ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- On the doorstep of his first training camp as the Denver Broncos' head coach and offensive playcaller, what, exactly, Nathaniel Hackett will do with the team's offense is still a rather large question mark.
The Broncos haven't had a consistent answer for scoring touchdowns since a healthy Peyton Manning was behind center for all of the 2014 season. Thousands of the team's faithful will pack the hillside next to the practice field in the coming weeks with desperate hope that Hackett has the answer in 2022.
"I feel extremely confident in what we're doing," is how quarterback Russell Wilson put it during the team's offseason program. "We look really good. ... We're making touchdown plays."
Hackett spent the past three seasons as the Green Bay Packers' offensive coordinator and quarterback Aaron Rodgers won back-to-back MVP awards during that time, though head coach Matt LaFleur called the team's plays. Hackett hasn't been a primary playcaller since 2018, when then-Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone, feeling the heat of a seven-game losing streak at the time, fired Hackett.
Since he arrived in Denver, Hackett has said he intends to have an outside zone run game that powers a play-action passing attack, with plenty of roots tracing back to Mike Shanahan's best offenses with the Broncos. The offense will push the ball downfield with "those deep shots which we all love the most."
Hackett's offenses with the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars were run-heavy in these pass-happy times, but he never had a quarterback like Wilson. The Bills were first in the league in rushing attempts and second in the league in rushing in 2013. The Jaguars led the league in both carries and rushing yards in 2019. Both teams were largely run-heavy to cocoon the guys behind center, given they featured the likes of E.J. Manuel, Thad Lewis and Blake Bortles at quarterback.
Hackett has repeatedly used the word "comfortable" when describing how he will construct an offense around Wilson. For his part, Wilson has done extra work with wide receivers Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick and planned to do more in the days before training camp opens.
Jeudy was absent for much of the team's offseason program due to injuries and an arrest -- misdemeanor domestic violence charges were later dismissed, but Jeudy did not participate in the on-field work while the case was being reviewed by the Arapahoe County district attorney. Since Jeudy wasn't on the field, the true picture of how Wilson will react in certain situations and where he chooses to go with the ball was not all that clear.
What was clear during the offseason work is that the Broncos will have a better-constructed route tree to offer more catch-and-run opportunities for the group and the commitment to the play-action passing game should offer more downfield chances.
Consider: Last season Sutton, Patrick and Jeudy combined for just seven touchdown receptions and Jeudy didn't have any.
"Outside run, throwing it deep, everything plays off each other," Patrick said. "There's no tells in our plays. We have, I guess you could say, five routes that all look the same, and so you can never just key in on one route. The defense has to play us honestly, especially corners."
With LaFleur calling plays, the Packers' run totals were similar to the Broncos' over the past three seasons, as in almost the same. In 2019 the Packers had two more carries for the season than the Broncos did, in 2020 it was just one more carry, and last season the Broncos had nine more carries than the Packers.
The major difference between those two offenses was Rodgers, who was far more proficient throwing the ball than the Broncos' carousel of quarterbacks. The Packers turned the ball over less often and closed out far more drives with touchdowns.
The Broncos don't have a Davante Adams-type receiving presence in the offense yet and might not ever. Wilson will likely move the ball around far more in the Broncos' offense than Rodgers did when Adams had 104 more targets than the next Green Bay player last season and 86 more targets in 2020, when Adams missed two games.
Still, the Broncos have hope following their offseason work.
"I can't say too much [but] there were touchdowns all over the field," Wilson said of the offseason work when asked how he thinks it might look.
"It's just something different that we haven't done yet," Patrick said. "Then you have to think -- we have Russ and we have Coach Hackett. They put in both of their systems together, so it's kind of a one-of-one offense. It's not something that's really been taught [here] before."