In March, the Denver Broncos traded two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and three other players to acquire Russell Wilson. Then they reaffirmed their commitment to Wilson earlier this month with a five-year, $245 million contract extension.
Those are massive investments to make in a quarterback only to take the ball out of his hands with a game on the line.
Rather than allowing Wilson to try to convert fourth-and-5 on Monday night in Seattle, new Denver head coach Nathaniel Hackett called upon strong-legged kicker Brandon McManus to attempt to win the game with a 64-yard field goal. McManus’ kick drifted wide left, dooming the Broncos to a 17-16 season-opening loss, ruining Wilson’s bid for bragging rights against his former team and exposing Hackett to a torrent of criticism over his curious late-game decisions.
In 2021, NFL offenses went for it 47 times on fourth-and-5 and converted 23 of those attempts into first downs — a near 50 percent success rate. By contrast, only two NFL kickers have ever made field goals of 64 or more yards in a game, Matt Prater in Denver’s thin air in 2013 and Justin Tucker inside a domed stadium in Detroit last October.
There are a couple reasons that it is difficult for NFL analytics experts to quantify exactly how much Hackett's decision to attempt a field goal impacted Denver's chances of winning. Not only do win-probability models struggle to offer accurate projections during the final minute of games, estimating the probability of making a 60-plus-yard kick only adds to the guesswork because there aren't a lot of prior kicks of that distance to go on.
Aaron Schatz, a pioneer in NFL advanced stats and the creator of Football Outsiders, described Hackett electing to kick a field goal as “a flabbergasting decision.” Schatz’s win-probability model suggests that with 20 seconds to go the Broncos had a 36.1% chance of victory by going for it on fourth-and-5 compared to 7.4% by attempting the field goal.
“If the field goal had been from 58 or 59 yards, our model has it as more of a coin flip decision,” Schatz told Yahoo Sports. “But that difference of 6 or 7 yards is a big difference. They get really hard after 60. There's a reason why there have only been two field goals ever from 64 yards or longer.”
Ben Baldwin, an economist and football data scientist, offers a slightly rosier picture of Hackett's situational decision making. Because he guesses that McManus had a 20% chance of making a 64-yard field goal, his model gives Denver a 34% win probability going for it with 20 seconds left compared to 18% by attempting to kick.
Michael Lopez, a senior director of football data and analytics with the NFL, considers Hackett’s decision to attempt a field goal the most justifiable. The main reason is that Lopez gives McManus the best chance to make a 64-yarder.
While NFL kickers are just 2-for-41 all-time from 64 yards or further, many of those attempts are products of a bygone era. Today’s kickers are more powerful and more accurate. Not only are they better athletes, they often specialize in kicking as early as middle school and benefit from the increased access to kicking coaches, private lessons and instructional camps.
In NFL history, there have been 20 field goals made from 61 yards or beyond. Sixteen have come in the past decade. Ten since 2017.
McManus has made only one field goal from beyond 60 yards in eight NFL seasons, but the fact that he has attempted kicks as long as 70 yards speaks volumes to Lopez.
“His coaches clearly trust him to make those kicks,” Lopez told Yahoo Sports. “That gives me more info about what he does in practice and how far they think he can kick it."
In his postgame news conference Monday night, Hackett told reporters that by advancing to the Seattle 46-yard line, the Broncos were in a “weird spot” on the edge of McManus’ range. He noted that the offense had been sputtering and that he had confidence in McManus.
“We just made the decision we wanted to take our shot there,” Hackett said.
McManus tweeted Monday night that the 46-yard line was his “line to get to.”
“They got it there,” he wrote. “Need to make the kick.”
There are a wide range of opinions about Hackett’s decision to attempt the 64-yard field goal, but there can be little debate about his dismal clock management preceding that play. After Javonte Williams caught a 9-yard pass to set up the fateful fourth-and-5 from the Seattle 46, Hackett allowed 40-plus seconds to elapse before calling Denver’s first of three timeouts with 20 seconds left in regulation.
While Hackett’s decision would’ve left Seattle with minimal time to respond had McManus made the go-ahead field goal, it also left Denver with no outs. With all three timeouts remaining and just over 1 minute on the game clock, the Broncos could’ve quickly run a fourth-down play. If it succeeded, then there was time to set up a chip shot field goal for McManus. If it failed, then the defense still had a chance to get a quick stop and give Wilson one more possession.
“An epic failure of situational coaching & game management,” tweeted Warren Sharp of SharpFootballAnalysis.com.
As bewildering as Hackett’s late-game decisions were, it’s fair to say that they’re not the only reason the Broncos suffered an upset loss. Denver could have been ahead by two scores in the closing minute had it converted its previous red-zone opportunities.
One promising second-half drive ended with Melvin Gordon fumbling at the goal line on fourth-and-1. Another ended with Williams coughing up the football inside the 5. A third produced only a field goal even though the Broncos at one point had first-and-goal from the Seattle 3.
In spite of those failures, the Broncos had the ball in Wilson’s hands late in the fourth quarter with a chance to win — historically a good place to be.
In his decorated NFL career, Wilson has engineered 32 game-winning drives and 24 fourth-quarter comebacks. On Monday night, in his return to Seattle, his new coach chose to take the ball out of his hands rather than let him try to add to those tallies.