FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The answer of the day was “no.”
Have Sean Payton and Nathaniel Hackett spoken since the Denver Broncos’ current head coach trashed his predecessor?
“No,” Hackett said curtly before coordinating the New York Jets offense at practice on Thursday.
Did Payton reach out or Hackett not accept the call or—
“Nope,” Hackett said, before the question could finish.
Did Hackett talk to his players about the Jets’ visit to Denver this weekend and his emotions after the franchise fired him last December less than a year into his head coaching opportunity?
“Nope,” Hackett said. “Just got to get ready for another game.”
And lastly: Does he think Payton regrets the extensive disparaging comments he made in late August during a training camp interview?
“I don’t know,” Hackett said. “Ask him.”
Nathaniel Hackett says he’s not spoken with Sean Payton since Payton blasted 2022 Broncos as “one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL.”
Jets at Broncos this weekend.
“Let’s put it this way everyone: This game is about those guys out on that field. This game is… pic.twitter.com/jTglR9oVdj
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) October 5, 2023
In fairness, the perceived beef between coaches stems more from Payton’s actions than those of Hackett. Payton told USA TODAY’s Jarrett Bell in late July that Hackett’s 4-11 tenure was embarrassing for head coach, general manager and and team president. Payton aimed to redirect blame from quarterback Russell Wilson because “that was the parents who allowed” the dysfunctional system through which Denver muddied last season.
“Everything I heard about last season, we’re doing the opposite,” Payton said. “It might have been one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL. That’s how bad it was.”
Neither Hackett nor Broncos have started season smoothly
If Hackett’s 26.6% winning percentage in Denver generated such scorn, what does Payton’s 25% winning percentage warrant?
The Broncos’ 70-20 unraveling against the Miami Dolphins in Week 3 adds further insult to injury.
Realistically, neither Hackett’s Jets offense nor Payton’s Broncos operation launched this season smoothly, though each team demonstrated their growth in Week 4. Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson completed 75% of passing attempts in a 223-yard, three-touchdown performance with no mistakes. His 133.5 passer rating was the best of his Broncos tenure, guiding the Broncos to a 31-28 comeback against the Chicago Bears and their first season victory.
Jets quarterback Zach Wilson, thrust into action with Hackett after Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles four snaps into the season, played the best game of his three-year career. In a 23-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Wilson completed 71.8% of his passes for 245 yards, two touchdowns and no mistakes generating a career-best 105.2 passer rating.
The Jets struggled even to move the chains in prior games, posting 10% and 14% third-down success rates in consecutive weeks. Wilson playing more freely seemed to be key to the growth.
“I think he’s been wanting to make those throws but he’s been so worried about mistakes and turnovers,” Jets receiver Randall Cobb said. “He has the ability. And he showed it tonight.”
The Jets said Hackett also showed his ability to tailor a gameplan to a quarterback he didn’t plan to scheme for this season, all while making preparation fun during the week and explaining the reason for decisions.
“I always want to know the intention of plays, why we are putting a play in, and what the look is for,” Wilson said. “He does a great job of showing us, ‘Hey, this is what we have seen, this is why we want this play’, and just being very open to having that communication as to why he is doing something.”
Win for Jets would be a win for Hackett
So what’s the Jets’ “why” for wanting to win this week?
There’s the classic coachspeak Hackett gave, saying “every game we want to win and every game we want to put the guys in a great position.”
Wilson’s confidence, and the Jets’ confidence in him, is also at stake: Can he show that last week was the beginning of a turning point rather than a fluke? The 2021 No. 2 overall pick will face a defense that’s surrendered more points, yards, first downs, passing touchdowns and rushing yards than any club in the league. Even extracting the 70-point Dolphins performance, the Broncos allowed Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell to guide a 35-point performance and Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields to oversee a 28-point outing. Wilson will have opportunities.
And then there’s the why of wanting to defend the offensive coordinator whom the Jets speak very highly of as a person, knowing that the criticism Payton levied was outside of NFL norms and best practice.
“He got thrown under the bus – and then they tried to drag him under the bus,” center Connor McGovern told ESPN’s Rich Cimini. “To go to a place that dogging a guy that’s so nice and so good at his job, and for him to get thrown under the bus and dragged through the mud, you definitely want to play that much harder.
McGovern added that the Jets want “payback.”
Because even if blocking out the noise is a Jets rallying cry this season – Wilson conducting his Thursday locker room interview unfazed by teammates’ screams and loud thumps of a cornhole game seemed a fitting image – players know a win at Denver will mean something different.
The quarterback followed his coordinator’s lead of averting bulletin board material while also acknowledging that “to an extent,” playing for Hackett’s reputation resonates.
As of Thursday, Hackett hadn’t broached the subject in team meetings this week.
“He is a tough dude that focuses on where his focus needs to be,” Wilson said. “His focus is on helping this offense do the best we can. He doesn’t let that kind of stuff phase him at all.”
Nonetheless, a win in Denver can accomplish several goals at once.
“Absolutely we want to go get this win,” Wilson said. “For this team, for him, and everybody involved.”