Nathaniel Hackett grew up in the household of an NFL offensive coordinator, so he was well aware of all of the pressure that goes with the job before experiencing it first-hand.
His father, Paul, spent nine of his 42 seasons as a football coach running the offenses of the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets.
Nathaniel never will forget what he witnessed the day after the Chiefs, who had finished the regular season with an NFL-best 13-3 record, suffered a 10-7 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
“I remember going to school and there was a petition to try to get my father fired,” Hackett recalled. “Oh, it was horrible. It was nonstop.”
How did his father react?
“He would just laugh because there are so many things that people don’t see,” Hackett said. “As long as you focus on that as a coach and you know that you’re doing the right thing and you know that it’s there, that we just have to keep getting better, then that’s all you can do. Because the minute that you focus on the other things, then that’s when you start believing what people are saying. And then that affects you, it affects your job and you can’t do as well.”
That lesson is coming in handy as Hackett, who just finished his second season as the Buffalo Bills’ offensive coordinator, follows in his father’s footsteps.
Plenty of people have had plenty to say about the job he has done, and most of it is negative. They didn’t like the fact the Bills ranked 26th in the NFL in total offense, 25th in rushing, and 18th in passing on the way to a 15th consecutive non-playoff season. They blasted Hackett for being too predictable with his play-calling and for not doing enough to maximize the production of the Bills’ offensive weapons and for helping to waste the performance of the league’s fourth-ranked defense.
They see Hackett, who turned 35 earlier this month, as lacking the necessary experience to be an effective NFL offensive coordinator. They consider Doug Marrone’s decision to bring Hackett along from his Syracuse University staff when Marrone became the Bills’ coach in 2013 as a rookie mistake.
Hackett has heard it all, including calls for his firing.
“And if that’s what people think, that’s totally their opinion,” he said. “You’re always going to be frustrated, and I don’t blame the fans. They want to win. It’s been 15 years. I’m frustrated, and I’ve only been here for two of those years.
“And that’s the best part about the game. It’s a reality TV show. Everybody wants to point fingers, find somebody” to blame. “And you know what? Hey, if I’m that guy, that’s me.
“There’s a lot of times I wish I could throw it, I wish I could catch it, I wish I could block it, I wish I could do all that stuff. It probably would be a lot uglier, but you just keep your head down and you just keep working hard and you hope that people see the good that does come with it.”
What was the good?
Hackett points to the Bills’ passing statistics, some of the best of the last 10 years, achieved despite shortcomings in other areas of the offense and the transition at quarterback after four games from EJ Manuel to Kyle Orton, who announced his retirement Monday.
“With our ability to pass the ball, we gave ourselves more opportunities to put ourselves in position to win games,” Hackett said. “We were in games, we were able to move the ball, we did some good things. And we did win more games,” than last season, “and the defense was very good last year, too.”
Still, the climb from 6-10 to 9-7, while significant, hasn’t exactly left the fan base feeling that the team has all of the necessary ingredients to take the next step to playoff contention.
The defense is clearly built for a postseason run, but questions linger about the offense.
Who will play quarterback?
How will the offensive line be upgraded?
What can be done to improve the atrocious running game?
Will there be a smarter and bolder approach to calling plays?
When Hackett looks back on the offensive failings of the 2014 season, the first thing he sees is self-inflicted wounds.
“I think it’s us killing ourselves,” he said. “You look at penalties, you look at turnovers in critical situations. There are just times we would hurt ourselves from lack of execution or just not making a play, not finishing it, something like that.
“I think a lot of the opportunities were there, and it’s not capitalizing on them, whether we had a guy open and missed it or whether it was something up front or whether we dropped it. I think it was more us just beating ourselves. We keep going back” over the videotape “and you sit there and go, ‘Man, it’s right there for us. We just never took it.’
“We never had that mentality to just go get it, get after it and go.”
Hackett insists that he doesn’t allow the struggles or the criticism to get him down for very long. One of the best antidotes is calling upon the wisdom of his father, with whom he speaks regularly.
“What my dad told me was just work harder than everybody in the building, just keep your head down, keep chopping wood,” he said. “Be positive with the players, because when we’re in here with these guys, it’s about them being good on the field. They’re a reflection of me. And as long as I’m always upbeat and trying to get them going and fired up, that’s all I can do.”
Christmas provided a nice sense of perspective for Hackett.
Marrone gave his assistant coaches and players the day off, having them instead work on Tuesday in preparation for last Sunday’s season-finale against New England.
For Hackett, it was the first time in six months he was able to spend quality time with his wife and their four children.
His 6-year-old son kept him busy with a Fisher Price bow-and-arrow set.
His 5- and 2-year-old daughters modeled princess costumes.
Asked if he was worried about his future with the Bills, Hackett said, “No. I can only control what I can control. If I get a chance to be here again, I want to be here and I want to do everything I can and work harder than everybody in the building like I always feel like I do and help the guys get better and better. Whatever change happens, it happens.”
Fullback Corey Knox, a Buffalo native who played one season at the University at Buffalo, and tight end Chris Manhertz, who played basketball at Canisius College, joined the Bills on Tuesday as reserve/future signings.
Knox, 25, played at UB in 2011, helping running back Branden Oliver to rush for 1,395 yards and 13 touchdowns. Knox previously attended Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, Neb., where he participated in track.
Manhertz, 22, played basketball for the Golden Griffins from 2010-2014.
The New York native and three-time team captain averaged 6.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, and led the team in rebounding for three successive years.