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'He has a brilliant football mind': Inside HC Nathaniel Hackett's plan for the Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the Chiefs, Bengals, Rams and 49ers prepare for their respective conference championship matchups, their similarities are evident.

All four teams feature a dynamic offense with a creative play caller, and they've followed that path to within a game of the Super Bowl.

As General Manager George Paton and Co. debated whom to hire as the Broncos' next head coach, the Broncos' need to close the gap between their offense and the top units in the league was among their considerations.

"You watch the playoffs, obviously these offenses are dynamic," Paton said Friday. "And obviously we have a long way to go in that capacity. We need to get better on offense and we need to score a lot more points, and we need to be more explosive and more exciting for our great fans."

Paton, though, recognizes that Denver's ability to return to contention is dependent upon more than just a successful offense.

"We also need to be better on special teams," Paton said. "We don't want to take a step back on defense. Of course we watch these games and it's fun to watch, but we need to get better in all three phases."

As Hackett builds a staff and begins to put his fingerprints on the Broncos, his plan for each phase, game management and analytics will all play a key factor.

"When you talk to him about his vision for our football team, about our offense, about our defense, about our special teams — we could've sat there for five hours," Paton said. "He blew us away in the initial interview and it just carried on. You can sit in a room with him and talk football for hours. I have no doubt about his football acumen, and I think he has a brilliant football mind."

Offensively, where Hackett's specialty lies, his philosophy has developed to include key elements of different systems. And, perhaps most importantly, he preached the importance of being adaptable as an offense.

"First and foremost, any offense that you have, it has to be maneuverable and it has to be adjustable for whoever you have on your team," Hackett said. "It's about finding out what your guys do the best and being able to do that over and over again, taking advantage of their skill set. You want to have enough that you can do so many different things and adjust, because there's injuries. There's nothing you can do about that in football. That's just how it is. You have to be able to maneuver that.

"The starting point is outside zone. Outside zone is what you want to do on offense and you want to base that off of play[-action] pass. You want to make the defense cover the entire field. And you want to take shots down the field. Let's all face it: That's what the people in the stands love. They love those bombs down the field. I remember watching John Elway throw the ball down the field to [Ed] McCaffrey on all those boot fakes. That was unbelievable. This is really where this system kind of evolved from and was created. You're always looking for that. And then mixing in that West Coast principle of the drop-back game. ... That's kind of a quick summary. So many fun things to talk about with the offense."

At quarterback — a position Hackett said he and Paton would soon evaluate — Hackett said he most values toughness and intelligence and wants a "can't-stop-me mentality" from his signal caller.

Defensively, Hackett's philosophy stems from what makes his job as a play-caller most difficult.

"I think when I look at defense, I look at defenses that are most difficult for me to go against," Hackett said. "I think any time you're looking at a defense, when the front structure is changing and when you don't know what coverage it is, those are the two things that I'm always going to be looking for. I never want somebody to know exactly what they're getting. When I know exactly what you're getting, good things are going to happen — you're hoping, if everybody can execute the right way. I think those are two of the biggest staples for me."

Then, of course, there's everything else that goes with being a head coach. The Broncos' new leader said he learned lessons from Packers head coach Matt LaFleur about how to both call plays and and lead a football staff. Hackett, who will call plays in Denver, said it begins with being able to budget your time.

"Understand what you need to get done so you have the ability to be great on game day," Hackett said. "In the end, that's the most important thing. I think for me it's about being able to budget all my time, being efficient. That's something I pride myself in, is not wasting a lot of time. Making sure everybody's prepared and ready and to be able to do that is having that great staff. You have that great staff, and you're very capable of doing anything. Very excited to get back to doing that."

As part of his new responsibilities, Hackett must determine how reliant the Broncos will be on analytics and how he'll manage in-game scenarios.

Hackett said analytics are "awesome" and that he's been "enamored" with the numbers in football since serving as a quality control coach.

"They're a great way to check what you're doing yourself," Hackett said. "Any decision you have out on that field, it's very quick. I think the more that you have that analytical data to help you make that better decision, it's going to help the whole team. I think we'll use that quite a bit. It's not necessarily going to be the only thing. … We're definitely going to utilize it to help us makes great decisions."

The in-game decisions — for both fourth downs and when to call timeouts — may necessitate the dedication of a full-time staff member. Hackett said he'll evaluate that option, but he noted the importance of the role in football.

"I think the starting point is getting a great game-management guy and somebody that's there," Hackett said. "Let's face it, we see it every week. That's really the big difference between a lot of games. I think it's about having somebody good that can kind of always be there to guide you as you're going into a game. But practice is big. You've got to work situations all the time. Working those situations isn't fun for the guys sometimes because you've got to slow it down, you've got to talk through it. Sometimes their minds go. But you've got to put them in it as much as you can, because in the heat of the battle you want them to react the right way. Again, you just always want somebody in your ear that's doing a good job."

That's just a small piece of the puzzle that will define Hackett's strategy as a head coach, and he knows the various aspects must work in concert to lead to success.

"It's about all of us coming together and making something special here and really making Broncos Country proud," Hackett said. "That's what it's all about. We've got to win some games."

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