Robert Saleh scoured the earth for the right offensive coordinator, interviewing “well over” 15 candidates, he said. Ultimately, though, he settled on one of the first names he put on his list when the Jets coach began looking for Mike LaFleur’s replacement.
Thursday, Saleh hired Nathaniel Hackett as his offensive coordinator, the biggest name on his list. Hackett was fired 15 games into a disastrous debut season as Broncos head coach, and the belief around the league — and even by some within the Jets organization — was that Hackett would take time off before returning to coaching.
Instead, Saleh convinced him to take control of an offense still looking for his quarterback, and in need of a reset after a problematic end to the 2022 season — with no touchdowns scored in the final three games — that ultimately led to LaFleur’s departure.
“Nathaniel checked every box,” Saleh said. “We’re just really fortunate, how much he believes in us as an organization. He could’ve sat on the couch for four years but his excitement to be here is reciprocated. He’s really excited. It’s a really, really good hire.”
Here are seven thoughts on this hire — plus the new Jets offensive line coach — and what it means for the offense, what the Jets will do at quarterback and for Zach Wilson.
Let’s get this out of the way first since it’s on everyone’s minds: Saleh insists the topic of who the Jets might pursue at quarterback this offseason was not part of the discussions with Hackett.
It’s no secret that Hackett has a close relationship with Aaron Rodgers, who — if he doesn’t retire — might be available via trade. Hackett was Rodgers’ offensive coordinator in Green Bay for his two most recent MVP award-winning seasons (2020, 2021). After Hackett was fired by the Broncos, Rodgers told Pat McAfee that “obviously it wasn’t a great fit in Denver” and that “he’s got a great friend in me still.”
Saleh said Hackett will come to the Jets’ facility next week and research all the quarterbacks, though it’s obviously hard to ignore his connection to Rodgers. Saleh admitted what the Jets do at quarterback was the “No. 1 concern” for the coaches he interviewed for the OC job, a further indication that they are prepared to move on from Wilson as their starter.
“The quarterback position was the No. 1 concern and rightfully so,” Saleh said. “It’s simple, we’re committed to finding a veteran, but we (Saleh and Hackett) didn’t get into names. I doubt he’s even studied those guys yet. He’s going to start next week. … We do plan on bringing in a veteran quarterback if we can. We do want to continue working with Zach and developing him.”
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2. How the search went
Saleh did “cast a wide net” in the offensive coordinator search, as he promised. The candidates he interviewed ranged from experienced play-callers (from varied schemes) to young coaches who haven’t called plays to college coaches. Not everyone was interested — both Darrell Bevell (Dolphins) and Joe Brady (Bills) opted to remain where they are rather than interview — but Saleh ultimately settled on a coach he describes as a “home-run” hire, especially paired with new offensive line coach Keith Carter.
Saleh interviewed all of the candidates first via Zoom, and then some — including Hackett — traveled to the Jets’ facility in Florham Park for an in-person conversation.
“When it came back to a certain checklist I was trying to go through of what I was looking for, I just kept circling back to him,” Saleh said. “He checks every box.”
Saleh said it was “important” to hire someone with experience. Hackett has been an offensive coordinator for three teams (Bills, Jaguars, Packers) and called plays to start his lone season as Broncos head coach.
“When you look at Nathaniel and this team, we knew we were going to have a revamped offensive line, we’ve been talking about getting a veteran quarterback if we can, we have a young group of skill guys,” Saleh said, “ so it was important for us to have guys who have done it before.”
The Jets will build out Hackett’s offensive scheme without knowing who the quarterback will be, but expect a heavy emphasis on the running game. As an organization, the Jets believe they can win with a top-level defense and productive rushing attack — it’s how they started 6-3 in 2022 before falling off and missing the playoffs — and adding a quality quarterback would only make that formula work even better.
3. What the offense will look like under Hackett
Hackett has a background with West Coast offenses, so don’t expect the offense to look entirely different than it did with LaFleur, who brought over his coaching philosophies from Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers.
“There’s going to be some continuity there,” Saleh said. “He’s got a proven history of being able to develop a heck of a run game in every stop he’s ever been in. He’s got a proven track record of tremendous relationships with all the quarterbacks he’s ever worked with. He’s had success with all the QBs he’s worked with. There’s a lot of strengths with him. His commitment to complementary football, the experience, he’s an innovative teacher.”
