On Nov. 5, Broncos president of football operations John Elway took a look at his 3-6 team and gave head coach Vance Joseph a thumbs up, telling the world he was “much more encouraged this year than I was last year.”
It didn’t take Elway much longer to change his mind, not after a third straight season without a postseason invitation. The second-year head coach was relieved of his duties one day after his 2018 season came to a close.
While it may be a reversal from Elway’s Week 10 comments, it isn’t especially surprising. Joseph struggled in his first go-round as an NFL head coach, failing to make waves in a competitive AFC West. He followed up a 5-11 first-year campaign with a 6-10 second season, leaving his team stuck somewhere between competing and bottoming-out. Rather than risk another year of football purgatory, Elway decided to start from scratch with a new coach who could take advantage of all the benefits the Broncos roster brings.
Four reasons Joseph had to go
When Joseph took over for Gary Kubiak in early 2017, he inherited a powerful but flawed roster. The 2016 Broncos fielded a top-five defense but also an offense that had been lost in the woods since Peyton Manning’s final season as a pro in 2015. Hiring Joseph, a former NFL defensive back and defensive coordinator for the Dolphins in 2016, was a bet that the tea’s elite defense would hold up and its quarterback concerns would sort themselves out over time.
Neither thing happened, and Joseph took the blame.
1. The Broncos’ defense backslid under Joseph
Joseph’s defensive bonafides failed him despite a roster top-heavy with talent. Former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Von Miller was the most notable player under his employ, but he also had the chance to work with standouts like Brandon Marshall, Aqib Talib, and Chris Harris as well as former first- or second-round picks like Bradley Roby, Shane Ray, Adam Gotsis, DeMarcus Walker, and the No. 4 overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, pass rusher Bradley Chubb.
Somehow the sum of those parts wasn’t able to match their potential on paper. The 2017 Broncos ranked third in the NFL in yardage allow (290 per game) but, shockingly, 22nd when it came to points allowed (23.9 per game). Those numbers flipped in 2018, when they gave up fewer points but allowed more than 365 yards per game.
But that defense was overtaxed by an offense that failed to sustain drives and needed Herculean efforts on the other side of the ball just to hang around the fringes of the playoff race.
2. The Denver offense never developed
Joseph’s first year with the Broncos was a gimme year thanks to a quarterback depth chart that split starts between Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, and Brock Osweiler. This season was supposed to be different thanks to the arrival of Case Keenum on a two-year, $36 million deal. But while undrafted rookie free agent Phillip Lindsay was able to add a newfound spark to the running game, Joseph and his staff were unable to keep Keenum’s momentum charging into 2018.
Keenum saw his career highs of the year prior dissolve as he regressed back to a slightly better version of his pre-2017 replacement-level self. Without a consistent passing game, Elway’s Broncos finished in the bottom third of the league in total offense and scoring.
3. Joseph’s player management system was … weird.
The Broncos were certain to move on from Demaryius Thomas before his $14 million cap hit could clog up the team’s 2019 salary cap, the question was just when. But after the Pro Bowler was traded to the Texans, it became clear he wasn’t exactly treated like a venerable veteran in Joseph’s system.
Demaryius Thomas said the Broncos made him feel as if he was the guy holding the young WRs, Courtland Sutton and DaeSeaon Hamilton, back. pic.twitter.com/v4CyFIqkHZ
— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) November 6, 2018
Getting less out of talented players was a hallmark of the Joseph era in Denver. Von Miller’s 10 sacks in 2017 was a career low for a 16-game season. Aqib Talib only had a single interception in 15 games that fall — also then a career low (he was able to match that total in half the games with the Rams this year). Joseph took a team that looked great on paper and found ways to crumble against challenges big and small in his two years in Colorado.
And even though Elway publicly supported him, he may have had his own private doubts. Reports emerged after Week 15’s loss to the Browns that the Denver GM was considering bringing his former head coach, Mike Shanahan, out of retirement to return to Mile High Stadium.
Case in point: an easy latter half of the schedule put the Broncos in excellent position to finish off their 2018 season on a heater and sneak into the AFC’s final wild card spot. They didn’t, in part because …
4. Joseph had his playoff hopes dashed by the 49ers third-string QB
San Francisco was 2-10 and starting 2017 undrafted free agent Nick Mullens when the 49ers hosted the Broncos in front of a spare and indifferent Santa Clara crowd in Week 14. A road win would have pushed Denver to 7-6 and into the thick of a five-team race for the AFC’s No. 6 spot. With games against the Browns, Raiders, and Chargers remaining, the team had bright hopes for a playoff bid.
Instead, the Broncos fell behind 20-0 at halftime and Keenum needed 42 passes to throw for just 186 yards in an ineffective comeback attempt. In one fell swoop, Joseph’s team managed to compress all its fatal flaws into the first 30 minutes of a meaningful December football game.
One week later, they’d lose to the Browns in a primetime Saturday night game to officially eliminate Denver from postseason contention. If there was any doubt the Broncos had given up, a week later they played with little effort in a double-digit loss to the Raiders on Christmas Eve.
What’s next for the Broncos?
Denver has plenty of decisions to make this offseason. While the nucleus of a dominant defense remains, the unit failed to play up to its potential under Joseph and regressed in 2018, going from allowing 4.9 yards per play in 2017 (third best in the NFL) to 5.8 yards this season (20th). The Broncos are going to have some difficult decisions to make this offseason as well — young contributors like Roby, Ray, and Shaquil Barrett are all set to hit free agency in 2019.
Of course, no decision looms larger in Denver than what it’s going to do with its quarterback situation. Keenum is only signed through 2019, which threatens to put the Broncos at a familiar QB crossroads. Can they find a coach who can make the journeyman passer the same guy who guided the Vikings to the NFC title game in 2017? Or will they cut bait and search for a franchise quarterback in the draft?
The Broncos’ post-Manning years have proven they’ll only go as far as their quarterback will take them. Fortunately, there’s some young talent on the roster who could convince Elway the right move could be to find a coach who can optimize his offense.
Who should the Broncos target as their next coach?
Denver is in a tough spot. They need a coach who can not only glean the most from a star-studded defense that underwhelmed under Joseph, but also someone who is capable of overseeing the development of young, talented skill players like Phillip Lindsay, Courtland Sutton, and Royce Freeman.
If general manager Elway wants to move in a different direction than Joseph’s defensive background, there are plenty of rising offensive minds who could fit the ball. Mike McCarthy is looking for work after getting fired by the Packers. Former University of Colorado star Eric Bieniemy has made a name for himself building up the Chiefs’ explosive offense in 2018. Zac Taylor could go from grooming Jared Goff into an MVP candidate as the Rams’ QB coach to a job working to rebuild Case Keenum’s value in the Rockies.