Broncos Decision Makers ‘On Notice’ as NFL Execs Paint Ugly Picture of Future

Nathaniel Hackett Broncos

Getty Denver Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett.

It’s time.

For the Denver Broncos, following a woefully disastrous 23-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers where the game was never even competitive, Sunday’s eighth defeat of the season should trigger owners Rob Walton and Greg Penner to pull the ripcord on Nathaniel Hackett’s failed tenure as head coach.

“I think they definitely look into moving on,” a current NFL general manager told Heavy, when asked if there’s any chance the Broncos fire Hackett just 11 games into his tenure. “There’s not a lot of hope there.”

Sunday’s Week 12 loss was emblematic of what has plagued Denver’s broken offense all season, despite Hackett’s arrival in the Mile High City being hailed as the coach to finally fix that side of the football. Russell Wilson was held to 142 yards, as the Broncos averaged only 3.3 yards per pass play.

An AFC South scouting director didn’t hold back when it comes to how the Broncos should handle Hackett.

“Cut your losses,” the scouting director told Heavy. “No way of overcoming this season. I like George [Paton] but he made this hire and trade for Wilson which puts him on notice.”

Wilson shares an equal portion of the blame for the Broncos’ 3-8 start.

The veteran quarterback simply has been miscast in Hackett’s system. Wilson is currently listed as Pro Football Focus’ No. 32 ranked starting quarterback, having completed a career-low 59.5% of his passes for 2,227 yards with 7 touchdowns to 5 interceptions.

Paton traded quarterback Drew Lock, defensive tackle Shelby Harris, tight end Noah Fant and five draft picks, including first-round selections in 2022 and 2023, to the Seahawks in exchange for Wilson and a 2022 fourth-round pick. Compounding mistakes, the Broncos immediately signed Wilson to a five-year contract worth $165 million guaranteed.

Wilson’s season has been disastrous and has the chance to torpedo the Broncos’ future.

“[Wilson] looks done,” the scouting director said. “But they are married to
him. So they need to build around him for next year. But good luck getting free agents.”

Paton — or whoever is the general manager this winter — and the Broncos could be facing a dark reality. With just $13 million in cap space,  a myriad of needs, and an aging quarterback who is rapidly declining with no end to his descent in sight, finding an upgrade over Hackett may prove challenging.

“Remember, none of the really good candidates will want that job,” the scouting director said.

Sunday exposed just how far away the Broncos are. Fixing them might prove daunting.

Here are 10 other takeaways from Week 12 action across the NFL.

Joe Burrow Makes Titans Pay in Barometer Game

If Sunday’s rematch of the 2021-22 AFC Divisional game was a litmus test of this incarnation of the Bengals’ chances at making a run this postseason, Joe Burrow and Cincinnati left little doubt.

Somewhat inexplicably, the Tennessee Titans continued to play a glorified prevent defense against the Bengals, despite All-Pro wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and running back Joe Mixon sidelined. It went about as well as one would expect, against Burrow.

Burrow finished 22-of-37 passing for 270 yards with 1 touchdown. Samaje Perine rushed for 58 yards and 1 touchdown, in place of Mixon. Meanwhile, Tee Higgins looked every bit capable of being a true No. 1 wide receiver, pulling down 7 of 9 targets for 114 yards and 1 touchdown.

Tennessee could barely breathe on Burrow, sacking him once and hitting him 4 times. Burrow’s clean pocket was both a testament to the Titans’ questionable defensive game plan and the talent of the Bengals’ offensive line finally shining through after time to develop the kind of cohesion that championship lines are built on.

If teams aren’t able to learn from the Titans’ mistakes and find a way to generate pressure without blitzing Burrow, he’s going to win. The choice might be selling out to stop Mixon and take away the Bengals’ underneath routes or protect against the big plays over the top against Chase, Higgins and Boyd. Burrow has proven lethally efficient at winning under either circumstance.

For the Chiefs, It’s Winning Time

Just call Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes Messrs November and December.

Reid’s teams, dating back to his days at the helm of the Philadelphia Eagles have always been historically dominant in November and December. All-time, Reid’s teams are 60-31-1 in November, including 26-9 in Kansas City.

