By Warren Sharp
FOX Sports NFL Writer
Nathaniel Hackett choked. Pure and simple.
The goal for every team with Super Bowl aspirations needs to be simple: Win every single game possible. Aim to get the only No. 1 seed in your conference, secure a bye, play one fewer playoff opponent and secure home-field advantage for every game prior to the Super Bowl.
Every single game is meaningful. With that in mind, it’s hard to be more disappointed in a coaching debut.
This is about winning. But it’s about more than that.
It’s about exhibiting intelligence in strategy.
It’s about trusting your players.
It’s about establishing a winning culture.
We could complain about play-calling earlier in the game (and we will, later) but for now, the most critical point in the game:
Denver was trailing by one point, they had the ball and a 3rd-and-14 at their 45-yard line with three timeouts and the clock stopped at 1:11 in the fourth quarter.
They threw a running-back screen which set up a 4th-and-5 with 1:03 on the clock.
And three timeouts.
But they didn’t call a timeout. They walked back to the line and mulled around.
At 0:50, 13 seconds later, Russell Wilson called for the team to huddle up.
The team remained in the huddle until 0:34.
By the time they were set at the line of scrimmage, there were only 25 seconds left in the game, and they were at the Seahawks‘ 46-yard line.
They then let the clock tick until 0:20, when they called a timeout.
And trotted Brandon McManus onto the field to attempt a 64-yard FG for the win.
The 43 seconds from 1:03 to 0:20 were some of the most important in the direction of this new coaching staff’s career.
Because during those 43 seconds, they made a massive decision considering the context of the franchise.
Denver made a massive statement this offseason.
They declared they would do whatever it takes to acquire a true, franchise quarterback because they knew they couldn’t win without one.
And boy, did they give up a ton to get Russell Wilson.
They got Russell Wilson in return.
And then they gave Wilson $242,588,246, including $161,000,000 guaranteed.
These decisions should have changed the trajectory of this franchise.
From the top down, they made a statement: We have our QB. It’s time to win. But they chose not to use their QB when it mattered most.
Denver could have called a timeout at 1:03. They had 4th-and-5. And more importantly, they had Russell Wilson.
This wasn’t Drew Lock.
This wasn’t Teddy Bridgewater.
This wasn’t Case Keenum.
This wasn’t Joe Flacco.
This wasn’t Brandon Allen.
This wasn’t Brock Osweiler.
This wasn’t Trevor Siemian.
This wasn’t Paxton Lynch.
This wasn’t Brett Rypien.
This wasn’t Jeff Driskel.
None of the 10 quarterbacks they tried to win with and couldn’t since Peyton Manning retired.
This was a quarterback they mortgaged massive future draft capital and enormous salary-cap space to acquire.
This was a $242 million quarterback.
And instead of letting him try to convert a 4th-and-5, Hackett opted to use zero of three timeouts to strategize, bleed the entire clock and have his kicker attempt a 64-yard field goal.
Do you know what McManus’ career history was on 62+ yard field goals prior to this attempt?
Five kicks attempted. Zero made.
Not only that, instead of kicking at elevation in Denver to add distance to the kick, he was playing at sea level in Seattle.
Kickers are a combined 2-for-41 on kicks of 64+ yards in NFL history. Yes, they are getting better at hitting from longer distances. But there is no chance that attempt gave the Broncos a better chance to win than asking Wilson to get them five yards.
It was completely irrational. Everything about it was irrational.
Not using one of three timeouts at 1:03? Irrational.
Muddling around with zero urgency after the play? Irrational.
Huddling(!) with a ticking clock showing 0:40 remaining in the game ahead of a 4th-and-5 with three timeouts? Irrational.
Deciding your best shot to win involved trusting a kicker who had never made a regulation kick this far at Denver elevation, let alone sea level? Irrational.
Not trusting your $242M franchise quarterback to get you five yards? Irrational.
I’ve said this time and time again, but I’ve got a simple and completely free piece of advice for every single coach.
Playing game after game after game of Madden forces you to assess strategy late in games in tons of situations and to do so extremely quickly. It shows you the importance of late-game decision-making.
Have you seen the new Top Gun movie? Madden is a flight simulator for NFL coaches.
And yet almost across the board, they aren’t using it to train under pressure. Keep in mind, failing in a late-game situation in Madden will not cost you a shot to win a game and take you one step further away from winning a Super Bowl.
Hackett established he doesn’t trust his team’s best player in a key situation.
Which is why it’s more than just one win he cost his team. It’s the opportunity cost of establishing a winning culture.
Look at this juxtaposition:
Let’s compare two rookie head coaches in their first games.
Brian Daboll isn’t just 1-0. He won over his entire team. He demonstrated trust in his players. He endeared himself to New York. He became a beloved coach. He established an aggressive mentality.
Nathaniel Hackett is everything Daboll isn’t. He not only hurt his chance to start his career 1-0 but also cost himself a shot at all the other critically important upsides that came with Daboll’s win.
As embarrassing and frustrating as those 43 seconds were, the rest of the game was puzzling for Hackett as well.
