'He's having a blast': Happy-go-lucky Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett is no typical NFL taskmaster
Less than a week into training camp, Broncos players already credit first-year coach Nathaniel Hackett with setting a decidedly positive, upbeat tone.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In the early stages of Denver’s second training camp practice Thursday morning, Russell Wilson and the Broncos quarterbacks were working in tandem with centers on run game and bootleg footwork.
Wilson, though, had a running back with him as well.
He turned and pitched the ball to first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett, who everybody in the area knew followed his track and blocker perfectly because he provided a running commentary as he carried out the drill.
Hackett’s typically easy to hear on the practice fields here. During the offseason program this spring and summer, the new head man earned a reputation as the offense’s loudest and most frequent trash-talker. He jawed with veteran safety Kareem Jackson, himself a noted talker. He saw safety Justin Simmons and others working on a minicamp drill that featured something from the offense’s script for a later portion of practice and called the group out, saying, “Oh, don’t work on that now! Don’t be scared!”
On the first day of training camp Hackett said that, in what he considers the true West Coast offense fashion, he and his coaching staff are “bombarding” the Denver players with information right out of the gate, but the fact of the matter is that the Broncos are also bombarded by Hackett’s energy on a daily basis as well.
“Everybody talks about it and it’s infectious,” tight end Eric Saubert said. “He’s a really positive guy and he teaches you in that way and he truly cares about what he’s doing.”
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Like may first-time coaches, Hackett has borrowed extensively from others he’s worked with as he puts together his first training camp as the man in charge. On Friday, Denver hardly got past a walk-through pace after going full-speed on the first two days of camp. The reason? That’s what he learned in Green Bay the past three years.
“It’s always about that three-day thing, Day 3 is where all kinds of bad stuff happens,” Hackett said. … “You want to be sure you’re fresh and then you go back real hard on that fourth day. That’s what we’ll be kind of continuing on as we go forward.”
Since arriving in February, though, the day-to-day approach has been his own unique, energetic brand.
“At first I thought, you know, give it a week, he may calm down,” center Lloyd Cushenberry said. “But nah, every single day he’s the same guy, which we love.”
Talk of energy and positivity can sound like idle offseason chatter, but general manager George Paton this week credited Hackett’s energy level, saying it had “rebooted the entire building.”
“He has a lot of positive energy, but we’ve focused on the day-to-day and getting better every day,” Paton added. “We don’t worry about what’s going on outside. We know what’s going on within these walls and we are fired up within these walls. Our guys are excited.
“It does us no good to talk about it. We have our expectations within our walls, and we’re fired up to go get it.”
That’s the wrinkle: Everybody in the organization readily acknowledges that the bar raised considerably – internally and externally – when the franchise traded for Wilson in March. Hackett and a relatively inexperienced coaching staff are tasked with ending the NFL's second-longest active playoff drought at six seasons and doing so while playing in perhaps the toughest division in football.
If Hackett is feeling nerves or pressure at this juncture, it’s difficult to tell.
“For him? Have you seen him out here? That man’s out here living, man,” running back Melvin Gordon said. “He’s having a blast. When he brings that type of energy, it’s contagious. Obviously, he gets serious when he needs to get serious. He taps in. I’m sure he’s going to have his days, but for the most part, he’s out here, having fun, flying around. And he brings that to us, and that’s the energy we bring.”
Gordon said he heard a couple of defensive players walk off the field after practice the other day and say, “Man, that was fun.” Not the way it was previously under head coach Vic Fangio.
“It’s a little different, man,” Gordon said with a smile. “But COVID didn’t help with that situation, especially my first two years here.”
Training camp gets long in a hurry, and there is undoubtedly adversity ahead at some point after what was overall a quiet offseason program and a smooth first week of work this month. No coach is able to be the good cop all of the time, but Hackett explained recently why he thinks positivity toward his players at virtually all times is his standard operating procedure.
“I think that’s my job, to create that relationship,” he said. “Yeah, you can be a friend, but even with your friends, your brother, your family, my kids, you put your foot down and there are things that you stand for. The idea is for them to know that, and when they know that, then we’re good.
“There’s a line, I guess, but it’s just about having a great relationship and communication.”
Ultimately, what happens from Sept. 12 in Seattle and onward will matter most. In the meantime, players are adamant that this feels different than years past, and it’s not just about the quarterback leading the huddle.
“Big difference. Big difference,” Cushenberry said. “Especially throughout camp as the days get longer and throughout the season, you want that energy. Years past, the days have been a lot longer, kind of dragging along. We didn’t have a lot of energy. With Hackett, the guy you see in the media, that’s how he is every single day.
“It’s not an act, that’s him every day. It’s been great.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Parker Gabriel on Twitter @ParkerJGabriel.