Despite a 5-11 season, eight defeats by double digits and a playoffless finish, the Broncos will retain coach Vance Joseph for next season, giving him a chance “to fix it,” just as he had hoped.
Joseph met with John Elway early Monday to learn of the general manager’s decision and to mull changes to the coaching staff, which included the departure of six assistants.
"Vance and I had a great talk this morning about our plan to attack this offseason and get better as a team," Elway tweeted Monday morning. "We believe in Vance as our head coach. Together, we'll put in the work to improve in all areas and win in 2018.
"To all our fans: THANK YOU for your tremendous support and sticking with us through a tough year. This wasn't the season anyone expected, but we'll learn from it and be better because of it. Our 2018 season starts today."
In keeping Joseph for 2018, Elway spared the Broncos of a fourth head coaching change in five years and provided a significant cost savings. Had Joseph left, the Broncos could have had to pay the remaining salaries of most of two coaching staffs.
Joseph was hired last January after the resignation of Gary Kubiak and was immediately labeled “a leader of men” because of his ability to relate to players on both sides of the ball, and to work well with fellow coaches.
The Broncos had tried to bring in Joseph as defensive coordinator in 2015, but the Cincinnati Bengals refused to release him from his contract. So when Denver suddenly had to fill the void left by Kubiak, Joseph was atop Elway’s list and on the radar of many other teams seeking a new coach. The four-year deal awarded to Joseph was deemed both brilliant and risky, as some lauded Joseph’s football expertise but remained skeptical because of his limited experience. For much of Joseph’s coaching career, he was a defensive backs coach, and when the Broncos nabbed him, he had only one year under his belt as a coordinator, at Miami in 2016.
“I’ll say this: He’s very smart — he’s an ex-quarterback,” Elway said with laugh when he introduced Joseph as head coach. “You think all he knows is the defensive side, but he’s aware of what we need to do on the offensive side, too. I think that’s why the combination is tremendous."
Joseph guided the Broncos through another offseason quarterback competition over the summer and helped the team to a promising pair of victories to start the season with Trevor Siemian under center. But Denver’s 3-1 record unraveled after its bye week and included a loss to the previously winless New York Giants in Denver, the franchise’s first shutout in nearly 25 years against the Los Angeles Chargers, a blowout defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles, a total of 11 losses by an average of nearly 15 points, and a whopping 34 turnovers that trailed only the Cleveland Browns (41).
As the Broncos' record cratered, so did everything else.
Elway called the team “soft” as the losses piled up, scuffles broke out during practices and the quarterbacks swapped roles multiple times, with all three rotating in as the starter, backup and inactive player twice. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was fired midway through the season, which led to another offensive scheme change, multiple players were demoted and promoted, and frustration mounted inside the locker room and out. At one point late in the season, the only draft pick contributing on game days was starting offensive tackle Garett Bolles.
Throughout it all, players voiced support for Joseph and acknowledged the difficulty of trying to find a rhythm and consistency through multiple coaching and quarterback changes. In Elway's time as a front-office executive, the Broncos have had three head coaches, four offensive coordinators (two stints by McCoy) and five starting quarterbacks.
"I think the track record for quarterbacks going in and out of offenses every single season and their success rate is pretty low," quarterback and impending free agent Brock Osweiler said. "I think if you did a study on it, you'd be pretty surprised. As far as the quarterback goes, if you can find a coordinator that you can hang your hat with and spend back-to-back seasons with — hopefully more than back-to-back seasons — I think your play on the field will be much better. Because at the end of the day, when you're out there on the field making decisions, it happens so fast. So that system has to be hard-wired into your brain, your feet, your mechanics, and that's hard to do when you're changing them every couple of months."
The Broncos reached the cellar of nearly every major category on offense and special teams, ranking 31st and 32nd, respectively, by Football Outsiders in efficiency.
No team in the NFL this season allowed as many points after turnovers (142). And no Broncos team in the last 50 years endured an eight-game losing streak.
But no Broncos team under the watch of longtime owner Pat Bowlen had a one-and-done coach, even in the most trying of years.
“I want to be here. It’s a football team that’s close,” Joseph said after the Broncos’ season-ending loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. “We have to make some adjustments in some places, but our football team all year has not stopped working. … I want to be here to fix it."
If there were bright spots in Joseph’s inaugural season as coach, it was the milestone reached by running back C.J. Anderson, who crossed the 1,000-yard rushing threshold for the first time in his career, and the defense that ranked among the top five in total yards, rushing yards and passing yards allowed.
"A lot of things didn't go our way this year, but I woudn't put it on him," linebacker Todd Davis said of Joseph, echoing the sentiments of other players. He added: "Definitely I stand behind him 100 percent."
Added defensive end Zach Kerr, one of the first free-agent acquisitions in Joseph's head coaching career: "I love Vance Joseph. I really do. He brought me in, and I have the utmost respect for him. It's tough being a first-year head coach. … He had a bad season his first time coaching in the NFL. I hope nobody judges me on my first performance in the NFL."
The Broncos missed their second postseason in two years and, though the blame didn’t rest solely on Joseph, the calls for change outside the team's headquarters were loud. Fans grew weary during the losing streak and were fed up watching the same mistakes repeated week after week.
The fan base that, not too long ago, praised Elway for guiding the Broncos to a pair of AFC Championships and a Super Bowl title suddenly became his greatest detractors for failed draft picks and back-to-back disappointing seasons. The franchise with long-held lofty expectations and an unofficial motto to “be No. 1 in everything” had become close to last in most things.
The Broncos lost their way and will soon try to rediscover their identity during an offseason of change.
And they’ll do so with a familiar face. Vance Joseph is staying. For now.