Jets' Nathaniel Hackett returns to Denver with something to prove

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Nathaniel Hackett likes to keep it light. Every Friday, the New York Jets' offensive coordinator shows his players a highlight film of touchdowns from the previous week in the NFL. He focuses on the celebrations -- the dos and don'ts. When it comes to one of the league's best rituals, he prefers group over individual.

"He emphasizes it because when we do it and we are able to score, there's more of a special meaning behind it," wide receiver Allen Lazard said.

The Jets (1-3) haven't done a lot of celebrating -- only five offensive touchdowns in four games -- but that doesn't define Hackett's start as the new OC. No, the early story is how he lost Aaron Rodgers -- his QB1 and close friend -- on the fourth play of the season to a season-ending left Achilles tear, and how he's been adjusting on the fly amid every coordinator's nightmare scenario.

This week, the story takes a different turn, as Hackett prepares to face his previous team, the Denver Broncos (1-3). Not only was he fired by them as their head coach last season after a 4-11 start, but he was trashed by his successor, Sean Payton, who told USA Today in training camp that Hackett's 15-game run with the Broncos was "one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL."

Although Payton later said the criticism was a "mistake," it sets up a delicious revenge angle. Hackett's new players and fellow coaches would like nothing more than to see a few group celebrations Sunday at Empower Field (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).

"In football life, that was like 20 years ago, so that's a non-topic," coach Robert Saleh said Monday of Payton's July bombshell. "But for Hackett, obviously, it's going to be a personal feel to go back. But I think he understands just living as a coach’s kid, understanding the process, he'll know how to handle himself. He'll know exactly how to keep his emotions in check, and make sure we do what's best for this organization and this team as it stands now. I fully expect him to be perfectly fine and levelheaded."

For coaches, it might seem long ago, but NFL fans and media don't forget rip jobs of that magnitude. It will be the story all week.

Professionally, Hackett has other things on his mind, like trying to build on Zach Wilson's career-best outing -- a 28-of-39, 245-yard performance in a 23-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. It was the first time in 26 starts he had more than one touchdown pass and no interceptions in a game, a statistic that reflects his profound struggles since being drafted No. 2 overall in 2021.

Hackett and Wilson are alike in that they're both trying to restore their reputations after getting banged around and dented. In Denver, Hackett presided over the league's 32nd-ranked scoring offense and the precipitous drop-off of quarterback Russell Wilson, who posted a career-low 38.8 Total QBR. Hackett resurfaced with the Jets and played a significant role in luring Rodgers to New York, reuniting after three seasons together with the Green Bay Packers.

Then ... the Achilles injury, requiring Hackett to reinvent an offense built around -- and, in many respects, by -- Rodgers.

"I don't think there are words to describe it," Hackett said of the season-ending injury.

Even with Rodgers in the lineup, the Jets were expecting early-season "hiccups" (Saleh's word) because of a new system, a new playcaller and some new pieces. Everything was magnified when Rodgers got hurt, resulting in a serious post-Rodgers funk -- only three touchdowns in 35 possessions, from Week 1 to Week 3.

The day after their 15-10 loss to the New England Patriots, Hackett and his assistants informed the players there would a different approach against the Chiefs.

"They're like, 'Hey, we're going in this to win this game, we're not going into it to not lose,'" center Connor McGovern said.

Instead of scheming around Wilson, Hackett decided to put the ball in his quarterback's hands, so to speak -- a show of confidence that seemed to embolden the third-year quarterback. There were a few noticeable differences between the Kansas City game and the previous two:

More first-down passing, a lot more play-action passing, more passing from the pocket and fewer plays in shotgun, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. In terms of personnel groupings, they used less "11" personnel (three wide receivers) and more two tight end packages.

The result was a more aggressive passing attack. The degree of difficulty went up, too -- a season-high 26% of his attempts were "tight window" throws -- but Wilson was up to the challenge.

"I think he did a great job of just letting Zach go out there and play comfortable and play confident and not think as much, but just react," Lazard said of Hackett, whom he knows from his Green Bay days.

"I think me and Hack are growing more trust in each other and what we’re able to do as an offense," Wilson said after the game.

Was it a philosophical shift or just a one-game thing, based on matchups and Kansas City's defensive scheme? We'll have to see how they play it against the Broncos, ranked 32nd in scoring defense, but there's no doubt about the players' preference. They love the "let 'er rip" mentality and how everyone got involved. On Sunday, 10 different players caught passes and seldom-used players such as tight end Jeremy Ruckert (two catches) and rookie wide receiver Xavier Gipson (two rushes) got multiple touches.

"I think we're going to be able to really get this going and be even more productive," said tight end C.J. Uzomah, who scored a touchdown in the game.

Going forward, Hackett can continue to help Wilson by scheming up plays with clear reads and designed man-coverage routes and feeding him a healthy dose of play-action, according to ESPN analyst and former quarterback Dan Orlovsky. This job isn't easy. When you're the Jets' offensive coordinator, it's never easy, as evidenced by the turnover: Hackett is the ninth coordinator in the last 13 seasons.

Hackett, the son of former Jets OC Paul Hackett (2001-04), grew up around the game, so he knows the scrutiny is relentless. Back in the day, his dad was heavily criticized by fans and media in New York. "All the time," Nathaniel said. "All the time." But never by a coaching colleague.

On Sunday, he gets to stand across the field from the man who took aim at him two months ago.