It will take more than a pep talk from a kindergarten cop to turn Broncos wide receiver Jerry Jeudy’s NFL career upside down.
Nathaniel Hackett, who brings breathtaking energy to every coaching assignment, took big sips of rarefied Colorado air after running sprints with Broncos rookies at the end of practice.
“We are all in this thing together. So I want to let them know that I’m there with them, even though it might not be as pretty,” Hackett said on Friday. His flushed cheeks and bulging chest proved a rookie trainer could run with freshman pros, but Hackett can’t hide the fact that he’s 42.
In his first head coaching gig, Hackett is determined to paint a smiley face on football. He is the antithesis of grumpy old Uncle Vic Fangio, his predecessor.
Trying to be one of the bruhs while shaking his head on the mixtape at practice, Hackett brings the youthful enthusiasm of a kindergarten cop to the playground. That’s great. But when this team needs an adult in the room, will he prove to be the right mentor and disciplinarian for the job?
Before he got the chance to set up his offense, Hackett discovered that being the head coach in Denver isn’t all about being able to quote the words of Justin Timberlake. He was forced to sit with Jeudy, a 23-year-old wide receiver very good at football but struggling with the messy details of life.
Training is easy when you can remove Austin Powers references from the game plan and give attaboys to Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The task becomes exponentially more difficult when you have to work the uncertain territory between being a sympathetic confidant of a troubled receiver and a badass boss who has no time for a moron’s shenanigans.
“At the end of the day, we are all people. We are all on a team together. I think it’s one of those things where you want to be there for each other,” Hackett said, when I asked if his role as head coach required him to bring more seriousness to his conversation with Jeudy. “You just have to find all the information. You have to do everything the right way. And I think that’s what we’ve done here.
After entering the league as a first-round pick with a reputation for running routes with surgical precision, Jeudy went off the rails. He spent a night in the Arapahoe County Jail after a disagreement with the mother of his young child that involved no violence but was mishandled by everyone involved.
Police locked up a sports celebrity and left the nuances of a messy situation to be sorted out by a judge after a headline involving domestic violence left the imagination free before all the facts could be established.
Relentless 24/7 news and the garish nature of social media encourage a rush to judgement, whether we’re building a marble pedestal or blowing a reputation to shreds, concerning a professional athlete.
So forgive me for my ambivalence in assessing Jeudy’s place in the highly anticipated playoff return for the Broncos. At the dawn of his third professional season, he is at a crossroads. Jeudy must work to earn back trust one take at a time, rather than viewing his status as a right to the 15th overall pick in the 2020 draft.
Yes, having quarterback Russell Wilson throwing the football could reward a solid road like neither Drew Lock nor Teddy Bridgewater ever could. There’s no doubt that a severe ankle sprain has stunted his growth in the 2021 season.
But there’s also an annoying “It’s not me, it’s you” vibe to Jeudy that has him wasting energy on battles that don’t need to exist. He scored a meager three touchdowns as a pro, which can’t all be blamed on former offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s bad plans.
Alabama alum Pat Surtain II showed up in Denver with the savvy of a five-year NFL veteran. By comparison, Jeudy sometimes looks like a kid who can’t quite grasp how much it takes to turn potential into Pro Bowl production.
“There is adversity and this is how we react to that adversity. I think it’s so important,” Hackett said after meeting Jeudy about his arrest. “Things happen and we just have to learn from them.”
From Bradley Roby to Paxton Lynch to Noah Fant, there’s a long list of recent first-round picks by the Broncos that never lived up to the hype. As disappointment falls at John Elway’s feet for making the picks, shouldn’t it also be shared by the lack of a cohesive plan to develop young talent in a league where it is difficult to succeed?
It’s easy for Hackett to draw a smiley face on Jeudy’s future. It’s harder to offer the tough love that will help him grow as both a man and a football player.
Jeudy is a rehabilitation project. The art is to get her to kiss her.