Richmond had their foot on Hawthorn's throat and failed to deliver the killer blow, leaving coach Damien Hardwick concerned after their 13-point AFL win.
Tempers flared in the last quarter and the Hawks kicked five of the last six goals, but the Tigers had done enough and won 15.12 (102) to 13.11 (89) on Sunday at the MCG.
"I was probably disappointed at stages with the last quarter ... we probably stopped trying to win," Hardwick said.
"You know sometimes you can try to protect the game a little bit too much? It's a good learning point for us.
"We went back on our heels a little bit and tried to control the ball instead of playing the game to the way we wanted."
Just as Hardwick said their last quarter had given Richmond food for thought, Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson was encouraged that his team rallied in the last quarter, despite suffering their first loss of the season.
"When the whips were cracking early, Richmond were the better side, no doubt about that," Clarkson said.
"We're a work in progress as a side, we're still finding our way.
"We found ourselves short, but we're not short by that great a margin."
As Hawthorn pressed in the last quarter, small forward Paul Puopolo drew a free kick for high contact in front of goal and that sparked a scuffle.
It came two days after Clarkson had raised high free kicks as an issue.
Tigers star Alex Rance then angered the Hawks when his spoil caught Luke Breust high.
The incident will attract video scrutiny, but Hardwick said a 50m penalty was sufficient.
The game attracted a bumper crowd of 70,701 - a record for Richmond v Hawthorn matches.
Hawks midfielder Tom Mitchell racked up 42 possessions, his third 40-plus game in a row to start the season, and teammate Ben McEvoy had the better of Toby Nankervis in the ruck.
But the Tigers were able to negate what happened once Mitchell distributed the ball from the stoppages.
"Sometimes the stats can be deceiving - we won the clearances, we were happy with McEvoy's game, we were happy with our hunt on the ball," Clarkson said.
"But the quality of what we were able to do with it, once we did get it, wasn't as strong as Richmond's."
Richmond's Jack Riewoldt and Hawks captain Jarryd Roughead kicked four goals apiece.
Tigers debutant Jack Higgins impressed with two goals, the second a freakish volley in the goalsquare.
There was a bizarre score review incident in the second term, when the incident was judged a Richmond goal despite Hawks defender Jack Gunston clearly getting a foot to the ball before it went through.
The umpires then conferred before making the right decision.
"He (the video reviewer) pressed the wrong button. Can you believe that?," Hardwick said.