The Denver Broncos finally did it.
Monday, following one of the most embarrassing losses in recent franchise history on Christmas night, the organization moved on from embattled head coach Nathaniel Hackett.
What comes next in the Mile High City could be a struggle of epic proportions to find a head coach willing to take the job, and capable of getting something out of 34-year-old quarterback Russell Wilson, who is in the midst of the worst statistical season of his career.
Wilson has completed a career-low 60.1% of his passes for 3,019 yards with 12 touchdowns to 9 interceptions through Week 16.
“Father Time knows no competition,” an NFL quarterbacks coach told Heavy. “It’s a bad situation for Russell, a worse one for the Broncos.”
Hackett was hired by Broncos general manager George Paton to repair an offense that finished 19th in total offense last season, only to limp through the first 15 games of the 2022 campaign ranked No. 25 in total offense while averaging a league-low 15.5 points per game.
The Walton-Penner ownership group didn’t even wait to see how the final two games played out before firing Hackett, after a disastrous 51-14 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Christmas afternoon that saw Wilson toss 3 interceptions, and a skirmish break out on Denver’s sideline.
“[We] didn’t go into this week thinking this was a time we were going to make a change,” Broncos CEO Greg Penner told reporters on December 27. “But, after we saw the effort we put forward on Sunday, some of the things that were going on off the field, we just felt like it was time to make a decision.”
Denver’s decision to fire Hackett feels unavoidable given the woeful first 15 weeks to this season. Especially after Paton signed Wilson to a five-year contract extension worth $242.5 million, including $161 million fully guaranteed shortly after trading the Seattle Seahawks two first-round picks, two second-round picks, a fifth-round pick, and three players in exchange for Wilson and a 2022 fourth-round pick.
Now, Penner, and apparently Paton, must begin what may prove to be the most difficult coaching search of the offseason.
“Who would want that job?” an AFC South scouting director questioned, when asked by Heavy for a potential coaching candidate that could fix Wilson’s and the Broncos’ offense’s flaws.
In an offseason that already features the Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers on the prowl for new head coaches, perhaps joined by the Los Angeles Chargers, Arizona Cardinals and Houston Texans, Denver isn’t exactly the most desirable destination. Especially being locked into salvaging some semblance of an offense around Wilson.
“That might be a tough job to fill,” an NFC personnel director told Heavy. “They might need to hire a head coach and get Russell to fall in line with him. If they just try to hire the right guy for a 34-year-old quarterback, they’ll probably be hiring another head coach in two years.”
Hackett seemingly tried to tailor the Broncos’ offense to Wilson, after spending the past three seasons as the Green Bay Packers’ offensive coordinator, working alongside reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers.
So, who are potential fits to replace Hackett, and in the Broncos’ hopes, turn the fortunes of the franchise around? Here are three options:
Ben Johnson – Offensive Coordinator, Detroit Lions
Johnson will likely be the most sought-after head coaching candidate in the 2023 hiring cycle.
In his first season as the Lions’ offensive coordinator, he has guided a patchwork collection of young players to become the NFL’s No. 3 rated total offense, averaging 375.5 yards and 29.7 points per game, led by a ground attack that is averaging 120 yards per game.
Johnson’s ability to maximize the talent he’s been given, while crafting old school gap-oriented running game that has gashed opponents all season long will make him a popular name in front offices around the league. The question might become whether Wilson is the most attractive quarterback of any of the franchises seeking a new head coach this offseason.
Shane Steichen – Offensive Coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles
Much like Johnson, Steichen is going to be a hot commodity.
There is a belief among at least one general manager and multiple front office executives around the league that Steichen will be one of the first head coaches hired.
Steichen, in his two seasons overseeing Jalen Hurts’ development, has helped mold the third-year quarterback into an MVP front-runner, thanks in large part to a scheme that punishes in the ground game and taxes opposing secondaries. Especially because of the attention commanded over the top by receivers A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Quez Watkins.
DeMeco Ryans – Defensive Coordinator, San Francisco 49ers
There is always the possibility that the Broncos lean into a strength, and hire a defensive-minded head coach, and there won’t be a stronger one available than 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans.
Ryans is an expert motivator, clearly gets the most out of his players, and has devised some of the more exotic blitz packages the league has seen in recent memory.