I asked Nick Kosmider, The Athletic‘s Broncos writer, what Hackett’s offensive approach looks like. Here’s what he said: “He is steeped in the outside-zone principles where you want to disguise the formation so that run and pass look the same. So he’ll want to use, say, big receivers in the slot, things like that. His optimal version of the offense was never really able to get off the ground here once they lost running back Javonte Williams. He should be able to get his system to work better with who the Jets have at running back.”
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4. What to make of Hackett’s disastrous Broncos season
Saleh attempted to divert attention away from what went wrong in Denver by calling it “recency bias” and emphasizing that Hackett got the Broncos job in the first place because of his success as an offensive coordinator. But it would be impossible to ignore what happened in Denver.
Hackett appeared to have lost control of the locker room, with teammates getting into scruffles on the sideline, when he was fired after coaching just 15 games. Quarterback Russell Wilson had the worst season of his career — 60.5 percent completion rate, 3,524 yards, 16 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and two lost fumbles. The Broncos were also the worst-scoring offense (16.9 points per game) in the NFL.
On the positive end, the Broncos were the 14th most-efficient red-zone offense (the Jets were 31st) and 17th in rushing yards per carry (the Jets were 24th), despite losing Williams.
“You’ve gotta own it. It’s part of the resume,” Saleh said. “You’ve gotta have the discipline to look past recency bias. You’ve gotta be able to look past whatever you want to call Denver. …I get it. I get the feeling, but you’ve gotta be able to understand he was a celebrated hire when he got hired by Denver and it just didn’t work out. Sometimes things happen that way.”
5. The rest of the offensive staff
Saleh seemed even more amped up about adding Carter as offensive line coach and run game coordinator, replacing the fired John Benton. Carter spent the last five seasons as the Titans’ offensive line coach before they parted ways this offseason due to “philosophical differences,” Saleh said, who called him a “hard-nosed, hard-charging football coach that we’re really excited to get.”
Carter has a difficult job ahead in helping to rebuild an offensive line that was in shambles at the end of last season. Only two offensive linemen who started in 2022 — guard Laken Tomlinson and Alijah Vera-Tucker, who can play guard or tackle — are viewed as locks to start in 2023. Left tackle Duane Brown might return, but he could also retire or be cut for cap savings. Right tackle George Fant, right guard Nate Herbig and center Connor McGovern are all free agents. Tackle Mekhi Becton has missed all but one game the last two seasons with injuries, and tackle Max Mitchell was put on the non-football injury list in December.
Carter does have a proven track record, though. Over five seasons in Tennessee, this is where the Titans ranked in pressure rate allowed and successful play rate on rushing attempts, per TruMedia:
2018: 11th, 21st
2019: 9th, 11th
2020: 15th, 6th
2021: 18th, 25th
2022: 30th, 28th
The Jets also still have to fill a hole at wide receivers coach after Miles Austin was fired. Expect some continuity on staff, though it wouldn’t be surprising if Hackett brought in many of his own people at certain spots. Saleh also said he still intends to add a senior offensive assistant to the staff.
6. Hackett’s history as an OC
Hackett has an up-and-down history as an offensive coordinator. He’s only been the primary play-caller with the Jaguars and in his short tenure with the Broncos. The Jaguars had one great season with Hackett as OC, in 2017 (sixth in yardage, fifth in scoring), and two others that weren’t as good. In 2016, they ranked 23rd in yardage and 25th in scoring. In 2018: 27th in yardage and 31st in scoring.
Hackett was the Bills’ offensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014. In those years, Buffalo ranked 19th and 26th in yardage, and 22nd and 18th in scoring. It should be noted that Hackett’s starting quarterbacks were Blake Bortles, EJ Manuel, Cody Kessler, Thaddeus Lewis, Kyle Orton and Jeff Tuel.
Hackett also played an important role in Rodgers’ two MVP seasons. Packers coach Matt LaFleur called the plays, but Hackett oversaw red-zone planning and was heavily involved in the game plan, too. In Hackett’s three years as Packers offensive coordinator (2019-21), Green Bay ranked 15th, first and 10th in scoring, and 18th, fifth and 10th in yardage.
7. What it means for Zach Wilson
The Jets have been open about their desire to upgrade at quarterback, in so many words admitting that Wilson will not be their starter in 2023. Whether that means adding Rodgers, Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, Ryan Tannehill or someone else, Wilson is viewed more as a developmental project than a starting quarterback right now.
“Zach, we still have a lot of faith in him,” Saleh said. “He does things with the football in his arm that you can’t teach and he’s still young. He’s only 23 years old and he’s already got two years under his belt in this league. We just want to make sure we give him every opportunity to grow and develop. … We’re confident in Nathaniel and his ability to do that.”
(Top photo: AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)