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Broncos’ Horrid Opener Only Matters If They Faceplant From Here

Individual moments like the one Nathaniel Hackett experienced Monday can be debilitating for coaches. It could also be quickly forgotten.

The Broncos lost the first game of the Russell Wilson era on a missed 64-yard field goal attempt on Monday night with 20 seconds remaining. Wilson was initially on the field to attempt a fourth-and-5 conversion, but the offense bled about 30 seconds off the clock as Wilson accepted a play from the sidelines, casually spacing out his teammates and correcting a receiver’s positioning before ultimately taking a timeout and bringing the kicking unit on.

In these moments, we’d all like to imagine ourselves doing the cool coaching thing, lowering the aviator shades over our eyes, going with our gut and dialing up some kind of finger pistol-inducing piece of football trickery that just so happened to be laying in our back pocket, setting up an easier game-winning field goal. We’d imagine doing the opposite of what Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett did, which was pulling a quarterback on whom the franchise spent years worth of draft capital to acquire and hundreds of millions of dollars to extend.

Of course, that’s not what happened. Despite the call being analytically defensible (if, as ESPN noted, you run the numbers from the 20-second mark and not the 50-second mark), we’re going to spend the space and time between the end of Week 1 and the beginning of Week 2 roasting the Broncos. It is our low-hanging fruit of sustenance. The kick missed by a few inches. We all had a good time pointing out that we would have done anything else.

Denver Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett talks to reporters at a press conference after an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Monday, Sept. 12, 2022, in Seattle. The Seahawks won 17-16.

Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett defended his late-game strategy in Monday’s post-game press conference. Now he must move on from it.

It doesn’t matter that Wilson could have been looking at a defense he’s seen every day in practice for a decade and decided (albeit woefully late) the Broncos may not have had as good a shot at converting as we might have thought, given the play calls in their pocket or the personnel on the field. It doesn’t matter that Wilson could have, himself, been a little shaken in the moment and his coach decided it was early enough in the season to take him off the hook. Who knows what the hell is happening on a given sideline, through a headset, on the probability chart of a team’s specific analytics expert, from the mouth of a special teams coach and a confident kicker or inside the tiny little synapses firing off a relentless and often contradictory stream of information in our brains. The line between the cool coaching thing and the really awful coaching thing is razor thin sometimes, even if we don’t care to look at it that way. 

Once upon a time, Pete Carroll himself did a similarly very uncool coaching thing. Brian Daboll, whom we universally loved this weekend for doing a very cool coaching thing, dialed up a shovel pass to his running back on a game-winning two-point conversion that was sniffed out by two Titans defenders in the backfield and succeeded only through the repressed anger of a running back who had to spend the last four years in schematic football hell. In addition, that cool coaching thing required a missed field goal from the Titans in order to be solidified as cool.

What does matter now are the moments that come next. Hackett, and by extension, Wilson, were the unfortunate main characters of the NFL’s opening week. They got the tomatoes chucked at them. They had to waddle off stage, pants around ankles. They can allow this moment to define them, which would make one of the offseason’s biggest acquisitions a comical blunder, or they can do the next cool coaching thing together. How many times have we seen a new coach exhibit some extreme, head-scratching on-field conservatism only to make it a hallmark of their tenure, doubling down on it week after week? That's not the platform Hackett ran on to get this job. He can prove that in the subsequent 16 weeks of this season.

We have seen how potentially debilitating individual moments can be for coaches, and Monday was as instructive a live tutorial we’ve ever witnessed on the high-wire rigors of the position. It’s impossible to know what it’s like to be an NFL head coach until the weight of a game is sitting on your chest in front of 80,000 people. One of the few ways to make sure it doesn’t happen again is to experience the worst of it and move on.

We don’t know how that will play out in Denver, one of the more difficult and cutthroat markets in the NFL; a place with a new owner just getting a feel for the operation. What we do know is that there is a concrete truth to what coaches say when a cool coaching thing goes their way. We’re talking about the realists here, the ones who have been through too much crap to take a bow. If it didn’t hit, they’d be a fool. 

That’s how fickle this all is. That’s how easily we could all forget about what happened Monday once the next one comes along, once a frantic moment goes their way. 

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