The moment was drenched with drama, a gift from the Football Gods. On the first Monday Night Football telecast of the season, one of the most anticipated NFL openers in recent memory — Russell Wilson’s return to Seattle to face the Seahawks — came down to a last-minute sequence that would decide everything.
This game was set up as a clash between Wilson, the star quarterback who pushed his way out of Seattle last March after a highly successful decade, and Pete Carroll, the esteemed and embattled coach with whom he could no longer coexist. And then, with Wilson on the verge of either pulling off another patented Pacific Northwest comeback or failing spectacularly in front of 68,965 aggrieved and vociferous fans, Nathaniel Hackett hijacked the climax and face-planted in front of the football-watching world.
Trailing 17-16 with a minute to go and three timeouts, Hackett, the newly hired head coach of the Denver Broncos, decided against letting Wilson run another play on fourth-and-5 from the Seattle 46-yard line. Instead, Hackett let the clock run all the way down to 20 seconds and called on his kicker, Brandon McManus, to make a 64-yard field goal, which would have been the second-longest in NFL history.
McManus missed. All of Seattle celebrated. And all of America began pummeling Hackett in a manner that, for all but a small slice of the population, is almost impossible to contemplate.
One person in the stadium certainly could: Carroll, whose infamous decision to let Wilson throw a pass from inside the 1-yard line at the end of Super Bowl XLIX — rather than hand off the ball to Marshawn Lynch — cost the Seahawks a chance to be back-to-back champions.
Seven-and-a-half years later, Wilson, like Lynch (who, naturally, was in attendance Monday night), now knows what it’s like to have the ball taken out of his hands in an indelible moment. And Carroll, a highly successful 70-year-old coach whose future was in doubt following the 2021 season, can emerge from this emotional game with a mixture of joy and relief, because he’s been where Hackett is now — and then some.
Then again, at least Carroll had already captured championships in college and the NFL at the time of his universally lambasted call. This was the first time that Hackett, 42, had been a head coach on any level. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and Hackett is going to have to battle other NFL teams — beginning with the Houston Texans on Sunday — and the power of perception for the foreseeable future.
We’re calling this column “The Narrative” in a playful attempt to take back a term that has increasingly served as a lazy, overstated pejorative for legions of hyper-sensitive consumers. And in this case, there’s nothing mysterious or subtle about the narrative surrounding Hackett: He’s the coach who brain-locked on his first trip to the big stage, and there seem to be a whole lot of traumatized observers who may never get over it.
Because I happen to know Hackett well — and because I’ve been around long enough to see some things (having started covering the NFL on a full-time basis in 1989) — I’m reacting a bit more calmly to this perceived calamity than most.
For one thing, Hackett handled the fallout with the poise and humility of a savvy veteran. His postgame text to me mirrored that of a notorious “Spinal Tap” album review, and his media session on Tuesday in Denver included a very relatable mea culpa.
His players will appreciate that, beginning with Wilson. While the quarterback may have been privately disappointed, he made a point of having his coach’s back in his postgame comments, telling reporters, “I believe in Coach Hackett.”
Hackett is an unfailingly upbeat, hyper-energetic leader who has a strong strategic grasp of the game. He coordinated a Jacksonville Jaguars offense that came tantalizingly close to reaching a Super Bowl with Blake Bortles as its quarterback, and he was instrumental in fusing the philosophical divergence between Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur and two-time-reigning-MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who reveres Hackett.
He's smart enough to understand that penalties, turnovers and lack of red-zone execution are what caused the Broncos to lose Monday’s game, and I believe he’ll quickly grow into the game-management part of the gig. As for his current depiction as America’s Biggest Bonehead — well, Hackett will laugh that off better than most. After all, it runs in the family.
On a warm evening last June, with a couple of top-notch bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon (having been plucked from the wine cellar of Hackett’s newly purchased Denver-area home), his father Paul recalled a decades-old story as a handful of guests gathered on an expansive outdoor deck.
“I was the head coach at Pitt, and Nathaniel, who was maybe 12, was the guy holding my (headset) cord on the sidelines,” Paul Hackett said. “We were playing Penn State and getting our ass kicked, and Nathaniel looked up in the stands and saw someone hanging me in effigy. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, ‘You see that, son? Isn’t this a great business to be in.'"
