“Life is too short to rebuild in the NFL,” John Elway told reporters at the NFL scouting combine in February. Elway’s mantra has led Denver to two Super Bowl appearances and one Lombardi Trophy during his front-office career, but now Broncos fans are learning the downside of always trying to build teams on the fly.
Denver fired head coach Vance Joseph on Monday, the culmination of a series of front-office misfires since the team won Super Bowl 50.
Joseph, whom Elway hired after one season as Miami’s defensive coordinator, finished with an 11-21 record in two seasons as Broncos head coach and gave the team its first back-to-back losing campaigns since 1972. His .344 winning percentage was worse than what Josh McDaniels posted in his infamous Denver tenure.
Joseph was perhaps the worst in-game coach in the NFL in 2018. He made one of the most conservative fourth-down decisions of the decade against the Browns in Week 15 when he chose to kick on fourth-and-1 (which became fourth-and-6 after a penalty) while down four points with less than five minutes to go. In Week 9 against the Texans, Joseph settled for long field goals at the end of each half that cost Denver the game and drew sharp criticism from former Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas, who was traded to the Texans days earlier.
”That’s what they do over there,” Thomas told NFL.com about Denver blowing the win. “I ain’t a part of that no more. We like to win over here.”
Much of the blame for Denver’s past two years goes to Joseph, but a large part is also due to a declining roster that has been mismanaged by John Elway since the team won Super Bowl in 2016. Joseph was rumored to be on the hot seat at the end of last year, but Elway chose to retain him because he felt part of the team’s decline was due to a subpar roster (evidenced by the Trevor Siemian–Paxton Lynch decision at quarterback).
“I want to give him the best opportunity to be successful,” Elway said in January. “I don’t feel like we gave him that chance. We had some positions that didn’t play very well, that I thought would play better than they played. That part is on me. We will get that part fixed this coming year.”
Elway had mixed results living up to his end of the bargain this season. Fifth overall pick Bradley Chubb has been the perfect complement to Von Miller as he finished his rookie year with 12 sacks, tied for 14th in the league. On the other side of the ball, Elway shelled out for Case Keenum to plug up the quarterback position, and while Keenum’s been better than Siemian, he did not play up to the two-year, $36 million contract he signed in March. Elway also made moves with the future in mind when he traded away cornerback Aqib Talib and receiver Demaryius Thomas and released tackle Menelik Watson months after fully guaranteeing his $5.5 million 2018 salary. Even with the roster improvements not being as grand in 2018 as Elway had likely envisioned, Joseph proved this season that he is not ready to be an NFL head coach. Elway may prefer a coach with experience after Joseph’s learn-on-the-job approach, but the Broncos’ murky ownership situation and instability at quarterback (Keenum is entering a contract year) might scare away veteran coaches. Elway reportedly tried to lure Mike Shanahan out of retirement last offseason, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he tried again this year.
“Believe me, I’m not done swinging and missing,” Elway said at the combine with a laugh. “Misses don’t bother me. We just gotta figure out a way to get it right.”