GREEN BAY - In his opening moments as the newest head coach for the Green Bay Packers, the first three questions presented to Matt LaFleur were about how quickly he had communicated with Aaron Rodgers. He received three more queries about building a relationship with the franchise quarterback in that Jan. 9 news conference. In a group interview afterward, he was asked seven more questions about the quarterback.
They were natural queries, but truly detailed answers can’t begin to be sketched until the spring when the team can begin voluntary workouts. The lines become sharper, the margins filled in, the shading added through minicamps, organized team activities and training camp.
To complete that picture, LaFleur said he would be process-driven. And part of that mechanism of drawing up a symbiotic relationship with Rodgers was the hiring of Nathaniel Hackett as offensive coordinator.
“He’s so organized, and that’s the one thing I really valued in him,” LaFleur said during a radio appearance Thursday on ESPN Wisconsin. An interview request for Hackett was declined by the Packers.
That organization is part of Hackett’s process connecting with players and coaches and is one of his greatest strengths, whether it be group texts to remind coaches of staff assignments and meetings, or practice schedules.
“He is unbelievable with technology in terms of presenting game plans and presenting plays; presenting them with interaction, with film and PowerPoint,” said Pat Morris, the offensive line coach for the Alliance of American Football’s San Diego Fleet. Morris was the Buffalo Bills’ offensive line coach when Hackett was the offensive coordinator in 2013-14.
“Getting the attention of the guys in exciting ways and using different things, keeping the meeting room fresh rather than stale. To me, it would be hard for anybody not to be paying attention, put it that way. It was always energy involved. And he did it all different ways. With his voice. With his ability to work with technology, his ability to work with computers and mixing in all that kind of stuff. He was fantastic.”
Morris is 25 years Hackett’s senior, yet he found the young play caller able to get the best out of whomever he had to work with.
“There was no way that you should say that you weren’t informed of what was your duties and what you had to do and when we were going to do it,” Morris said.
Though Hackett and LaFleur share no professional history, it is fitting they found one another and formed a quick bond. They are each 39, sons of coaches and have risen quickly through the coaching ranks due to bright offensive minds.
And the roots of their offensive philosophies trace back to Paul Brown and Bill Walsh, saplings in the coaching forest that has matured in the nearly five decades since Walsh changed offensive football forever in Cincinnati and then popularized it in San Francisco with the “West Coast” system.
Hackett’s father, Paul, learned at the hand of Walsh in the mid-1980s with the 49ers. Paul Hackett was a head coach twice, in college, at Pittsburgh and USC. (It was Pittsburgh where Hackett worked with a graduate assistant named Mike McCarthy, whom he eventually promoted to wide receivers coach in 1992. Hackett then got McCarthy into the NFL by taking him to Kansas City in 1993.)
Hackett also called plays or coordinated passing games in the NFL in Dallas, Kansas City and with the New York Jets. He coached quarterbacks in Cleveland, San Francisco, Tampa Bay and Oakland.
It was a coach’s life, a son’s life, until Nathaniel Hackett went to the University of California, Davis as a linebacker and long snapper in 1999. After he finished his playing career following the 2002 season, he abandoned a track in medicine to get into coaching at his alma mater in 2003.
Since leaving UC Davis, he worked at Stanford twice – he was technically the Western Michigan linebackers coach from December, 2004 through January, 2005 – and then Jon Gruden brought him to the NFL in 2006 as an offensive quality control coach in Tampa Bay.
From 2006-07 father and son worked together, and then Nathaniel Hackett’s career took its own path.
He went to Buffalo from 2008-09 as an offensive quality control coach on Dick Jauron’s staff, where he worked under offensive coordinators Turk Schonert and Alex Van Pelt.
Then Doug Marrone hired him at Syracuse to coach quarterbacks and tight ends in 2010. Promoted to offensive coordinator in 2011-12, Hackett and defensive coordinator Scott Shafer would meet to map out practices, breaking down sessions to the minute.
“He’d pull out his Excel spreadsheet and do things with it that I didn’t know you could do,” laughed Shafer, now the defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee. “We went minute-by-minute the things that we thought were going to be important and brainstormed on how to get that number of plays in that number of minutes in each practice. So we were targeting what we wanted to be both offensively and defensively and there was give and take.
“But I was always just so impressed by the process he had at doing things without having any guesswork in it. He was meticulous to know how to get the job done most efficiently without wasting time and reps. And probably as good as anyone I’ve been around.”
Soon, Hackett returned to the NFL when he followed Marrone to Buffalo in 2013 to call plays for the Bills and rookie quarterback EJ Manuel. A year later, Hackett was working with a 10-year veteran and 32-year-old quarterback in Kyle Orton, who was just three years younger than Hackett.
That year, the Bills finished above .500 for the first time since 2004.
“He had success with a team that wasn’t very successful for 10 years,” Morris said. “And had different quarterbacks every year. We had to change the offense one year to the other. He’s gone through it.”
Hackett then followed Marrone to Jacksonville as the Jaguars’ quarterbacks coach in 2015, when Blake Bortles took a major leap from his rookie year with career highs in passing yards and touchdowns. Then in 2017 the Jaguars' offense as a whole took a leap, ranking sixth in the league en route to an AFC Championship game appearance.
“There’s no depth he will not travel to get the quarterbacks ready. He’ll do whatever it takes,” said Tyrone Wheatley, who coached with Hackett at Syracuse, Buffalo and Jacksonville. “I laugh and I joke with him that he’s going to set up about 15 computer screens on his desk. I said he’s going to start glowing one day from all the radiation.
"But he’s going to do it. He’s going to do whatever it takes to get the quarterback ready. He’s going to be well-studied. He’s going to have the guys well prepared. There’s no stone that will be unturned when it comes to this guy getting guys prepared to play.”