The Chiefs, with Mahomes behind center, have been no different.

Following Sunday’s thoroughly dominant 26-10 dismantling of the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams improved Mahomes’ record, as the Fox broadcast pointed out, to 26-0 over his past 26 starts in November and December.

Against the Rams on Sunday afternoon, the Chiefs’ defense rose to the occasion, playing a starring role in Kansas City’s victory.

Defensive tackle Frank Clark was unblockable; logging 6 total tackles, 1 quarterback hit and 1 pass breakup. Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed slammed the door shut on any remaining hope the Rams may have had, intercepting Bryce Perkins with 8:15 remaining in the fourth quarter that the Chiefs converted into a field goal.

When the Chiefs won the Super Bowl following the 2019 season, Kansas City finished No. 7 in total defense. Sunday’s performance, holding the Rams to just 198 yards of total offense, 10 points, and forcing a pair of turnovers could be a step towards replicating that success down the stretch.

Broncos CB Patrick Surtain Deserves Benefit of Doubt

It’s been a brutal two-game stretch for Patrick Surtain.

The second-year Broncos cornerback was absolutely toasted by Carolina Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore on Sunday afternoon for a 52-yard bomb from quarterback Sam Darnold down the sideline to open the fourth quarter. Sunday’s deep ball came just one week after Surtain allowed the game-winning touchdown to Raiders All-Pro Davante Adams.

Surtain entered Sunday with an 81.4 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus, despite a brutally difficult stretch against two of the more accomplished route-runners in the game.

According to one long-time personnel evaluator, in attendance for Panthers-Broncos in Charlotte, Surtain has earned the benefit of the doubt.

“Nothing’s changed,” the executive told Heavy. “He’s still a stud. Corners get beat sometimes. We don’t scout one play. We scout games.”

Surtain’s road won’t get any easier down the stretch. Denver still has a pair of contests against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ taxing perimeter offense, Justin Herbert’s Los Angeles Chargers, Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens, and the Cardinals’ receiving corps led by All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins. But, Surtain’s talent is obvious. And, the 22-year-old has a bright future in front of him.

The 49ers Should Frighten the NFC

San Francisco looks more like a legitimate Super Bowl contender each week.

The 49ers have all of the pieces in place to make a lengthy postseason run, and they were all on display in a 13-0 shutout of the New Orleans Saints in Santa Clara, California.

Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans continues to strengthen his resumé as a top head coaching candidate in 2023, holding New Orleans to 260 yards of total offense, 0-for-1 on 4th down and 0-for-2 in the red zone, including Talanoa Hufanga coming in like a heat-seeking missile and forcing an Alvin Kamara fumble at the goal-line.

Sunday was a complete domination by the 49ers’ defense that has risen to No. 1 in total defense (283.9 yards per game), No. 3 in passing defense (202.8 yards per game), No. 1 in rushing defense (81.1 yards per game), and trail the Cowboys for the league’s stingiest scoring defense by 0.3 points per game.

San Francisco’s defensive dominance is nothing new. It’s been a hallmark of Ryans’ tenure. But, the 49ers are suddenly inside the top 10 in total offense, passing offense, and 11th in the NFL in rushing offense.

During the 49ers’ four-game winning streak, Ryans’ defense has held opponents to 10 points per game.

In short, the Niners are getting hot at the right time.

“Our defense has always been amazing,” 49ers veteran offensive lineman Daniel Brunskill said during a recent appearance on Heavy Sports’ The Matt Lombardo Show. “And so right now … we have all these great players that we get the ball to them in space, they can make plays. And right now, it’s just making sure that we can consistently keep our tempo as we’re going and not let like a defense shut us down.”

Sunday, the 49ers’ defense shut down the Saints and gave little reason to believe they won’t continue to dominate their opponents. That should terrify every team in the NFC.

Trevor Lawrence Becomes Jaguars’ Franchise QB With Epic Comeback

Trevor Lawrence became a legitimate franchise quarterback before our eyes against the Baltimore Ravens.

In the 4th quarter Sunday, Lawrence matched Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens punch for punch, converting the Jaguars’ final three possessions into a touchdown, a field goal, and the eventual game-winning touchdown with 14 seconds remaining as the exclamation point to a 10-play, 80-yard sojourn against the Ravens’ swarming defense.

