We heard the rumblings at times last season. Now we’re hearing them again this preseason. Fans are concerned that Nathaniel Hackett can’t for lack of a better term “hack it” as offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills.
Let me first say that I understand. It is easy to hit the panic button when the first-team offense is 0-for-10 in touchdown drives this preseason. And it is easy to criticize when numerous goal-to-go situations result in either zero or three points instead of six.
Please know that I am neither criticizing nor endorsing Hackett, who enters his second season as the OC this fall. The reason I won’t do either? It is too early and there are too many variables to consider.
Let’s start with last season, his rookie campaign if you will. From the very beginning, Hackett was forced to operate with uncertainty and a significant lack of experience at the most important position on the field. Between EJ Manuel’s knee injury and Kevin Kolb’s concussion, Hackett was left with undrafted rookie free agent Jeff Tuel taking a majority of the reps late in the preseason.
When Manuel did return, there wasn’t much of an opportunity to build continuity because of his injuries in week five and week 16. With Manuel at the reigns, Hackett did err on the side of caution, I’ll admit that. But please consider the situation. Manuel was a rookie who didn’t have very many real NFL reps under his belt. When Tuel and Thad Lewis were running the offense, Hackett had to deal with two quarterbacks who have obvious limitations in their respective games.
The Bills ran the ball a league-high 546 times last season. There are two simple reasons for that. First, there was too much uncertainty and ineffectiveness from the QB position to rely more heavily on the passing game. Second, the Bills were flat out effective when running the football.
So long story short, throw 2013 out the window.
That brings us to the present, the 2014 preseason.
As tough as it is, we all need to shift the focus away from the lack of first-team touchdowns and what plays were called in certain situations.
Nathaniel Hackett’s job during the preseason is not to win games (no matter what Doug Marrone says in his press conference). Nathaniel Hackett’s job is not even to put points on the board during the five games that don’t count.
His job is to get the offense ready for when the games count for real on September 7. Because of that, he’s not going to tip his hand and run his go-to plays in goal line situations. He knows what will work during the regular season, and thus, he is keeping the play calling “vanilla.” The whole focus now is to work on areas where you struggle.
There’s not much guessing as to where most of the preseason complaints stem. The goal line series at Carolina and Pittsburgh left a lot to be desired when it comes to creative play calling. I get that. But please, take a deep breath, and trust me when I tell you the following:
1) Even with his “conservative approach” in 2013, Hackett never called four straight runs at the goal line like he did a few weeks back in Carolina. I saw Washington do the same thing versus Cleveland on Monday Night Football. You will not see that in the regular season when the objective is to reach the endzone by any means necessary.
2) There were multiple times last season when Hackett dialed up EJ on the quarterback sneak on 3rd or 4th and inches. The situation in Carolina would have been ideal for that type of play, but in addition to not wanting to tip his hand, Hackett doesn’t want to risk his QB’s health when the games do not count.
3) When the Bills need to finish a drive deep in an opponent’s territory, they will feature patterns to Mike Williams and Sammy Watkins. Don’t worry about seeing too many fades to Robert Woods once September rolls around. That is in no way a knock on Woods, but he is not a receiver built to excel in jump-ball situations.
4) Hackett will take advantage of EJ’s mobility at the goal line. Remember the Atlanta and Jacksonville games last season?
5) The Bills coaching staff will not put their top plays and formations on film now so that teams like Chicago and Miami can prepare for early season match-ups.
Judging Nathaniel Hackett now is ludicrous. He may turn out to be great, or he may turn out to be in over his head. Either way, let’s wait until the games count, and until he has a consistent arsenal to work with, before we begin to judge.