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Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3) and Denver Broncos offensive tackle Garett Bolles (72) walk off the field arm in arm after pulling out a win against the Houston Texans at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022. The Broncos defeated the Texans 16-9. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

DENVER — Time to hit the panic button on Nathaniel Hackett and the Broncos.

Over his first month or so as the Broncos rookie coach, Hackett has apologized for his team’s performance in a preseason game and admitted he deserved the boobirds in a real game.

“I don’t blame ‘em. I mean, heck, I’d be booing myself,” Hackett said after the Broncos laid a stinker in squeaking past the Houston Texans 16-9 on Sunday at Empower Field at Mile High.

Other than that, how’s the honeymoon going? At the rate Hackett’s going, Broncos Country is going to need more football therapy. For six years Broncos fans prayed for a franchise quarterback to take over the long and glorious tradition of John Elway and Peyton Manning.

They didn’t make it through the first half of Russell Wilson’s Mile High debut as a Bronco before raining down boos on the home team.

Sheesh, tough crowd. And I’m right there with you.

Sunday was bad. To be more specific, Sunday was bad-bad. Hackett’s Broncos look like they don’t know what they’re doing. At the very least, they look like a messy operation that sure could have benefited from taking the preseason seriously. Make that 25 penalties through two games, a franchise record (not the good kind) for a two-game stretch. Their 13 penalties on Sunday were the team’s most in four years. Both Vance Joseph and Vic Fangio coached the Broncos to at least 12 flags in a game. Turns out that "first-time head coach" label is no joke.

Is Week 2 too early to panic? Nah. Not at all. Not in this division. While Wilson acknowledged “we’re growing together,” the competition in the AFC West is full grown. Meanwhile, the Broncos are calling timeout on a punt because they don’t have a punt returner on the field, and Broncos fans are counting down the play clock to give their slow-to-align offense a helping hand.

“I guess that was helpful if needed. I guess they do that in basketball,” Wilson said.

Ever since he started playing football here, Wilson has been booed everywhere he goes. He was booed in Seattle, then he was booed in Denver. He’s been booed at night and in the daytime. Poor guy. If you run into our new neighbor at Safeway, give him a hug.

“We’ve got to quit hurting ourselves. We’ve got to quit getting penalties as players. That’s on us,” said Wilson, who completed 14 of 31 passes for 219 yards and a dismal 66.4 passer rating.

All that stuff is fixable, Wilson pointed out. And he's right. What's bizarre is how little emotion and enthusiasm exists on the Broncos sideline. Wasn’t this the coach who believes in the power of hugs and positive reinforcement? If you were there and watched the sideline, the Broncos looked like they were waiting at a bus stop. At least bring a cell phone to check your fantasy scores.

“It’s frustrating,” Hackett said of the slow start to the season.

Gosh, you’re telling us. Just the other day, Broncos coordinator Justin Outten sounded miffed when critics kept bringing up old stuff, the coaching staff’s late meltdown at Seattle.

“There’s no Marty McFly to go back in time or  go forward,” Outten said.

Well, did we all hop into Doc Brown’s Delorean, anyway? The 2022 Broncos season so far could be a replay from 2017 or... 2018 or... 2019 or... 2020 or... 2021. Hey, it wasn’t me talking about Super Bowls before the season. I was a pessimist predicting 9-8. It was the Broncos who penciled in themselves as real-deal contenders: “We want to be able to go downtown and hoist that Lombardi Trophy,” as Courtland Sutton said in the preseason.

Without all the big talk the growing pains would be easier to stomach and somewhat understood.

But three things show the Broncos are still a year away: their play so far, the injury list that added Pat Surtain II and Jerry Jeudy and a backloaded schedule heavy on AFC West rivals.

Oh, and the rookie coach who set the table for a early criticism after a blowout loss to the Buffalo Bills in the preseason: "The first thing I would tell the fans is I’m sorry for that game..."

Sorrys won’t cut it around these hills. If the first two opponents had been almost anyone except for the struggle-bus Texans and Seahawks, the Broncos would need a new catchphrase.

Let’s hide.

(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at paul.klee@gazette.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)

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