Perhaps no NFL team is more separated from its preseason expectations than the Denver Broncos. At 3-8 and freshly flexed out of a primetime matchup against the leading MVP candidate, the proud Broncos franchise is trying its best to salvage a lost season.
Head coach Nathaniel Hackett sits on the warmest seat among NFL head coaches. But at this point, I'm told it's unlikely any move is made to fire him during the season. Sources believe the Walton-Penner group, which officially purchased the Broncos earlier this year and had no say in Hackett's hiring, aren't discussing any in-season move — while also issuing no guarantees.
Before last week, the Broncos had been in nine one-score games this season and won three of them. The 23-10 loss in Carolina last week was the biggest margin of defeat for the Broncos this season, and they face stiff tests the next two games against the Ravens today and Chiefs next week.
When Broncos co-owner and CEO Greg Penner spoke to reporters in London before Denver's 21-17 win against Jacksonville, he repeated how the team needed to get wins in the second half of the season.
"I'm supportive of Nathaniel, and we really want him to succeed," Penner said when asked if he could assure Hackett would be the coach for the remainder of the season. "As you guys know, this is a week-to-week sport. So we're always evaluating things, and our goal is to win as many games in the second half as we can."
The Broncos haven't won in North America since September. The offense has been the worst in the NFL by many standards. They've scored just four touchdowns in five home games this season, and they have just one touchdown pass at home.
The Broncos owe the worst scoring offense in the league and average 14.09 offensive points per game when the league average is 21. It's the fourth-fewest offensive points per game for an NFL in the past five seasons.
Hackett, who had been an offensive coordinator at three previous stops, was hired in part to help bring the Denver offense up to today's standards. The Broncos haven't had an offense ranked in the top half of the league since the Peyton Manning era, and adding nine-time Pro Bowler Russell Wilson was supposed to only help that.
Instead, no team is worse than the Broncos at scoring in the red zone.
"It's a problem when your core competency is showing to be a deficiency," said one league source.
Hackett has remained upbeat and positive in press conferences and in the locker room. He's shown awareness and humility, hiring Jerry Rosburg to help with game management and giving play-calling duties to Klint Kubiak. Despite the losing, I'm told there isn't any sort of locker room mutiny growing against Hackett.
It's also extremely rare of a team to fire a first-year head coach during the season. The Jaguars canned Urban Meyer last year, but before that, it hadn't happened in the NFL since 1979.
The NFL officially approved the Walton-Penner group as owners of the Broncos in early August. Penner and Rob Walton have been warmly welcomed by their fellow owners and commissioner Roger Goodell, and Penner has been especially active and engaged as CEO.
Penner has not been meddlesome, I'm told. He lets the football people handle the football. When Penner arrived, general manager George Paton was entering his second season there, Hackett was in his first training camp as head coach and Wilson had already been traded for.
There was no stipulation as part of the trade that the Broncos would have to extend Wilson this past offseason. In recent years it's become common practice to sign a player for whom you've traded multiple first-round picks to an extension sooner rather than later. That player was worthy of the trade, and the market price would only increase the longer you wait.
That was clearly the thought process for Paton, inking Wilson to a deal this offseason rather than waiting for 2023 when young quarterbacks like Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert will be coming in for mega deals.
But the Broncos couldn't sign Wilson to any extension until the new ownership group was installed since it was such a major expense and move for the franchise. The Walton-Penner group had to say 'yes' to the deal, too. Insofar as the Wilson deal — in real time or in hindsight — could be considered a mistake, there's no one person who could shoulder all the blame.
The truth is the Broncos have been in nine one-score games due to an elite defense, and the offense continues to squander opportunities to play at an average level. Denver just suffered its worst loss of the season to a Panthers team on its third quarterback and second coach, and it faces two playoff contenders in consecutive weeks.
Hackett's Broncos need to get some wins to close out the season or else he may well join an unenviable list of one-and-done coaches.