The Broncos ran 10 plays inside the Seahawks’ 10-yard line on three different drives.
They came away with zero touchdowns and totaled -13.1 EPA on the 10 plays.
They lost two fumbles on two runs from shotgun just inches away from the end zone:
You are inches away from the end zone, and instead of sneaking the ball with your quarterback (optimal) or allowing your RB to gain momentum, they handed him the ball standing still, four or five yards away from the end zone, and asked him to just erase that distance to the end zone before the defensive linemen and linebackers standing inches inside the end zone got any penetration at all.
The game was exhilarating and fun. It capped an absolutely incredible Week 1 of the NFL season. We won our bets on it and I should be feeling happy.
Instead, I’m feeling disappointed that, in 2022, we are seeing coaches make obvious errors that are worse when applying the context of who your quarterback (finally) is and what you gave up to acquire him.
Hackett can recover. The Broncos can get back on track. But they will never get that win back. And he will always remember how he cost himself a chance at gaining much more than just one win.
What else did I notice in Week 1?
The Ravens RB-run game was severely lacking in Week 1
In the first half against the Jets, Ravens running backs averaged -0.86 EPA (expected points added) per attempt and 1.2 yards per carry. Both ranked worst in the NFL.
They averaged -0.5 yards before contact per attempt, meaning their offensive line allowed penetration, and the running backs were hit a half-a-yard before the line of scrimmage.
Things didn’t improve much in the second half and over the course of the entire game, their RBs ranked third-worst in rushing efficiency.
And that was against a Jets defense which ranked 26th in rushing efficiency last year.
LT Ronnie Stanley’s ankle injury still wasn’t healed enough and they just lost Ja’Wuan James, who started in his place at LT. The Ravens are now going to have to find an OT to help support depth and are down to their 3rd stringer.
They then had to rely a lot on Lamar Jackson, who had to do everything for this offense once again. Yes, he threw three touchdowns, but his success rate was 22nd in the NFL and he averaged the NFL’s highest air yards in the league last week.
We hoped the Ravens would have more support on the ground in 2022 after losing many of their running backs and offensive linemen to injuries in 2021. They had better improve, and quickly, as they play the new and improved Dolphins this week.
Pittsburgh’s upset began when they increased their usage of Cover-2
Against Joe Burrow in Week 1, Pittsburgh doubled their usage of Cover-2 from 2021.
2021 season: 13.7%
2022 week 1: 28.7%
No QB faced more Cover-2 in week 1 than Burrow. And against that coverage, Burrow threw three interceptions, took three sacks and averaged -0.29 EPA/dropback
More teams will use Cover-2 against the Bengals this year. Cincinnati expected it. But they weren’t sufficiently prepared to handle it. I expect they will fare much better against the depleted Cowboys this week, but this late-slate game will be a meeting of two extremely desperate 0-1 teams, and the Bengals cannot take Dallas lightly.
Frank Reich’s early-season struggles continue
I’m big on coaches making adjustments when something isn’t working and even proactively making improvements even when things are working.
But for the Colts early in the season, the results have been clear as day.
Frank Reich Weeks 1-5: 8-12 (40%)
Frank Reich from Week 6 on: 29-16 (64%)
He has not won a Week 1 game as a head coach. Ever.
So why would you not understand this and make wholesale changes to your approach in the two weeks leading into the season? Do something different to prepare your players. Do something different to gameplan better. Be more aggressive to prioritize an early lead. Something.
But the Colts didn’t. Their first drive was a three-and-out. They didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:
On deck is a trip to Jacksonville. The Colts are currently four-point favorites. They are 0-6 in Jacksonville since 2016.
Illegal Contact does nothing to the betting market
All offseason, I was hearing how people were going to “bet overs” because of the new emphasis on illegal contact penalties.
But no one bothered to look at the data.
I wrote back in August that these penalties are unlikely to send games over the total.
Well, Week 1 is officially in the books, and here’s what we saw:
11 unders (69%)
5 overs (31%)
I hope the “bet overs” crowd didn’t lose too much of their bankroll after just one game.
Once again, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Huge Vikings win changes odds massively in the NFC North
The Vikings opened +300 to win the NFC North, and just before the season started, they were +240 to emerge over the Packers, Bears and Lions.
Today? They are down to +130 to win the division.
That’s a 110-percent move from one win against presumed favorite Green Bay! Absolutely massive.
Behind the scenes on Aaron Rodgers during the Packers loss to the Vikings
FOX Sports lead NFL producer Richie Zyontz’s ‘Behind the Scenes’ on Aaron Rodgers during the Green Bay Packers loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
But it wasn’t just the win. It was about how it looked. Minnesota looked totally in control. Aaron Rodgers looked concerned and upset after the offense could not score more than seven points.
Warren Sharp is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He is the founder of Sharp Football Analysis and has worked as a consultant for league franchises while also previously contributing to ESPN and The Ringer, among other outlets. He studied engineering before using his statistical acumen to create predictive football models. You can follow Warren on Twitter at @SharpFootball
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