Green Bay Packers

Can Nathaniel Hack It As the Packers Playcaller?

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Please, please, hold your applause.

Being a candidate for Pun of the Year aside, there’s reason to believe that Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett will significantly impact the team’s performance in the 2021 season. Head coach Matt LaFleur indicated this himself:

The date of the proclamation above is important. LaFleur handing over play-calling duties to, well, anyone else is probably a good thing at this point, at least from an optical standpoint. Not that Green Bay would have won last year’s NFC Championship with a touchdown instead of that field goal anyway, but the supposed analytically savvy move did nothing but generate negative PR and give an excuse to armchair absolutists on Twitter to tear the young HC to shreds.

This discontent with the play-calling and misuse of talented players can be traced back to late-stage McCarthyism — or, in more contemporary terms, the end of previous head coach Mike McCarthy’s tenure. Aaron Rodgers certainly was not a fan of whatever the hell McCarthy was trying to cook up during his last few years. Thankfully, it would seem that the only lingering remnants of McCarthy’s influence is Green Bay’s propensity to take those horrific first-drive-of-the-half timeouts.

If LaFleur sticks to his word and truly hands over the play-calling duties to Hackett, some of the head-scratching calls may dissipate. Not that it’s been all doom and gloom over in Titletown — the Packers did boast the best red-zone offense last season, largely thanks to LaFleur’s and Hackett’s joint influence — but a breath of fresh air in the playbook may help to wash away the stink of that excruciating, back-breaking, cowardly field goal call.

Hackett’s Resumé

Hackett’s track record suggests a murky picture of what could have been. His first job as offensive coordinator at the pro level came in 2013 with the Buffalo Bills. Somehow Hackett managed to produce the second-most rushing yards in the league that year (2,307) with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller as his one-two punch at running back. Boy, remember those guys?

Now, hold on a second: That same Bills team was the one that was trying to justify the decision to draft EJ Manuel to replace the ghost of Kevin Kolb. There was a significant dearth of talent in Buffalo, and their solution was to hide Manuel and keep pounding the ball with Old Man Jackson and Spiller — who, admittedly, looked like he had a bright future at the time. Their middling offense (ranked 22nd in 2013 and 18th in 2014) sputtered during Hackett and head coach Doug Marrone’s tenure, and both running backs are let go after two years in Buffalo.

Fast forward to 2017, when Marrone gets promoted to head coach of the Jaguars after the franchise got rid of Gus Bradley following his 2-12 start. Marrone decided to elevate his buddy Hackett to call the offensive plays, and Hackett responded by getting Blake Bortles and Co. to pilot the No. 5-scoring offense in the NFL. While not being in the same realm of terrible as Manuel, Bortles is not a name that strikes fear in the heart of any defenses.

What Hackett was able to do well with that 2017 Jacksonville squad was utilize his available running talent to hide the subpar quarterback play. Leonard Fournette had a breakout rookie campaign with over 1,000 rushing yards, and the Jags boasted the No. 1-total rushing offense in the league in 2017. Perhaps the wildest thing about that team is that they made the AFC Championship. Jacksonville hasn’t been the same since.

In 2018 the Jags regressed to the mean with a numbing 31st-ranked offense. Hackett (understandably) then accepted an opportunity to work with Hall of Fame talent in Rodgers and top-10 skill-position players in Aaron Jones and Davante Adams. Sprinkle in the emergence of some good Green Bay tight ends, and Hackett finally seems primed to prove that he has a bright future in the NFL.

Projecting Next Year’s Offense

If we use that 2017 Jaguars season as the basis for Hackett’s play-calling expectations, that could mean good things for talent distribution.

The 2017 Jaguars offense had a direct 50/50 split of passing/running plays, with 527 apiece. I would expect that pass/run balance to be the Packers’ eventual approach, who called 573/411 in 2019 and 526/443 in 2020. The offense certainly seems to be trending in that direction, anyway.

This distribution would mean good things for the run game. With the hefty money that Green Bay is now throwing at Aaron Jones, we may finally be able to see him used as a true featured back. Fournette had 268 carries in 13 games during his first season in the league, with Hackett calling plays. The next closest player to him was Chris Ivory, with 112. This is arguably the percentage of run distribution that Hackett should employ with Jones and AJ Dillon this upcoming season.

While a true 50/50 run/pass split may not happen thanks to the presence of a certain Jeopardy! host, approaching these numbers would ease the Wisconsin-sized burden on Rodgers, who is unfortunately not getting any younger. Rodgers has shown no signs of aging or slowing down, but it is not unrealistic to imagine his already league-best efficiency numbers improving under a more run-based approach. This run-first notion was always a lip-service idea under McCarthy that often came as a detriment to the passing game. Hackett may be the mind to bring it closer to reality.

It’s also important to consider that Hackett is Paul Hackett’s son — the same Paul Hackett who played a significant role in popularizing the West Coast offense. Passing first is in the Hackett archetype, and there should be no concerns about the underutilization of a quarterback like Rodgers. Unless you’re a conspiracy theorist and think the 50/50 run/pass split approach may be the coaching staff’s way of approaching the Jordan Love era, the offense should still be in good hands.

Hackett’s previous stops as an offensive coordinator have given him the short end of the stick, talent-wise. Still, his tenure in Green Bay provides him with an overflow of vibrant personalities and top-tier prospects. Hackett was also on the shortlist for a few head coaching vacancies this last offseason, and another season coordinating the No. 1 offense in the NFL will surely be a good enough resumé item to land him a head coaching gig somewhere down the line.

If LaFleur does indeed hand over the play-calling reins to Hackett, expect him to approach the responsibility with passion and alacrity. Another No. 1 offense does not seem too far off on the horizon, and a head coaching position somewhere would almost be a lock. If this happens, we should be able to definitively say that Hackett can hack it.

Har har.

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