The 18th head coach of the Denver Broncos loves his job.
Like, loves it. Every single part of it.
Not just the job of teaching football - though it’s clear how much he likes that.
But he also is excited about even the menial tasks of running practice, about figuring out how to adapt an offense if guys are out and different talent is in, and about using analytics to confirm his decisions.
And he’s even excited about doing press conferences.
Nathaniel Hackett may just be the last NFL coach who seems to actually like talking to reporters.
“I’m excited to meet every person here ... just get to know every one of you guys because that’s what his is about,” he said at the close of his opening statement. “It’s about people. It’s about communication. It’s about talking with one another. It’s about all of us coming together and making something special here and really making Broncos Country proud because that’s what it’s all about. We’ve got to win some games.”
That was the winner. That was the one phrase reporters and Broncos Country really wanted to hear.
But there was more.
So much more to get even the most dejected fan base excited about what’s to come.
Practically running up to the podium and giving GM George Paton a bear hug after the introduction, Hackett leaned over to the mic, “How’s everybody doing today?” as if he were a standup comedian taking the stage as the headliner.
That Nathaniel Hackett press conference was something else, man.— Aric DiLalla (@AricDiLalla) January 28, 2022
He's going to bring a special level of energy to this building.
Game-changer for the Broncos.
His energy is infectious, and he has every intention of bringing it to the practice field as well as to game day.
“I love practice. I absolutely love practice. There is no substitute for guys going out and playing football,” he said. “When it comes to that energy, you know music will be there and it’ll be the guys’ music. It’s about feeling that rhythm and having fun. And then it’s the demeanor of the coaches. If somebody makes a big play, you want to be excited. It’s not just going out to practice. It’s going out to compete, to play football and have fun.”
That will be a decided difference from the two previous regimes, but Hackett isn’t just about the “high energy.”
He’s also about winning, and he believes his background coaching special teams, defense and offense will be an advantage to fixing the Broncos’ woes.
“I think it’s about understanding those intricacies—understanding what a special teams coach really goes through, understanding what a defensive coach goes through. When it comes to complementary football, it’s about understanding what everybody is going through,” he said, “understanding that offense, in my opinion, controls the tempo of the game. It controls how aggressive you are, how you ball control, whether you want to take shots, whether you want to run the ball...”
And ultimately doing all three phases well means doing what players do best.
That has become a cliché among football coaches, but if Hackett can pull it off, he might the first in a long time in Denver to actually speak truth to power.
“Whatever we can do to take advantage of the players—what they do the best and being able to execute and win the game as a team,” he said, noting sometimes it’s more defense, sometimes more offense.
But he definitely considers “maneuverability” a key for an NFL offense.
“Any offense that you have has to be adjustable for whoever you have on your team. It’s about finding out what your guys do the best and being able to do that over and over again and taking advantage of their skillsets,” he said. “I think the starting point is outside zone. Outside zone on offense is what you want to do, and you want to base that off of play-pass. You want to make the defense cover the entire field. You want to take shots down the field.”
And although he saw himself as “Han Solo” when asked which character he would compare his personality to most, he pulled a Jedi Master move when he worked in a vintage-John-Elway-as-QB reference.
“Let’s all face it, that’s what the people in the stands love—they love those bombs down the field. I remember watching [former Broncos QB] John Elway throw the ball down the field to [former Broncos WR Ed] McCaffrey on all of those boot fakes,” he added. “That was unbelievable. This is really where this system evolved from and was created. You’re always looking for that, and mixing in that ‘West Coast’ principle of the drop-back game. That’s kind of a quick summary. So many fun things to talk about with the offense.”
Broncos Press Conference Etiquette 101:— Doctor of Words (and tights) (@docllv) January 29, 2022
Mention John Elway's deep bombs down the field back in the day...
Well-played, coach! https://t.co/NgzFzl5hqc
Hackett acknowledged that like his mentor the past few years in Green Bay, he plans to call plays while also running the show as head coach.
“I’m so lucky,” he said about watching first-time head coach Matt LaFleur juggle being both a head football coach and calling plays. “I think it’s about being able to budget your time—understand what you need to get done so you have the ability to be great on game day because in the end, that’s the most important thing.”
Growing up a football coach’s son, Hackett spent his childhood in and out of football stadiums, locker rooms and practice fields. But even with some old school football in his blood, Hackett is not afraid of analytics.
In fact, he embraces it.
“Analytics—I think they’re awesome. Numbers are amazing,” he said. “I think what they do, especially as a play-caller, is a great baseline. ...When you look at game day, there’s so many things that can help guide you to make the best decision because for anybody that’s on that field, every decision is very quick. I think the more that you have the analytical data to help you make a better decision, it’s going to help the whole team.”
Neither Hackett nor Paton would - or could - speak to the likelihood Aaron Rodgers would be on his way to Denver to follow his former OC, but Hackett did point out how much Rodgers has helped his coaching development.
“He’s been one of my biggest supporters and I love him,” Hackett said. “Coaching a man like that, the one thing I learned is, you better have an answer for every question because he’s going to ask every single question about every single thing that you’re going to do. I think that was something that was very valuable for me. ... It’s just allowed me to understand communicating and talking with everybody and knowing that you have to always have an answer to ‘Why?’”
What Denver does at quarterback is still a big question mark, but Hackett does have two criteria for what he considers the makeup of a great quarterback - intelligence and toughness. That’s probably why he likes John Elway so much. And why he literally asked for John’s jersey at his presser.
Nathaniel Hackett: “John Elway, I really want your jesey please. I’m not joking.”— RK (@RyanKoenigsberg) January 28, 2022
“It’s one of the hardest positions in all of football from that point [of toughness],” he said, noting the ability to take the hits and get back up to continue leading the team. “Then intelligence is so important to be able to do the different things you would like to do on offense.”
His philosophy for developing a quarterback will have something for everyone in Broncos Country, no matter which Broncos quarterback for 2022 they support, whether it’s a QB from the draft, continuing with Drew Lock and/or Teddy Bridgewater or even if it’s the pipe dream of bringing over Rodgers.
“You need to be sure that you’re protecting [the quarterback] .... You do that with both protection with the offensive line and running the football. I think that’s kind of the best way to be able to always make sure that they’re having success and able to have clean pockets,” he said. “There are so many different things that can happen in one play for a quarterback so I think it’s always working with them, always teaching them, and letting them get a comfort level so they can go out there and play and have that ‘can’t stop me mentality’. I always talk about that. That’s what you want that quarterback to have when he gets out there.”
Coaching seems to be in Hackett’s blood - something he realized one day after a neurobiology lab as a student at UC Davis, where he was also assistant linebackers coach.
“I just remember being in that lab, and it was very quiet and very serious, and I might’ve tried to play a couple of practical jokes and I don’t think a lot of people liked the jokes—I thought they were really good jokes,” he said, adding that then he went to the practice field with “his brothers” and realized the power of team. “At that moment, I’m like ‘I really need to try this thing’.”
Nearly 20 years later - following college coaching stints at Stanford and Syracuse plus pro coaching positions at Buffalo, Jacksonville and Green Bay - he “trying this thing” as head coach of the Denver Broncos.
“Let’s make no mistake—it’s only fun when you win football games. We’ve got to win and that’s what we want to do. I’m so excited to work with this organization [and] with these players,” he said. “This is a young, hungry football team, and we’ve got to get over the hump. We’ve got to be excited about it and we all have to do this.”