While Denver’s defense ranks No. 5 in total defense, San Francisco sits atop the league. The 49ers are holding opponents to just 15.3 points and a league-low 75 rushing yards per game. That kind of defensive dominance would certainly alleviate pressure on Wilson and the offense to light up the scoreboard.
The combination of Ryans as head coach and architect of the defense, alongside a seasoned offensive mind with a track record of maximizing veteran quarterbacks, could prove a winning one for the Broncos.
Week 17 NFL Power Rankings
1. Philadelphia Eagles (13-2)
2. Cincinnati Bengals (11-4)
3. Kansas City Chiefs (12-3)
4. San Francisco 49ers (11-4)
5. Dallas Cowboys (11-4)
6. Buffalo Bills (12-3)
7. Minnesota Vikings (12-3)
8. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6)
9. Baltimore Ravens (10-5)
10. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-8)
Quote of the Week: Zach Wilson on Week 16 Benching
“I’ve got to look myself in the mirror, I’ve got to go back and watch this tape, and you’ve got to be hard on yourself and just say, ‘Why are we not moving the ball?’ It starts with me. I didn’t put my team in the best position there and we didn’t do anything on offense.”- Jets QB Zach Wilson, after being benched during a 19-3 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars
It is becoming more apparent by the week that the New York Jets are going to need to go quarterback shopping this offseason.
Two years removed from choosing Wilson No. 2 overall in 2021, he didn’t look like he belonged on the same field as Trevor Lawrence, the only player chosen ahead of him — or like he belongs on any NFL field, for that matter.
Wilson passed for just 92 yards with an interception, before being benched in the second half of a rainy night in East Rutherford for Chris Streveler, who was promoted from the practice squad just hours before the game.
“It’s just sad to watch,” an NFL executive told Heavy following last Thursday’s disastrous showing by Wilson. “He really needs a fresh start.”
For the Jets, even if the organization mines an elite mind capable of developing a young quarterback as offensive coordinator, selling Wilson to the fanbase is going to become even more difficult the more games that pile up like Wilson’s dreadful outing against the Jags.
Wilson has completed just 54.5% of his passes for 1,688 yards with 6 touchdowns to 7 interceptions, and two benchings in nine games.
The Jets’ roster, particularly an offense that includes rookie running back Breece Hall, receivers Garrett Wilson and Elijah Moore, have the potential for a quick turnaround. Especially with a veteran quarterback. Wilson just doesn’t appear to have the temperament for New York or the ability to lead a thriving NFL offense.
Final Thought: New-Look NFL Sunday Ticket Package
The NFL pulled off a victory of Immaculate Reception proportions in its new rights agreement with Google to house the Sunday Ticket package on YouTube TV, after 25 seasons with DirecTV as the only way to watch every single Sunday afternoon game.
As of July, YouTube TV crossed the 5 million subscriber mark for the first time, which is bound to increase significantly upon the arrival of every NFL game in the Sunday 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. viewing window. And, at a time when DirecTV’s subscriber base has dropped 47% since 2015.
The Satellite dish business is dying, as YouTube TV continues to grow with the financial backing of its $1.14 trillion market cap parent company.
Google’s innovative nature could present opportunities for the league to present games in more interesting ways, including the ability to stream several games at once using Chromecast, which could eventually change the way fans catch the action broadly in a way that NFL RedZone changed the viewing experience.
But, beyond the convenience factor for fans, beyond the potential exponential cutting of the cable cord because of the ease of viewing one of the few properties still tethering generations to traditional cable, the NFL and its players are about to experience the biggest windfall of all.
As Peter King points out in his December 26 Football Morning in America column, because the NFL will cash in an average of $2 billion annually from the deal that runs through 2029, the players’ piece of the pie just got bigger. According to King, the salary cap will rise $78 million per team beginning in 2023 at the start of the YouTube TV deal.
“Teams are still only going to pay guys that they want,” a veteran agent told Heavy. “Those guys will just see more zeroes on the end of their game checks.”
This deal also sets the NFL up, after dipping its toe in the streaming waters with the Thursday Night Football package on Amazon’s Prime Video, and now Sunday Ticket going to YouTube TV, to renegotiate all of the rights deals simultaneously in 2029.
Might there be a world where Disney retains the Monday Night Football contract, with AppleTV pilfering either CBS or FOX’s Sunday afternoon rights?
The NFL inched in that direction this season, and if money is any indication, perhaps by then, the NFL will dive head-first into what may be an exclusively streaming, and increasingly lucrative landscape in seven years.