No Rodgers, no wins, no hope: Nathaniel Hackett and Broncos are flailing

Russell Wilson is a Super Bowl winner, one of the finest quarterbacks of the 2010s, with a history of playing at an MVP level. Mike Purcell is a seven-team football journeyman – eight if you count the Salt Lake Stallions of the short-lived Alliance of American Football – who’s never even sniffed a Pro Bowl.

But on Sunday afternoon, late in the throes of a miserable Denver loss to Carolina, Purcell barked at Wilson like the quarterback was a rookie who had forgotten to pick up the morning’s donuts:

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Perhaps Wilson wasn’t looking motivated enough for Purcell’s liking. Perhaps Wilson was trying yet another limp “Let’s Ride!” slogan. Perhaps Purcell was just fed up with hammering away on defense to set up an offense that was doing little more than punt practice. Regardless, it was a remarkable scene of disarray.

Asked afterward what led to the confrontation, Purcell replied, “Frustration. We want a spark on something,” he said. “We all are in this together, period.” Having had a bit of time to cool off, he conceded that the defense had been surrendering points as well, but wanted to fire up Wilson and the offense.

It didn’t work. Denver lost 23-10, its only touchdown coming late in the fourth quarter. The Broncos have lost three straight and seven of eight, and their postseason hopes — so bright when Wilson arrived — are now flickering like a candle in a hurricane.

It’s easy enough to understand Purcell’s frustration. Absolutely nothing has gone according to plan for the Broncos, and while much of the blame falls on Wilson, responsibility for the entire overturned-Thanksgiving-table that is the state of the Denver franchise now falls on the shoulders of head coach Nathaniel Hackett and the executives who hired him expecting a very different outcome.

Flash back to about seven years ago. Denver was raising its third Lombardi Trophy in Levi’s Stadium, having just beaten these same Panthers. (Well, not these Panthers. The 2015 Panthers were 15-1 and damn near unstoppable until Denver punched them in the mouth.)

It’s been a long slog through the desert for Denver since then. The Broncos haven’t even reached the postseason since that Super Bowl, the second-longest playoff drought after the New York Jets.

This was supposed to be the year all that changed. Denver cleaned house, bringing in a new coaching staff to reprise their most recent Super Bowl run. They targeted an elite-level Super Bowl-winning quarterback in the last stages of his career and set about laying the groundwork for him to lead Denver back to the promised land. Hey, it worked with Peyton Manning, why not try it again?

There was just one problem: The quarterback they apparently targeted was Aaron Rodgers — who is not, as you may have noticed, currently in a Broncos uniform.

All is not right in Denver for Nathaniel Hackett and the Broncos. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
All is not right in Denver for Nathaniel Hackett and the Broncos. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Denver execs have insisted ever since Hackett's hiring in January that their endgame wasn’t Rodgers. Silence is the proper move, since anything else would invite a tampering charge. But it doesn’t require a 12-part investigative podcast to suss this one out: the most distinctive line on Hackett’s resume prior to Denver is the one that reads “Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator, 2019-2021.”

The bond between Rodgers and Hackett was obvious, and during their days together, Rodgers gushed over his OC in a way he praises few people. “There’s no one in the building that brings me more joy or is more fun to be around than Nathaniel Hackett,” he said in November 2020. “I hope he doesn’t go anywhere … unless I do.”

It’s not much of a leap to figure that the Broncos banked on the strength of those last three words when they brought Hackett into the fold. But six weeks after they did so, Rodgers swerved, signing an extension with Green Bay and leaving Denver in rather desperate need of a quarterback.

Exactly eight days later, the Broncos shocked the NFL world when news broke that they had shipped two first-round picks, two second-round picks, a fifth-rounder, and three players to Seattle for Wilson. This, despite the fact that Wilson had not included Denver on the list of teams in February for which he’d like to play should he be traded — a list that included Dallas, Chicago, New Orleans and Las Vegas.

In one of the all-time great I’m not mad, please don’t write in the newspaper that I was mad PR blitzes, the Broncos continued to insist that Wilson was the QB they wanted all along, even signing Wilson to a mammoth five-year, $245 million ($165 million guaranteed) contract just before the season began.

It’s safe to say the new Denver ownership group would like a mulligan on that decision. Wilson has been abysmal this year, ineffective and unimpressive. The Broncos have playoff hopes in name only, mere fractions of a percentage away from yet another postseason elimination.

Denver is now the poker player holding seven-deuce off-suit and chasing card after worthless card, the chump in the pickup game lofting up 25-footers that never even touch iron, the easy mark pouring their retirement fund into a slot machine that never quite hits on a winning combination.

This is the NFL, though, and good intentions, hopes and preseason preseason vibes mean exactly nothing. Just 11 games in, Hackett is already the coaching equivalent of behind the chains; this is the kind of faceplant that can’t just be written off to Year One adjustments.

There’s no guarantee that having Aaron Rodgers in Broncos uniform would have prevented this kind of debacle. But in Denver, what-ifs are infinitely preferable to what is.

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Contact Jay Busbee at @jaybusbee or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.

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