DENVER — If you’re going to excoriate your predecessor over the mess you were hired to clean up, it’s best to outperform the guy you replaced.
Sean Payton didn’t deliver enough enhancements in his Denver debut Sunday to justify calling out Nathaniel Hackett like he did in the summer.
During a passionate defense of quarterback Russell Wilson, who’s coming off the worst season of his career, Payton accused Hackett and his staff in Denver of doing “one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL” in 2022.
The potshot would have hit different had it come during Payton’s time as a Fox analyst during his year’s sabbatical from coaching.
Hackett, now the Jets’ offensive coordinator, owned up to his failures as a first-time head coach in Denver but suggested Payton broke an unwritten code among coaches to not publicly criticize one another.
Payton’s stinging critique of Hackett’s performance in a USA Today article is sure to provide some extra juice to the Jets’ Week 5 visit to Denver next month, even with Aaron Rodgers’ left Achilles tendon snapping just four snaps into his Jets debut Monday night, taking some luster off the league’s biggest storyline this season.
With his criticism of Hackett, Payton also put himself on the hook to deliver a better product in Denver — and fast.
While Wilson looked a lot more like his vintage Seattle self while running Payton’s offense, the Broncos’ 17-16 loss at home to the Raiders on Sunday was the exact score by which Hackett lost his head coaching debut at Seattle last season.
Hackett infamously settled for a 64-yard field goal attempt by Brandon McManus, a head-scratching decision that backfired and sent the Broncos on a season-long tailspin that cost Hackett his job after 15 games.
Payton didn’t even get the chance to try a last-second field goal Sunday because his defense, which produced zero sacks and committed a half dozen penalties, made Jimmy Garoppolo look like Tom Brady in the fourth quarter.
A Denver offense that averaged 11 plays and more than 6 minutes per drive produced its only three-and-out after falling behind and never got the ball back.
The Broncos’ special teams was worst of all, with a botched onside kick to start the game, a crucial holding call negating a big early return and a dismal debut from Wil Lutz, the reliable kicker Payton had in New Orleans whom he acquired from the Saints two week ago for a late-round draft pick.
Lutz missed his first extra point as a Bronco and was also wide right on a 55-yard field goal attempt, leaving four points on the board in a one-point loss on the same day Brandon McManus, whom Payton curiously cut loose in May, made all five of his kicks for the Jaguars’ in their win at Indianapolis.
Another decision, to trade tight end Albert Okwuegbunam to the Eagles on cut-down day, drew renewed scrutiny Sunday when Greg Dulcich pulled a hamstring on the opening drive of the second half and didn’t return.
Combined with the absence of top receiver Jerry Jeudy (hamstring), Dulcich’s departure left the Broncos without any downfield threats and Wilson was forced to dink and dunk his way through a 52-yard second half.
The Broncos did average 2.7 points per possession, a great figure if you’re looking at the usual 10 to 12 drives teams get in a typical game.
Denver had just six drives Sunday — six! — and the Broncos ran but three offensive plays over the final 8:54 of the game, including a third-down catch 3 yards shy of the sticks. That three-and-out was sandwiched around Garoppolo’s 6-yard TD strike to Jakobi Meyers and his 8-yard scramble on third-and-7 that iced the Raiders’ seventh straight win over their rivals.
A lack of pressure (zero sacks) and a lack of discipline (10 penalties) also doomed Denver, especially safety Kareem Jackson’s 15-yarder for a helmet hit on Meyers on Las Vegas’ final drive.
Despite all that, there were certainly signs of progress under Payton, including this: the fans didn’t have to resort to counting down the play clock as they mockingly did in Hackett’s home debut last year when he had so much trouble getting the plays in on time. General manger George Paton brought Jerry Rosburg out of retirement the next day to take over the game management duties and then promoted him to interim head coach following Hackett’s Dec. 26 ouster at 4-11.
Many of the same issues that dogged the Broncos under Hackett showed up under Payton, including too many flags, a paucity of explosive plays and not enough pressure on the passer.
The Broncos were the NFL’s biggest spenders in free agency this offseason, signing more than a dozen players to contracts totaling a whopping $242,647,500. That’s only slightly more than the $242,588,236 they gave Wilson a year ago with a five-year contract extension that kicks in after this season.
The ownership that traded a first-round pick to New Orleans for the right to sign Payton to a five-year deal that pays him in the neighborhood of $18 million a year also put a $100 million facelift on their stadium.
Most of that money went toward the gigantic new videoboard that’s 70% larger than the old one and among the biggest in the NFL but which only magnified the many mistakes the Broncos made under their new head coach in the opener.
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