BRONCOS

It took one QB’s injury to define Nathaniel Hackett’s preseason view

Aug 25, 2022, 12:50 AM | Updated: 1:04 am
Nathaniel Hackett...
(Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images)
(Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — “I don’t like preseason.”

That’s Nathaniel Hackett’s perspective on the exhibition slate of games, and he’s sticking to it. The risk of losing key players isn’t worth the reward of getting them playing time — or getting them “callused,” as some coaches, including erstwhile Broncos boss Vic Fangio — are known to say.

“It’s risk-reward,” Hackett said. “You want to see evaluations on certain people, but at the same time, you want to have everybody available all the time.”

This is a fair calculus. It’s one that more coaches have made. Through two weeks of the preseason, 13 teams have yet to play their intended starting quarterbacks.

That group includes:

  • Arizona (Kyler Murray)
  • Baltimore (Lamar Jackson)
  • Cincinnati (Joe Burrow)
  • Dallas (Dak Prescott)
  • Denver (Russell Wilson)
  • Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers)
  • Las Vegas (Derek Carr)
  • L.A. Chargers (Justin Herbert)
  • L.A. Rams (Matthew Stafford)
  • Minnesota (Kirk Cousins)
  • New Orleans (Jameis Winston)
  • Tampa Bay (Tom Brady)
  • Tennessee (Ryan Tannehill)

Of those teams, only Minnesota and Denver haven’t been to the postseason in the last two years. But their new head coaches — Hackett and Kevin O’Connell — came from Green Bay and the Rams, respectively. They simply brought along the philosophy from their previous teams.

Hackett has cited Matt LaFleur’s preseason and training-camp views in how he’s crafted the Broncos’ summertime work. Green Bay eschewed seven-on-seven drills; the Broncos followed.

But Hackett’s preseason disdain has deeper roots than his years in northeast Wisconsin. It goes back to the coaching experience of his father, Paul Hackett, and a single name:

Chad Pennington.

“When he got injured with the New York Jets playing the New York Giants,” Nathaniel Hackett recalled. “I remember that one very clearly.”

For many who were around the NFL in 2003, nothing more needed to be said.

If you know, you know.

At that time, Paul Hackett was the Jets’ offensive coordinator. Nathaniel Hackett watched from afar; at the time, he held his first coaching job: assistant linebackers coach at his alma mater, UC Davis.

Before the night of Aug. 23, 2003, the elder Hackett and his Jets looked poised for the type of special season the franchise hadn’t experienced since before man walked on the moon.

And Pennington was the biggest reason why.

Pennington was the NFL’s top-ranked passer the previous season. Yeah, it wasn’t Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or Brett Favre or even that year’s MVP, Rich Gannon. It was Pennington, a QB who didn’t even make his first career start until Week 5 of the 2002 season. Then, he promptly went on a tear.

The Jets won eight of their last 11 games in 2002 — including a tough, 19-13 triumph over the Broncos in the windswept Meadowlands in Week 14. That result proved to be the difference in the Jets making the postseason and the Broncos watching January football with their noses pressed against the playoff glass.

So, while the Broncos muttered sadly from their living rooms, Pennington put on a playoff clinic. The Jets massacred Manning and the Colts in the wild-card round, 41-0. Pennington threw three touchdown passes and completed 76 percent of his attempts.

He and the Jets lost at Oakland eight days later, but it was clear that a star was born in the New Jersey marshlands. Jets fans had the quarterback for whom they’d waited since Joe Namath’s knees gave way.

But then, one preseason night …

Giants linebacker Brandon Short hit Pennington, knocking him toward the Giants Stadium turf. He landed awkwardly on his left wrist. Within hours, Pennington was in surgery, his wrist fractured and dislocated.

It wasn’t his throwing arm — but the wrist was key to Pennington’s secret-weapon, a textbook, gorgeous play-action fake that kept defenses off guard. Despite initial fears of missing the season, he rushed back after six games. But the truncated rehabilitation didn’t allow for proper healing.

And to make matters worse: the treasured, precise play-fakes were altered. And while Pennington had a strong enough throwing arm, he didn’t possess the howitzers some other QBs had.

Yet despite the injuries, Pennington would lead the Jets to two more playoff appearances. He’d play 11 years in the NFL; he’d earn over $61 million. When his Jets tenure ended in 2008, he was — at the the time — the franchise leader in passer rating. And twice, he guided his team to division titles. No small feat, considering that both came in the AFC East in the Belichick-Brady years.

In fact, the only two times the Patriots didn’t win the AFC East between 2001 and 2019, it was a Pennington-led team that walked away with the crown.

He had a good career.

But it could have been a great one. And it looked like it had that chance before the dominoes of distress began falling with that preseason injury.

However, the promise of his early days never returned. His wrist was never the same. Shoulder injuries and surgeries would eventually follow.

And Pennington’s injury-strangled nightmare all began in the preseason.

The next morning, readers of The (Bergen County) Record in New Jersey read these words atop their sports page:

“Exhibition games,” wrote longtime NFL columnist Vinny DiTrani. “They have to play them, players just can’t start an NFL season without tasting the contact and the tempo of the game.”

But 19 years later, we’ve learned that they can.

First, ask the 2017 Rams. Under Sean McVay’s watch, a team that had gone 13 seasons without a winning record went 11-5 and claimed the NFC West title.

Ask his Rams four years later, who won it all.

Then, ask the last three editions of the Green Bay Packers — 13-game winners, each time.

And finally, ask every team in 2020. In that unique year, football kept on spinning without exhibition play. COVID-19 revealed many unnecessary aspects of working life; it did the same in football. Fears of awkward football in 2020 without a preseason proved as empty as the grandstands that season.

NFL teams are learning, one-by-one, that they don’t need the preseason to get their first-teamers ready.

But Hackett and his father didn’t need to wait. They figured that out one agonizing night nearly two decades ago.

And when you experience the worst of the preseason, it’s fair to do all that you can to avoid it happening again.

***

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It took one QB’s injury to define Nathaniel Hackett’s preseason view