver's offensive line just lost their top contributor for the year. Their extremely talented defense just placed free-agent acquisition Randy Gregory on injured reserve. With the Broncos only just beginning to figure out what works best for their passing attack, the rest of their team has staken a step back at the worst time.
Even if things don't work themselves out completely in 2022, and injuries run this season aground just as it was getting started, the new Broncos ownership is clearly willing to play the long game. They wouldn't have given 33-year-old Wilson a five-year mega-deal with the second-most guaranteed money in league history before he even took a snap if they weren't willing to open a multi-year window for contention. Even hiring a game manager could be seen as a vote of confidence in Hackett, highlighting a willingness to work with and teach the first-time signal caller.
That being said, don't bail on the Broncos just yet. Denver's future schedule is projected to be the ninth-easiest in the league. With eight of the 16 teams in the AFC currently sitting at 2-2, destiny is in Denver's hands. Just give them some time.