Nathaniel Hackett was in his first game as an NFL head coach. It's a big moment.
On Monday night, he made some decisions that just about everyone is questioning.
Hackett made two questionable calls in the final minute that cost the Denver Broncos a chance to beat the Seattle Seahawks. Nobody seemed to agree with what the Broncos did.
It started when Javonte Williams was tackled on a 9-yard gain, setting up fourth-and-5 at Seattle's 46-yard line. The Broncos had three timeouts and 1:04 left on the clock.
That's when the fiasco for Hackett began. At least he headed back to Denver with two timeouts in his pocket.
Broncos settle for long field goal
Let's fast forward a bit. The Broncos ended up settling for a 64-yard field goal, a very low percentage attempt, when they had other options. Hackett's explanation was that he was totally fine with a field goal from that far away. When Williams picked up 9 yards, he was good sending out kicker Brandon McManus for what would have tied for the second-longest field goal in NFL history.
"I thought Javonte made an incredible play and put us into the field-goal mark we were looking for," Hackett said in his postgame media conference.
"I have confidence in [McManus]. If we have to put him in that situation again, I think he'll be able to make it."
OK, now back to what happened before the field-goal attempt.
After Williams' catch and run, the Broncos let the clock run even though they had three timeouts.
"This is taking forever," new ESPN play-by-play announcer Joe Buck said, echoing what anyone at home was thinking.
Giving Russell Wilson 1:04 to go with two timeouts is more than enough time to get far downfield. But the clock kept running. On ESPN's "ManningCast," Peyton Manning was frantically calling for the timeout himself. It never happened.
Peyton was trying his HARDEST to call a TO for the Broncos 😬 pic.twitter.com/eZxNQdWpPH
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) September 13, 2022
The Broncos lined up for a play on fourth-and-5, but Wilson called timeout right before a delay of game penalty. There were 20 seconds on the clock at that point. It seemed, based on Hackett's comments on the field-goal distance, that once the Broncos got the 9 yards on Williams' play he made up his mind to try the field goal and wanted to let the clock run.
Everyone else seemed to figure the Broncos would want Wilson to go for the first down and get closer.
"They still have time but they put themselves in a really tough position," ESPN color commentator Troy Aikman said. "All that matters now is they pick up this first down, but even after that they're going to be challenged a little bit."
Aikman never mentioned the possibility of a field goal, and very few watching at home considered it.
McManus is a very good kicker, but this was not in the thin Colorado air. In NFL history, only two field goals of 64 yards or more have ever been made. Since 2000, kickers are 2-of-29 on field-goal attempts of 64 or more yards, according to K.C. Joyner of The Athletic. Andrew Mason of 104.3 The Fan in Denver said kickers are 8-of-69 all time on kicks of 63 or more yards. It was a low-percentage kick, even for a good kicker. It seemed clear that letting Wilson, a newly minted $245 million quarterback, try for 5 yards was the better decision. Hackett disagreed.
The Broncos tried the kick. McManus missed wide to the left.
"He had plenty of distance," Hackett said in the postgame news conference. "He just missed it. Brandon gave it his best shot. That's a long field goal to hit. I think he's completely capable of that. Obviously I wish we had gotten a lot closer, but it put us in that weird spot there, because we were in the field-goal range but we were in that fourth-down situation.
"Wanted to be sure we took our chance when we had the chance."
Wilson didn't question the decision.
"We said 'Where can you make it from tonight?' and (McManus) said '46, left hash.' I think we were on the 46, left hash," Wilson said in his postgame news conference.
"I believe in Coach Hackett and believe in what we're doing. Anytime you can try to find a way to make a play on fourth-and-5, that's great too, but I don't think it was the wrong decision. I think he can make it."
Hackett has questions to answer
Hackett already was catching heat in Denver for sitting starters through the preseason. It's a strategy many young coaches have adopted, but a vocal group of Broncos fans complained when Denver had some preseason struggles. Using that approach can often lead to a sloppy regular-season opener, and that was the case for the Broncos.
Denver's defense was uncoordinated in the first half and were picked apart by Geno Smith. In the second half the defense adjusted, but the offense scored only three points in three second-half trips inside the 5-yard line, losing two fumbles on running plays. Do those things happen if the Broncos played their starters in the preseason? Maybe, maybe not, but it will be confirmation bias for those who disagreed with Hackett's preseason methods. The preseason angle, however, will be a footnote this week to what happened in the final minute Monday.
It's just one game into Hackett's career as Broncos head coach. He could end up being a great coach for Denver and the loss to Seattle will be forgotten after many wins. But a lot of people in Colorado aren't too impressed yet.