“That should have ended it right there,” said Nathaniel Hackett’s smiling wife, Megan.
Her husband shook his head. “I’m persistent,” he said.
Now — as he strives to make a positive second impression to a football-watching nation — would be a great time for him to tap into that quality.
The rough finish in Seattle kept Hackett from completing what would have been an improbable High Five for first-time NFL head coaches in Week 1. The league’s four other headset-wearing rookies emerged victorious on Sunday, all in impressive fashion.
Kevin O’Connell coached the Minnesota Vikings to a 23-7 beatdown of the rival Packers, accentuating a culture change that has cast him as Glenda to predecessor Mike Zimmer’s Wicked Witch of the North.
At Chicago’s rain-drenched Soldier Field, Matt Eberflus heard his lifeless team booed during the flaccid first half of his Bears coaching debut. Then, somewhat shockingly, the underdogs rattled off 19 consecutive points to defeat the San Francisco 49ers.
Another lightly regarded team, the New York Giants, trailed the favored Tennessee Titans 13-0 at halftime before rallying to win 21-20 — the decisive points coming when Daniel Jones hit Saquon Barkley on a shovel pass for a 2-point conversion with 66 seconds to go, validating a gutsy decision by first-time head coach Brian Daboll.
Then there was Miami’s Mike McDaniel, who parlayed a fourth-and-7 call against Bill Belichick into a 42-yard touchdown catch by Jaylen Waddle just before halftime, propelling the Dolphins to a 20-7 victory. (Then again, with Matt Patricia and Joe Judge running the New England Patriots’ offense, they may not have needed it.)
Afterward, Miami’s prized offseason acquisition, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, spoke glowingly of his fellow newcomer, evoking an image some fans have linked to Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon (BBB) Beane: “McDaniel’s gonna need a wheelbarrow for his nuts to carry them around. He’s got a lot of cojones.”
McDaniel will also have this waiting for him the next time he enters Hard Rock Stadium.
The Dolphins’ ride continues Sunday against the Ravens in Baltimore.
After the Atlanta Falcons blew a 16-point, fourth-quarter lead and lost to the rival New Orleans Saints, second-year coach Arthur Smith got salty in his postgame press conference, telling reporters: “So, write whatever y’all want. … You guys ranked us 45th, you buried us in May. Bury us again. We’ll get back to work. Thank you.”
Then Smith stormed off, apparently still under the impression that there are at least 13 more NFL teams than the rest of us know to be in existence.
This much I know: Only one NFL team chokes like the Falcons, best known for the most conspicuous collapse in football history. Consider this stat: Since the beginning of the 2020 season, Atlanta has blown leads of 15 points or more three times; the other 44, er, 31 NFL teams have combined to do it twice during that span.
As much as I have faith in Hackett and the Broncos to bounce back from their brutally disappointing opener, the task is complicated by the fact that they play in the Group of Death, aka the AFC West. The division’s strength will be showcased Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium as the Kansas City Chiefs host the Los Angeles Chargers, who split a pair of eventful and competitive clashes in 2021.
The marquee value starts with the quarterbacks, obviously. If it’s possible for someone who’s about to celebrate his 27th birthday to be taken for granted, Patrick Mahomes is that guy. He had a rough second half in the AFC championship game last January, ending his bid to appear in a third consecutive Super Bowl, and then Hill forced his way out of K.C. two months later. A whole lot of skeptics began predicting that the Chiefs and their franchise QB would struggle to adjust.
So far, Mahomes seems to be managing. The 2018 league MVP opened his fifth season as a starter by completing 30 of 39 passes (to nine different Chiefs) for 360 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions and no sacks in a 44-21 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Ridiculous — but not an outlier when it comes to this incredible and still ascending young player.
His budding rivalry with an even younger quarterback, Justin Herbert, is a state of affairs that we should all cherish. Herbert had a stellar debut in the Chargers’ 24-19 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday and has a head coach in Brandon Staley, who believes in him like I believe in tacos, waves and ‘90s rap.
It’s one of the reasons Staley isn’t shying away from being stigmatized as “Fourth Down Go For It Guy” Expect Staley to be extra aggressive when playing against Mahomes, as he was in both meetings with the Chiefs last season.