Nathaniel Hackett and his staff pass another test with flying colors
Go ahead and exhale, Broncos Country. After five years of disorganized, discombobulated and disinterested football, the Broncos seem to have turned a corner.
If the first game of the Nathaniel Hackett era is any indication, things are looking up. The five years under Vance Joseph and Vic Fangio, which were painful in so many ways, look like they may soon be a distant memory.
On Saturday night, in his first game as the Broncos head coach, Hackett’s team was impressive. They knocked off the Cowboys by a score of 17-7, a result that is essentially meaningless, in Denver’s preseason opener. In the process, they answered a lot of questions.
When Hackett and his staff were assembled in January, there was a lot to be excited about. It’s a young, energetic group, one that is a stark contract to Fangio’s crew. But there were some question marks.
Everyone in a significant position on the Broncos coaching staff is currently at the highest professional level of their careers. Hackett is a first-time head coach. Justin Outten is an offensive coordinator for the first time. Ejiro Evero is making his debut as a defensive coordinator. And this is the first season in which Dwayne Stukes was running a special teams unit.
It’s a quartet with a lot of potential, but not much of a track record. It’s a staff that is long on upside, but short on experience.
That’s led to some consternation. The last time the Broncos were in a similar situation was in 2010, their second year under Josh McDaniels. Denver finished the season 4-12, the coach was fired and multiple embarrassing moment occurred along the way.
Those scars still remain in Broncos Country. So it’s understandable that a wait-and-see approach was taken with Hackett and Company.
When the new head coach came in and ran training camp in a semi-radically new way, that only added fuel to the fire. There were questions about whether or not he knew how to prepare a team. There were whispers about he and his staff being in over their collective heads.
Those conversations may not have been shelved permanently in the last 72 hours, but they’ve certainly been silenced for the time being. Clearly, Hackett and his staff know what they’re doing.
They proved it on Saturday night, when the Broncos were clearly a well-coached team in a preseason opener. That came on the heels of Thursday’s joint practice, when Denver was far superior to Dallas in the final day of training camp.
Despite the fact that very few starters played against the Cowboys, plenty could be learned on Saturday night. The game provided a glimpse into how the Broncos are going to approach this season.
Offensively, they took shots. It didn’t matter that Russell Wilson spent the evening wearing a baseball cap. The Broncos pushed the ball down the field.
No. 2 quarterback Josh Johnson finished the first half with very good numbers. He was 16-of-23 for 172 yards and two touchdowns. That’s impressive. But most importantly, he didn’t just complete a series of check-down passes that were short of the sticks. He worked the whole field, hitting a variety of wide receivers on intermediate and deep passes.
The Broncos were aggressive when he was in the game, most notably at the end of the second quarter. Leading 14-0 with 1:02 to play before halftime, the Broncos took over at their own 10-yard line. There was no reason to take chances; it would’ve been to settle for a two-score lead.
But the Broncos pushed the envelope. Johnson came out slinging, moving his team down the field and setting up a 52-yard field goal to end the first half. It was a very encouraging moment, suggesting a shift in mindset from the previous regime.
Speaking of which, the Broncos defense was aggressive against the Cowboys. They were flying all over the field, blitzing the quarterback, taking chances and trying to make plays. As a result, they recorded an interception, notched a pair of sacks and pitched a shutout until late in the fourth quarter.
Evero’s defense just felt different. It seemed like it was in attack mode, rather than one that was sitting back and hoping the other team would make a mistake. Denver was trying to cause the blunders.
The result was an energetic, enthusiastic, engaged defense that made plays. It was a 180 from previous years, when the Broncos were tight on that side of the ball, almost afraid of making a mistake that might give up points.
That was gone. So was the team’s ineptitude on special teams.
For five years, under Brock Olivo and then Tom McMahon, the Broncos have been a disaster in that phase. On a weekly basis, they seemed to make a crucial error that hurt the team. They’d fumble a punt, return a kickoff out of the end zone to the 12-yard line, not know the rules and give up a 99-yard punt return, have 13 men on the field, etc. The list went on and on.
All of that was gone against Dallas. For the first time in a long time, Denver was buttoned up on special teams. While they weren’t necessarily great, they weren’t an abject disaster, either. And that’s an improvement.
Which leads to Hackett. He’s replacing a head coach who didn’t seem to have a grasp on the big picture. Fangio was worried about his defense, to the point that he couldn’t manage timeouts, challenges, clock management, etc. It was often a mess.
That was gone on Saturday night. The Broncos seemed organized. They knew what they were doing. There was no chaos.
Case in point, the handled the clock at the end of the first half perfectly. They got into field goal range, burned their last timeout and notched three points on the final play before halftime. It was textbook.
As standalone bits from the Broncos win over the Cowboys, none of these things are all that impressive. But put together, they paint an encouraging picture. They show that things have changed in Denver.
Nathaniel Hackett knows what he’s doing. His first-time OC, DC and STC do, as well.
The Broncos are well-coached, in all three phases. That was evident in their preseason debut.