DENVER — In the end, it proved too much. Too many losses. Too many ugly defeats. And too many questionable in-game decisions.
Following back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1972, the Broncos have fired coach Vance Joseph.
“ Although we decided to make this change, I believe Vance is a good football coach who has a bright future in this league," General Manager John Elway said in a statement. “Vance made a lot of strides and deserves credit for how hard and competitively the team played this season. There’s always going to be a high standard here. The bottom line is we need to win more football games."
Joseph finished with an 11-21 record with 12 losses by double figures. More problematic, the Broncos sit 7-9 at home under the first-time coach, who could not gain traction after the Broncos started his first season with three wins in his first four games.
Joseph showed improvement in his sophomore campaign, rallying the Broncos to a 6-6 record following a disappointing first half. It included victories over contenders in Pittsburgh and the Chargers. However, any doubt about his status vanished over the past three weeks entering the finale. The Broncos dropped three straight to teams with a losing record — San Francisco, Cleveland and Oakland. Worse, the Broncos were embarrassed in the first half of those games, outscored 47-10, outgained 610 to 325 yards, while converting 5-of-24 third downs.
“It’s been a tough-go for Vance. I feel badly for him. I think he’s a better coach than his record shows,” linebacker Brandon Marshall said recently. “But the league is tough.”
Joseph released a statement thanking the team and saying he's proud of the work he put in over two years.
“I want to thank John Elway, Joe Ellis and the organization for the opportunity to serve as the head coach of the Denver Broncos," Joseph said. "It’s disappointing not being able to finish what we started, but I’m incredibly proud of the players and coaches for how they fought and worked every week. I also appreciate the support staffs who put in countless hours behind the scenes helping our team. This is a special place with great fans. Holly and I, along with our entire family, truly enjoyed being part of this community and wish the Broncos all the best.”
The Broncos will be seeking their fourth coach in six seasons and sixth in 12 years. It is a difficult job given the expectations. The Broncos own three Super Bowl titles, and won a ring in 2015, which marks the franchise’s last playoff berth. Joseph arrived believing the team needed a “reboot, not a rebuild,” after Gary Kubiak stepped away for health reasons.
A solid first month quickly dissolved into disaster. The Broncos lost to the New York Giants following the bye week — the NFL’s biggest upset by point spread in 2017 — sending them spiraling. Denver dropped eight games in a row, matching its longest losing streak in 50 years. The Broncos also barely avoided the indignity of a winless road record with a victory against the Colts.
General manager John Elway flirted with firing Joseph after his first season. On the season’s final day, Elway approached CEO Joe Ellis about bringing back Mike Shanahan as the coach. Ellis told Elway he was fine with him dismissing Joseph. Ellis, though, told Elway he would have to conduct a comprehensive search, which could include Shanahan as a candidate.
Elway slept on it, and decided to keep Joseph. It didn’t work out. Not all the blame can fall on Joseph. He was saddled with a roster that leaned heavily on rookies, suffered critical injuries, namely to the offensive line and Chris Harris Jr. and Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos expected to return to the playoffs, a goal made impossible by an awful offense and underwhelming quarterback play.
In Joseph’s two seasons, the Broncos averaged 19 points per game, ranking 24th in scoring this season. Free agent Case Keenum represented a potential solution at quarterback, but failed to deliver. He finished 18 touchdowns and 15!picks, a shadow of his last season in Minnesota (22 touchdowns, 7 interceptions). Over the past two seasons, the Broncos quarterbacks — four starters in all — have thrown 40 touchdowns with 34 picks.
As for Joseph’s replacement, the Broncos are expected to cast a wider net. It can be argued the Broncos had decided on their coach before their previous two searches. Elway handpicked Kubiak, and when Kubiak stepped away, the Broncos targeted Joseph because of his previous interview two years earlier.
Some NFL executives believe this is the most shallow pool of pro candidates. It is likely the Broncos will at least consider college coaches as a result. Pro candidates on the radar are expected to include Baltimore’s John Harbaugh — it might require a trade — Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, and former Colts coaches Chuck Pagano and Jim Caldwell. With the pro game looking more like the college game offensively, college coaches deserve a closer examination. Among those mentioned as candidates for pro jobs: USC offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Baylor’s Matt Rhule, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Stanford’s David Shaw.