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Sketching Out What Nathaniel Hackett's Offense Might Look Like for 2022 Broncos

Is Nathaniel Hackett a true disciple of Mike Shanahan's offensive philosophies?

Denver Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett has become a devotee of the West Coast Offense, which he ran to good effect as offensive coordinator in Green Bay. He’s showing signs of being a Shanahan/Gibbs/Kubiak traditionalist, even going so far as to tap Andrew Beck as a fullback rather than a tight end.

The WCO was originally developed in Cincinnatti when the Bengals' quarterback went down with an injury and his replacement (Virgil Carter) had little arm strength. It stretches the field horizontally more than traditional vertical passing approaches. 

However, Carter had a stronger arm than some have claimed, and his passing average was 11.9 yards per play, identical to the 11.9 yards per completion that All-Everything QB Joe Montana achieved in the same general system, mostly in San Francisco.

With Russell Wilson’s skill with the deep pass, Hackett may add vertical passing concepts from the Don Coryell version of a WCO. Both the Bill Walsh and Coryell versions have their roots in the Sid Gillman coaching tree, after all. 

It will be fascinating to see a new synthesis of the two approaches playing out this season in Denver with a QB who loves vertical passing so much. Rumors abound that the Broncos will run a zone-blocking offense, at least the majority of the time, with a very traditional emphasis on the wide zone/outside-zone running plays, along with Wilson-requested post/corner/go deep passing routes as well as the shorter wheel, crease, hook, hitch, curl and other such common routes. 

Hackett has already said that the playbook will be formidably deep and complex. Traditionally, Walsh said that it took a full season to install such an offense, and a second season in order to maximize it. Given the turnover in players and coaches in Denver, that seems like a sensible caution. It will allow success in the short run, but with additional success over a longer period of time.

Mike Shanahan

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What Mike Shanahan did in his years as the Broncos' head coach was to create an offense that used the zone-blocking scheme that permitted smaller, lighter offensive line players to be effective, and run a set number of plays, each of which had multiple variations — an approach that served to keep defenses off-balance for several years. Many coaches have tried to use a similar approach in the years since then.

The outside-zone heavy running attack should suit the skills of lead running back Javonte Williams to a ‘T’. Williams has both power and elusiveness; qualities that make the outside zone attack hum. With the Broncos re-signing Melvin Gordon post-draft, Williams should see plenty of plays to feast on, but get enough rest to keep his skills at maximum.

Williams has never been the dominant running back in a system, a fact that has permitted him to be highly effective while minimizing his risk of injury. That should continue to some degree this year. Both his power and his ‘waggle’ will be used to their best effect.

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The traditional WCO made use of the fullback as a blocker, a running back, and a receiver. Both Javonte and Gordon have all three skills to a reasonable degree. The running backs, fullback, and tight ends were important receivers in the Shanahan/Gibbs/Kubiak/variation of the WCO, which used short passes over the middle as well as on the edges, and long YAC (yards after the catch) plays to achieve significant yardage. 

Wilson doesn’t tend to use the middle of the field much, perhaps as a matter of his height, but there will still be plenty of screens, out-routes, hook and curl patterns for all the receivers.

One reason that Noah Fant was allowed to leave was that Albert Okwuegbunam has the same footspeed in the 40-yard dash (4.49s), and a similar skill set in the passing game. Although Albert isn’t quite the player Fant is, he showed enough last year to expect him to become a reasonable facsimile. 

Albert’s footspeed is fast for a tight end, and will still help to stretch the field, making him, and the wide receivers, targets for Wilson’s preferred laser-like deep passes. 

“With the coaches we have, (head coach Nathaniel) Hackett and (offensive coordinator) Justin (Outten), they’re doing a good job already moving me around the offense and creating those mismatches," Okwuegbunam recently said. 

Coach Hackett ran 11 personnel (1 TE, 1 RB) nearly 60% of the time over the past three seasons, and 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE) 24% of the time. While he hasn’t let slip his full intentions for Denver, the team can expect a similar distribution of those offensive alignments. 

Ex-coordinator Pat Shurmur leaned on the inside zone run plays, as did Hackett in 2021. But he has talked about leaning on the outside zone, which is close to the Shanahan/Gibbs/Kubiak approach to the WCO.

I look forward to seeing how Beck will flourish in the fullback position, as well as how Wilson and Hackett balance the short and deep passing options along with the balance of runs and passes. Every coach runs a slightly different WCO. It has won more Super Bowls than any other offense in NFL history.

It’s going to be counted on to bring more AFC Championships here to Denver — and the Lombardi Trophies that go with them. 

Follow Dr. Smith on Twitter @DocBearOMD.

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