Sunday’s victory was just Lawrence’s third career fourth-quarter comeback, as the 2021 No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft came of age before our eyes in a thrilling 28-27 win.

Lawrence completed 29-of-37 passes for a season-high 321 yards and 3 touchdowns against Baltimore, building on a 229-yard, 2-touchdown showing in a Week 10 loss to the Chiefs.

Doug Pederson trusted Lawrence to go for two points after Wilson’s pinpoint back-shoulder throw in the back of the end zone to Marvin Jones, and Lawrence delivered a perfect strike to Zay Jones for the conversion. Lawrence seems primed to deliver even more big moments and big wins in Jacksonville.

Mike White Shows Jets What They’ve Been Missing

Mike White and the New York Jets’ offense couldn’t have started faster.

In the driving East Rutherford rain, White and the Jets barnstormed to a 17-10 lead over the Justin Fields-less Chicago Bears, as White completed 16-of-20 first-half passing attempts for 235 yards and 2 touchdowns. Zach Wilson, who was unceremoniously benched this week for White, only surpassed 235 passing yards twice this season.

White was steady and capable amid a consistently steady downpour against a beleaguered Bears secondary. It didn’t appear that Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur simplified the scheme, either, for the veteran backup. The Jets continuously attacked the Bears’ defense on underneath routes and allowed the likes of rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson and tight end C.J. Uzomah to feast after the catch.

“He made easy look easy,” Jets head coach Robert Saleh told reporters following Sunday’s game.

New York has the talent on offense to contend, perhaps the missing piece and perfect fit for this offense has been a competent facilitator at quarterback.

The Jets’ offense worked as efficiently as it was designed to, as White carved up the Bears finishing 22-of-28 passing for 315 yards with 3 touchdowns in a game where the outcome was decided by the end of the third quarter.

White’s performance was strong enough to at least give the Jets a difficult decision about Wilson’s immediate future.

If the goal is to make a playoff push, the best place for Wilson for this team and his own future is on the sideline holding a clipboard and wearing a headset.

Commanders RB Brian Robinson Continues to Inspire

Washington Commanders running back Brian Robinson’s inspiring rookie season seemingly reached a crescendo against the Atlanta Falcons.

Robinson, who you’ll recall was shot twice during an attempted robbery on August 28, ran wild against the Atlanta Falcons. The Commanders’ third-round pick averaged 5.8 yards per carry against Atlanta, while rushing for a career-high 105 yards, and flashed his versatility by catching 2 passes for 20 yards and a touchdown.

Even in a timeshare situation with Antonio Gibson, Robinson has been separating himself in recent weeks. Over Washington’s past three games, Robinson has rushed for 248 yards and 1 touchdown, while averaging 4.2 yards per carry.

From a tragic beginning to his NFL career, Robinson’s efforts have been nothing short of heroic, and he’s shown an ability to be a key young piece in Washington’s offense for years to come.

Browns Ground Attack Keeps Cleveland in Striking Distance as Deshaun Watson Return Looms

The Cleveland Browns’ strategy for the 2022 campaign seemed to be to survive Deshaun Watson’s 11-game suspension and be within striking distance as soon as he’s eligible to return.

Watson, embroiled in 24 accusations of sexual harassment or assault by 24 women, is eligible to return Monday, November 28 and play in Week 13 against the lowly Houston Texans, his former club.

Sunday, the Browns kept their faint postseason hopes alive by following what has become the offense’s formula all season long; riding the running game and limiting mistakes from quarterback Jacoby Brissett to a 23-17 overtime win over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Next week, Watson will presumably return to the starting role of an offense that was just led by Nick Chubb’s 116 rushing yards and a touchdown, and that featured Amari Cooper breaking the game open with 7 catches for 94 yards, including a 46-yard strike from Brissett to set up Chubb’s game-winning score.

With Watson back, the Browns enter Week 13 sitting three games back of the final playoff spot in the AFC, and the eighth-easiest remaining strength of schedule. The opportunity is there, the formula is there, and now it becomes whether Watson can lead the Browns back.

