Russell Wilson, Nathaniel Hackett must overcome early stumble after forging strong relationship

Russell Wilson sat at his locker at Lumen Field in Seattle. Not the one he’d become accustomed to over 10 seasons leading the Seahawks, but instead, a small, metal, corner locker, next to the showers, in the cramped visiting locker room.

Denver head coach Nathaniel Hackett, after making a questionable decision to take the ball out of Wilson’s hands on fourth-and-5 with a chance to secure a Week 1 win on the line, came up behind Wilson. He bent over and wrapped his arms around the star quarterback and hugged him tightly.

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Every relationship will be tested. It’s inevitable. When a new relationship encounters early difficult moments, that relationship could be strengthened — or it could develop small cracks in a foundation that hasn’t completely set yet.

After just one game, a 17-16 loss to Wilson’s former team on Monday Night Football, the relationship in Denver between a first-time head coach and a potential future Hall of Fame quarterback has been presented with a high-profile moment of potential stress. Now, we wait to see how this partnership fares.

And not only are their individual futures at stake, but the coach and the QB — who inked a $245 million extension that will keep him in town for the next seven seasons — will directly impact the overall success of a historic franchise that’s now under new ownership.

It’s kind of a big deal.

In the time since Denver acquired Wilson from Seattle via trade in March, Wilson and Hackett seemed to have forged a strong connection. Sitting down with Wilson and Hackett just before the start of the 2022 NFL season, I could see they genuinely enjoy each other’s company. They poked fun at one another in a way that only happens when two people are together all the time.

When I asked how much time they spend together, they both just started laughing.

“How much time do we NOT spend together?” Wilson said, going on to explain that “from Day 1 (with Hackett), it was effortless. It was like I’ve been hearing him for years.”

“I’m like a sweet angel in his ear,” Hackett quickly responded.

“Basically,” Wilson said, laughing.

They told me they will spend hours going over film or drawing plays on a whiteboard. That they’ll argue over the depth of Wilson’s drop by a yard or even a step. That they’re constantly almost running late for other meetings because they go down these rabbit holes pertaining to the intricacies of the West Coast offense.

Wilson enthused about the fact that they both, as he sees it, have “visual minds,” and a strong recall memory. Hackett spoke glowingly about Wilson’s willingness to work hard.

“You got to keep stimulating him nonstop,” Hackett said. “Because he’s just so hungry for so much. It’s great because it pushes me and pushes our entire staff to continually keep thinking of new things and be as creative as possible, knowing we can do anything.”

Hackett, who played a key role in helping Aaron Rodgers win back-to-back MVPs as the offensive coordinator with the Packers over the past three seasons, has a plan for helping Wilson play within the scheme. But the first-year head coach also knows things do not always go as designed in football. And he indicated he wants Wilson to create and extend in those moments, when Wilson can make what the quarterback called in our conversation “game-altering plays.”

Which is part of what made Hackett’s decision to send his field-goal unit out on fourth down in the closing minute of their first game together such a head-scratcher.

The scenario, with Denver facing a do-or-die juncture that could have yielded a dramatic victory in Wilson’s return to his old home stadium, seemed like exactly the opportunity to let Wilson go to work.

“There are those magical plays,” Wilson said in our conversation before the season began. “The thing about magic is, it’s not magic if you use it all the time. It’s a certain gift, and you got to be able to use it certain places.”

We didn’t get a chance to see that magic Monday night. Kicker Brandon McManus missed the 64-yard try, and the Wilson-Hackett era began with an 0-1 record.

The two have said all the right things publicly since then. And that’s what you would expect. Hackett has said in hindsight, he should have gone for it and put the ball in Wilson’s hands. Wilson has, on multiple occasions this week, backed Hackett and his decision-making.

“I thought the game felt like we had been there a million times before,” Wilson said Wednesday. “I thought he called the game so well in my ear [and] me and him were just communicating really well on the sidelines. I think — I have a ton of confidence in him.”

The box score suggested Hackett and Wilson are clicking schematically. Wilson put up 340 passing yards, the third-most passing yards in the NFL in Week 1. Notably, Wilson only topped 300 yards once last season.

Like Peyton Manning, Wilson wants to secure his second career Super Bowl win in Denver. Like John Elway, he wants to win multiple titles with the Broncos. The 33-year-old also believes Hackett is the coach that will help him play 10 more years in the NFL.

Whether those goals are accomplished would seem to hinge largely on Hackett and Wilson’s relationship.

The Broncos have accommodated Wilson. He has access to office space in the building, and members of his support staff — which includes Wilson’s personal quarterback coach, former pro quarterback Jake Heaps, and his trainer, Tim Grover who has worked in the past with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant — can be seen regularly at the team facility.

At the beginning of training camp, Hackett said Wilson “has done a great job of surrounding himself with a great support group, and they’re all great people. We know them well. As we move forward, those are things we’re going to work through and discuss what’s best for the team. I want Russ to be playing at a very high level, and I want him to be able to get to that height that he needs.”

The belief is that if it takes all of this to get Wilson to perform at a level so few in the game are capable of, then they’re not going to discourage him from going to any of the lengths he feels are necessary to get there. It’s early, but as of training camp, all indications were everyone was working together and functioning smoothly, to the point to where general manager George Paton went as far as to say they’d “become part of the,… Bronco family.”

Hackett’s father, Paul Hackett, coached Joe Montana with the 49ers and Chiefs. Like Wilson, Hackett is a student of the game. They are surely well-versed enough in the reality of the NFL to know that Monday night’s loss was just one outing. Hackett — who said Thursday the team has “already moved on” — and Wilson will have a chance to turn the page as soon as Sunday afternoon’s home opener against the Texans.

What transpired in the final minute Monday could end up being just a punch line during Wilson’s speech in Canton. Hackett could still help make the second chapter of Wilson’s career a rousing success.

Right now, they’re one of the more fascinating pairings in the NFL. As they say, life is all about relationships.

And in this case, so is football.

Follow James Palmer on Twitter.

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