John Elway was hopeful he could get one of those “bright young guys” as the Broncos’ next head coach - one who could revamp the offense, improve an already elite defense and be the leader the team needed to get back to the playoffs.
The hints were dropped, the checklist made and, on Wednesday, the deal reached: Vance Joseph was named the Broncos' next head coach after agreeing to a four-year contract.
“Becoming head coach of the Denver Broncos is a dream job for many reasons,” Joseph said in a statement. “The Broncos have an unbelievable winning tradition and great fan support. But what makes this even more special is it’s a place that’s ready to win.”
When Gary Kubiak resigned last week, Joseph’s name immediately surfaced as a leading candidate in part because he’s been one for more than two years now, after first interviewing for the gig in 2015. Kubiak got the job then, but the Broncos were impressed by Joseph.
On Tuesday, he met with Elway, the team's general manager, team president/CEO Joe Ellis, director of player personnel Matt Russell, director of team administration Mark Thewes and vice president of public relations Patrick Smyth for nearly four hours at the team's Englewood headquarters. The conversation spilled over to the evening as they dined at Elway's steakhouse in Denver.
No offer was agreed upon by the night's end, though, and Joseph had been scheduled to leave for San Diego on Wednesday morning to interview for the Chargers' head coaching vacancy.
But plans changed. He canceled his flight and returned to Broncos headquarters to finalize the deal and become the team’s 16th head coach and first full-time African-American head coach in team history.
A Colorado alumnus and, most recently, the defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins, Joseph, 44, was the last of three candidates to interview. Chiefs special-teams coordinator Dave Toub spent four hours interviewing with the team Friday in Kansas City, and Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was grilled at length in Atlanta on Saturday.
“During this process, we were very fortunate to spend time with three very qualified candidates who all could have been the next head coach of our team. For us, Vance Joseph is the best fit to become the head coach of the Denver Broncos," Elway said in a statement. "Vance is a very good football coach and teacher who is ready for this opportunity. His leadership qualities, his vision for building a championship team and his ability to get the most out of players are off the charts."
Joseph, who spent two years in the NFL as a cornerback, returns to Colorado with 11 seasons of coaching experience in the league. He began his tenure in San Francisco, where he spent six years as a secondary coach for the 49ers (2005-10). Then he went to Houston, when he stood on the sideline for three years as the Texans' secondary coach (2011-13) under then-head coach Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. After two more years as the secondary coach in Cincinnati (2014-15), Joseph landed his first job as a defensive coordinator a year ago, as part of Adam Gase's new staff in Miami.
"There was a big trust factor there with me,” Gase told Miami media Wednesday. “That was really the one thing that I loved about being able to at least get him in the building, was I knew he was going to be able to handle that side of the ball, and he brings a leadership quality that you really love about him. He has such a great personality. I know we talked about it before, but that alpha-type personality where he demands a lot from players and they give him everything they have."
Joseph’s résumé can be deceiving. His earlier years were spent on the offensive side, as a backup quarterback and running back at CU, where signs of his coaching potential were laid bare.
"He played behind Kordell (Stewart), but V.J. was always, always the smarter one,” said Michael Westbrook Joseph’s CU teammate and a former NFL receiver. “Even when Koy (Detmer) was there - and I’m not calling Kordell dumb at all - we all know that Koy comes from a football family and V.J. was basically Koy’s coach, too. He just knew the game and he’s always known the game. For him to end up being a head coach, it just seems like that was supposed to happen.”
Added fellow CU teammate and former NFL linebacker, Chad Brown: "Not only was he serious about his job, but he was also serious about being a leader. Even if it was just on scout team."
The Broncos were serious about him, too.
While Joseph's NFL coordinator experience is limited and his head coaching experience nonexistent, the Broncos were impressed with the way he held together a depleted group in Miami to help the Dolphins back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Although his lone year as a coordinator produced unimpressive numbers - Miami’s defense finished the regular season ranked 29th in yards allowed and 18th in points - and although the Dolphins were trounced by the Steelers in a wild-card game Sunday, the Broncos had a bigger picture in mind. Eyes were on his head-coaching potential, not Miami’s defensive performance.
And the timing couldn’t have been better. That loss to Pittsburgh closed the door on the Dolphins’ season but opened another to Joseph’s availability to the Broncos.
His experience could provide a more seamless transition for Denver’s defense, a group Elway has rebuilt over the last six years to make into one of the league’s finest. When he began the search for Denver’s next head coach, Elway made it clear that revamping the offense was as much a priority as maintaining, even improving, the defense.
Among his first orders of business will be naming his defensive coordinator. Promoting defensive backs coach Joe Woods is a strong possibility. Renewing Phillips’ contract, which expired at the season's end, is also an option.
There is a less obvious transition on offense, however. Mike McCoy, the Broncos' former offensive coordinator who was recently fired as San Diego's head coach, and Bill Musgrave, Elway's former backup whose contract with the Raiders recently expired, are expected to be interviewed for the position.
Joseph and his new offensive staff are expected to oversee another quarterback competition this offseason between Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. They will be tasked with finding improvement in a group that was depleted by injuries and hindered by a porous offensive line this past season.
Elway said last week “the offense will come” and that the puzzle pieces will fall in place. Although the final picture is yet to be formed, the biggest piece for the Broncos is filled.
“This is not a rebuilding situation; it’s a reboot,” Joseph said. “There is a culture of winning here, and the standards around here won’t change: Those are to win championships.”