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Broncos fire coach Nathaniel Hackett after 4-11 start to first season in Denver

What was once an exciting coach and quarterback pairing in Denver didn't last a full season.

The Broncos fired Nathaniel Hackett on Monday, ending his tenure in Denver after just 15 games (4-11).

"On behalf of our ownership and organization, I want to thank Nathaniel Hackett for his dedication as head coach of the Denver Broncos," team owner and CEO Greg Penner said in the statement. "We sincerely appreciate Nathaniel's efforts and wish him and his family all the best in the future.

"Following extensive conversations with (general manager) George (Paton) and our ownership group, we determined a new direction would ultimately be in the best interest of the Broncos. This change was made now out of respect for everyone involved and allows us to immediately begin the search for a new head coach.

"We recognize and appreciate this organization's championship history, and we understand we have not met that standard. Our fans deserve much better, and I can't say enough about their loyalty during such a challenging stretch for our team. Moving forward, we will carefully evaluate every aspect of our football operations and make whatever changes are necessary to restore this franchise's winning tradition."

Senior assistant Jerry Rosburg will serve as the Broncos' interim coach for the remaining two games of the season, NFL Network Insider Tom Pelissero and NFL Network's James Palmer reported Monday, per sources. Denver later made Rosburg's interim ascension official and later Monday evening announced the firings of special teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes and offensive line coach Butch Barry. Special teams assistant Mike Mallory will take over for Stukes and assistant offensive line coach Ben Steele will assume Barry's role.

Hackett ascended to head coach in Denver after a number of stops in college football and the NFL, drawing attention from interested teams by coordinating Matt LaFleur's high-powered offense in Green Bay from 2019 to 2021. Hackett's background led Denver to believe it had the right coach to pair with a newly acquired quarterback, and the Broncos followed suit by pulling off a blockbuster deal for Russell Wilson.

Hackett's first press conference following the Wilson trade stands as the high point of their partnership. Grinning from ear to ear, Hackett bear-hugged Paton, then leaned into the microphone, exclaiming, "Wow!"

"Come on, y'all!" Hackett said. "Russell Wilson!

"We're gonna be throwing that thing down the field. That's so exciting."

Instead of basking in the glow of another rainbow toss from Wilson to one of his pass catchers, Broncos fans quickly realized they might rather throw their remotes at their televisions. Hackett's head-coaching debut -- in which he mismanaged the clock in the game's final minutes and ended up settling for a doomed field goal attempt from 64 yards out -- proved to be foreboding.

It was just the beginning of an ugly month for the Hackett-led Broncos, who consistently appeared underprepared and disorganized, so much so that fans at Empower Field at Mile High resorted to sarcastically counting down the play clock in a Week 2 game in order to help their beloved Broncos snap the ball in time. The frustration didn't end with pre-snap issues, though: Denver also failed to score a touchdown in five straight goal-to-go situations, tying the longest such streak by any team to start a season in the last 30 years.

It took months for Hackett's Broncos to get the basics figured out. In that span, he acknowledged his shortcomings, hiring Rosburg to help him with game-day management. But even after Hackett's staff worked out some of the early kinks, it became painfully evident the Broncos' highly touted offseason wasn't going to produce a winner.

This firing is not solely reflective of Hackett's performance. He appeared to be very much overwhelmed by the duties of being a head coach during games, but his partnership with Wilson ended up being his undoing. Instead of watching Wilson work his magic -- or as fans in Seattle once referred to it, cook -- the Denver faithful agonized over their team's failures as Wilson struggled to perform even remotely near his former Pro Bowl level. Through 16 weeks, Wilson completed a career-low 60.1 percent of his passes for 3,019 yards, a 12-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a career-worst passer rating of 82.6. For much of the season, he looked like an over-the-hill quarterback, not an elite signal-caller worthy of the massive package sent to Seattle to acquire him and contract extension he thereafter signed.

The dream-like pairing of coach and quarterback failed spectacularly, with Denver's humiliating blowout loss to the lowly Los Angeles Rams on Christmas Day serving as the final nail. An offense that entered Week 16 ranking last in scoring and on third down, 27th in total offense, 23rd in rushing and 22nd in passing took the field in Inglewood, California, and turned it over four times. Wilson was responsible for three of them (via interception), and by the time the Broncos reached the midway point of the second quarter, it became painfully clear they didn't have much of a chance of winning.

There were fleeting glimmers of hope along the way. The Broncos managed to sneak past the Texans in Week 2 and defeated the 49ers 11-10 in Week 3, improving to 2-1 in optimistic, but largely unimpressive fashion. After losing four straight, Denver won a thriller over Jacksonville in London, then took down another disappointing team in Arizona after another lengthy stretch of defeats.

Throughout the season, Denver's top-five defense kept things close. Eight of the Broncos' 11 losses ended in one-score differences. But instead of serving as a beacon of encouragement, this reality only further emphasized the failures of the Hackett and Wilson-led offense.

"I've never really lost many games like this," Wilson said following a 10-9 loss to Baltimore in early December. "It's a new feeling -- one I don't like, one I don't want to experience and one we have to figure out how to … not experience this as a collective group. I'm used to us finding ways to win."

The inability to course-correct cost Hackett his job, and he might not be the only one packing his bags in the months ahead. In his Monday statement, Penner expressed confidence in Paton as the team's GM, but the trade for Wilson -- which included the Broncos sending their 2023 first-round pick to Seattle -- stands as a massive blemish on his résumé. Paton's subsequent decision to sign Wilson to a massive extension and effectively double down on the QB as the face of the franchise only makes the move worse.

Denver isn't necessarily tied to Wilson, though. The Broncos could cut him as a post-June 1 designation, swiftly admitting they made a gigantic mistake while also accepting a $39 million hit in dead cap for 2023 and $68 million in '24, per Over The Cap.

But doing so wouldn't help anyone's cause, at least not in the short term. Since winning Super Bowl 50 and sending Peyton Manning off into the sunset of retirement, Denver has trudged through the undesirable swamps of irrelevance because it hasn't found a proper replacement for the legendary quarterback. A number of players have come and gone -- Paxton Lynch, Joe Flacco, Case Keenum, Trevor Siemian, Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater among them -- and Wilson appears to be the latest and largest dart thrown at Denver's signal-calling board.

Like the others, he's so far landed nowhere near the bullseye. 

From what we've seen from Wilson this season, the Broncos appear stuck in the same predicament they've been in since Manning's retirement: talented enough to reach the playoffs, but lacking a quarterback to get them there. Wilson's future, and the significant financial commitment the team has made to him, will undoubtedly factor into all discussions with prospective coaching candidates. As a result, what should be among the most desirable jobs in football may end up giving potential replacements reason to pause.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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