Seahawks Have Massive Opportunity

Despite Sunday’s overtime loss to the Raiders, few teams are better positioned for the future than the Seattle Seahawks.

After unloading Wilson to the Broncos, general manager John Schneider is armed with upwards of $46 million in cap space, currently fifth-most in the NFL, to buttress a roster that has punched above its weight all season thanks to strong coaching from Pete Caroll and staff along with Geno Smith playing himself into the fringes of the MVP conversation.

However, what could position Seattle to vault to the top of the NFC West hierarchy is the fact that if the regular season ended on Monday, November 28, Schneider and the Seahawks would be picking No. 4 overall in the 2023 NFL draft. Likewise, Seattle’s own pick is currently projected to be No. 16 overall. Quite the war chest.

Seattle would be in prime position for a quarterback such as C.J. Stroud or Will Levis, or one of the top pass rushers in next spring’s class.

Currently inside the NFC playoff picture, the Seahawks have the very real possibility of gaining postseason experience for the players on the roster and picking possibly as high as the top-5 picks in next spring’s draft.

For his efforts, Schneider should garner significant Executive of the Year consideration. Schneider might end next spring with the pieces in place for the Seahawks to become a juggernaut.

The NFL Really Does Own Thanksgiving

If there were ever a doubt that the NFL is as synonymous with Thanksgiving as turkey and pumpkin pie, they were put to rest Thursday.

Beyond the league’s stirring tributes to the late John Madden on all three broadcasts; across the networks of CBS, FOX, and NBC that made Madden a Hall of Fame presence in the broadcast booth, the NFL owned America’s eyeballs.

Not only was the New York Giants versus Dallas Cowboys set the all-time record for the most-watched regular season game ever — with 42 million viewers tuned into FOX across the network and streaming — but the Detroit Lions versus Buffalo Bills averaged 31.63 million viewers, according to the Hollywood Reporter, setting an early-window Thanksgiving record. The thrilling finale between the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots on Thursday night drew 26 million viewers.

By comparison, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade’s audience drew 22.3 million people to their televisions and devices Thursday morning.

Yeah, it’s good to be the NFL, it’s good to be king.

The NFL’s Thanksgiving success has led the league to schedule three games on Christmas Day, effectively challenging the NBA’s historic presence over that holiday. If Thursday is any indication, Joel Embiid, LeBron James and Steph Curry might have some competition on their hands to maintain the association’s grip on Christmas.

Week 12 MVP: Raiders RB Josh Jacobs

The suddenly firing-on-all-cylinders Las Vegas Raiders ran past the Seahawks 40-34 in Seattle for a second consecutive overtime win. This time, knocking off a balanced and legitimate NFC contender.

Josh Jacobs put the Raiders on his back against the Seahawks and took over the game.

Jacobs rushed for a franchise record 229 yards with 2 touchdowns, including an 86-yard game-winner right through the heart of the Seahawks’ front seven and Seattle’s chances of climbing the NFC playoff ladder.

“He has really good contact balance, vision, and run instincts,” an AFC scout told Heavy of Jacobs. “He’s one of the more competitive and tough players you’ll see. To come from where he did and make it you have to be.”

The Raiders’ workhorse averaged 6.9 yards per carry on 33 rushing attempts against the Seahawks. That’s not all, Jacobs added 6 receptions for a season-high 74 yards.

Las Vegas won’t be making the postseason in 2022. But, Jacobs’ dominance Sunday as the offense has suddenly begun an ascent could be a preview of what’s to come down the stretch for this team this season, and beyond.

Week 12 Breakout Star: Titans WR Treylon Burks

Rookie Treylon Burks scored his first career NFL touchdown in a losing effort against the Bengals on Sunday afternoon, but probably not the way the 22-year-old drew it up growing up.

As Derrick Henry sprinted downfield on what looked like a 69-yard touchdown, the veteran running back had the football punched from his grasp at the 5-yard line, and Burks fell on it in the end zone to lift the Titans to 10-3 second-quarter lead.

Burks added 70 receiving yards, continuing an upward trajectory reminiscent of A.J. Brown’s career in Tennessee. Over the past two games, Burks has averaged 16.8 yards per reception and continues to carve out a significant role in the Titans’ passing game.