It’s the Curse of Nathaniel Hackett.
Maybe that’s one way to explain the horrendous start for the Denver Broncos under Sean Payton – emphatically underscored by the embarrassment of a 70-20 blowout at Miami last weekend – a few weeks after he sharply criticized his predecessor while opening his first training camp.
Hackett, now coordinating a New York Jets offense that is cursed in another sense, might be associated with something historic here. Think of the jinxes of sporting lore. You know, there was The Curse of Bobby Layne. The Curse of the Billy Goat. The Curse of the Bambino. The Talladega Jinx.
Just kidding. I think.
It was no joke, though, when Payton, during an extensive interview in July, told USA TODAY Sports of the debacle of a season last year under the previous, Hackett-led Broncos staff, "It might have been one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL. That’s how bad it was."
The candor was appreciated, but they are haunting words about now after the Broncos burst out the gate … and fell flat on their face.
Of course, there’s no blaming Hackett for what’s gone down for the Broncos on Payton’s watch with an 0-3 start. Hackett, way over his head and fired before completing one season as Denver’s coach, was bad enough when it was his team. But that’s old news.
Payton, lured to Denver with a huge contract while bringing a Super Bowl championship-stamped resume, is supposed to be the coach to fix the football for a franchise that hasn’t sniffed a winning season since 2016. Well, so far, he’s showing that the Broncos can be even worse.
As he sat in his office in late July, Payton sounded so convincing as he told me he would be “pissed” if the Broncos were not a playoff team. This season. It was a strong message about expectations. And he did not sound like a man with a lot of patience for slowly rebuilding.
Well, you know what the chances of making the playoffs are for a team that starts 0-3?
That’s one of the reality checks the Broncos are confronted with while trying to find themselves in the aftermath of one of the most lopsided losses in NFL history.
Now that stain is on Payton’s resume, too, although it doesn’t define him. Maybe it’s a symbolic starting point as it represents another monumental challenge. During his tenure in New Orleans, Payton was key to a revival that went beyond football as the Saints helped rally the morale of an entire region rebuilding from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. A few years later, he absorbed the personal setback of a one-year suspension from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after a bounty scandal was exposed. He had the misfortune, too, of officials missing an obvious pass interference call near the goal line late in fourth quarter of the 2018 NFC title game. It likely cost the Saints another Super Bowl berth.
So, here’s a new type of challenge for Payton, who upon arrival generated so much excitement for a rabid fan base but has started with such a thud. After losing the opener to a dreaded divisional rival (the Las Vegas Raiders), Denver blew an 18-point lead in falling to the Washington Commanders. Then came Miami.
"First off to the fans, we’re going to work our tails off and get this ship straightened away," Payton said during a media conference call on Monday. "That’s going to happen. There’s going to be a process involved in that. Certainly, there’s a lot of work ahead of us."
Payton considered not even showing his team the film from the worst loss in franchise history. The defense gave up 10 touchdowns, was shredded for 726 yards (376 passing, 350 rushing). According to Pro Football Focus, the Broncos committed 24 missed tackles, which added to speculation that the Vance Joseph-coordinated unit just flat-out quit. The misery for the offense included two lost fumbles and two touchdowns that were nullified by penalties.
"This is one of those weeks when you take a butt-whooping like that, you find out about everyone," Payton said. "It’s a tough film to watch. I debated whether we were going to show it or not, but I think we would be remiss if we didn’t. We have to sit here – as unpleasant as it’s going to be – we have to get these things cleaned up."
The clean-up includes the coaching, Payton said. He pointed to the attention to detail at practice (or lack thereof) as an issue but allowed that he’s not considering changes to his staff. He also harped on about grit needed to rebound.
"Grit applies for all of us," Payton said. "It’s not just a player thing. It’s a coach thing. It’s for every one of us. There’s a mental toughness and fortitude. Is it something you’re born with or something you develop? Probably a little of each."
It figures that, given the adversity, Payton will learn much about his players individually in the coming weeks. Typically, Payton’s messaging with his team isn’t a question. Yet even that and the overall leadership can be scrutinized when crisis comes.
Perhaps Payton’s first victory as Broncos coach will come on Sunday in a matchup of winless teams at Chicago. If so, it might be a sign that the Miami nightmare won’t linger.
"One can’t become two, can’t become three," Payton said. "If we allow that to happen, then we’re missing some of the things we’re talking about night now. That was one of the things I brought up with the team after the game, and again (Monday) morning. You lose that game, you lose it. It’s worth a loss. Now, you have to pay attention to how poor it was. You can’t ignore it or gloss over that. Then you go from there. We’ll pick ourselves up here this week and get ready to play next weekend."
Maybe it’s rock-bottom for Payton with this new gig and he will eventually succeed and restore his rep as an aggressive, cocksure coach with a plan. He’s been one of the NFL’s best coaches for a long time, but he has to prove it again. And that could take a while.
I’m not going to bet against Payton ultimately winning. But how? Not by losing. It has already been suggested that the Broncos tank this season, then select USC quarterback Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, with the top pick in the draft in April.
It’s tough to imagine Payton wanting to lose for draft-day positioning. He has too much pride for that. After all, there’s a curse to extinguish.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sean Payton, Denver Broncos haunted by coach's brash words