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In the wake of Vance Joseph Monday morning firing, there’s a lot more to the Broncos’ fix

 December 31, 2018


Terry Frei 



Vance Joseph after the Broncos’ loss to the Chargers Sunday. 

DENVER — It was painful to watch. Vance Joseph put on a brave front in the post-game news conference Sunday after the Broncos’ 23-9 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, while making it clear — without coming out and declaring it — that he would accept his inevitable firing after only two seasons on the job without public bitterness.

That’s a lot easier to do when you have two years remaining on your contract and you know that even after failed head-coaching stints, it’s difficult to fall out of the assistant coach pool.

But give Joseph credit.

“It’s not my decision,” he said. “My decision was to get out of bed every Monday and go back to work, and we did that. The first year, winning five and winning six this year, that’s by the Broncos’ standards not good enough. I totally get that. But I think we put a lot of work in. It’s a foundation that’s been laid here, that should help in the future and I think we have to honestly look at where we are and find a way to improve … I want to be here, obviously.”

That isn’t happening. Indeed, general manager and president of football operations John Elway announced Joseph’s firing in a statement released by the Broncos Monday morning. The Broncos went 5-11 and 6-10 in their two seasons under Joseph.

“I spoke with Vance this morning and thanked him for all of his hard work as our head coach,” Elway said. “Although we decided to make this change, I believe Vance is a good football coach who has a bright future in this league. 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. We’re excited about the foundation that’s being built and look forward to putting in the work to get the Broncos back on the winning track.”

Joe Ellis, the Broncos’ president and CEO and part of the three-member Pat Bowlen Trust overseeing the franchise, also issued a statement.

“Vance put his heart into coaching this team,” Ellis said, “and I appreciate the way he represented the Broncos with such professionalism. … While we’ve made progress, we still have a lot more work to do and need to get better in all areas. In talking with John, I believe we’re headed in the right direction and am confident in him leading our coaching search. John has my full support in making whatever changes are necessary to improve our team.”

Elway will be hiring his fourth head coach since taking over the football operation in 2011, and the choice will succeed John Fox (2011-14), Gary Kubiak (2015-16) and Joseph in working under the Broncos’ Hall of Fame former quarterback.

Despite the many defenses that can be mustered for the neophyte head coach — starting with the sinking realization that Case Keenum is and never will be more than a placeholder quarterback, a suspect offensive line and drafting disasters in the foundation years leading into Joseph’s tenure — the final decision came down to what happened in the final four games.

The 6-10 record wasn’t even the biggest issue. Rather, it was what happened after the Broncos crawled back into playoff contention. At that point, it was fashionable and even fair to buy into the narrative that, Hey, you have to give it to Vance, the Broncos kept playing for their head coach through adversity.

Then they were dreadful down the stretch, largely against soft opposition. Yes, four weeks ago, it wasn’t ridiculous to muse that the Broncos were set up to win at least three of the last four, and to perhaps even run the table and sneak into the postseason  as a wild card. 

The playoff-bound Chargers’ relative apathy had something to do with it, but the Sunday game was dreadful. It was full of pratfalls, laughable miscues and head-shaking ineptitude, the majority from the Broncos. And that was the response from a team that supposedly cared enough about their head coach to make one last-ditch effort to save his job?

It wouldn’t even have been shocking if Elway had made the announcement of Joseph’s departure shortly after the game.

Instead, Joseph came into the interview room, still operating as the head coach, got in his subtle points and scored some as a pro.

Now, the search for Joseph’s replacement might involve salesmanship — the sort of salesmanship this franchise hasn’t had to resort to during Pat Bowlen ownership. The potentially difference-making next coach will ask some interview questions himself:

Who’s going to be my quarterback? Case Keenum? Well, let me think about that.      

How are you going to improve that offensive line? 

How much power will I have in personnel issues? With all due respect to you, Mr. Elway, will I be like Mike … Mike Shanahan? 

And, yes, who’s going to be the owner?

Some it’s trying to recover from drafting Paxton Lynch at No. 26 overall in 2016 and forcing out Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator after the 2016 season.

The ownership mess, with Bowlen afflicted with Alzheimer’s and the Pat Bowlen Trust running the team since 2014 with trustee Ellis acting as the de facto owner, has to be settled soon for the franchise to avoid becoming hampered by all the infighting and intrigue.

Note: I said “becoming” hampered.

The Broncos’ on-field problems really have nothing to do with the ownership uncertainty.

Not yet.

The silliest talk in all of this is that, gee, the players might consider the ownership fight a distraction. They don’t. They don’t care. As long as the checks don’t bounce. Many of the former Broncos who played under Bowlen’s ownership when he was visible and involved developed a lasting kinship with him, more involving respectful handshakes and calling him “Mr. B” than affectionate embraces. He hired folks he considered qualified to run and coach, and he didn’t sabotage them. But that was another time, both in Denver and in the league.

Plus, the NFL economic model, with the salary cap and obscene TV money, is foolproof. So this isn’t about competent ownership and management being required for the franchise to thrive economically.

That’s one of the reasons why it’s tricky to say, as the Pat Bowlen Trust administrators have, that Bowlen’s daughters, especially Beth Bowlen Wallace and to a lesser extent the younger Brittany Bowlen, should meet some standard of qualification to take over the team. The trust at one point was said to have the obligation to make significant progress within two years toward identifying and positioning a Pat Bowlen successor from within the family. Now, including because of what appears to be selective leaks playing up Brittany’s educational accomplishments and a stint in the league office, she clearly is the favorite. To add to the drama, Bill Bowlen, Pat’s brother, filed suit, seeking the removal of the trustees.

So what next? Can this be pulled off without more acrimonious, even distasteful, in-family bickering? Will it get so messy, the only clean way out is to sell the team?

Actually, Beth Bowlen Wallace is every bit as “qualified” as an NFL owner as when her father bought the Broncos at age 40 in 1984. She has a law degree from the University of Denver and although their are conflicting narratives about why she left, she did work for the Broncos for three years a director of special projects.

The point is, there are no qualifications to be an NFL owner, other than — in most cases — to be garishly affluent and/or part of a family that has passed a team down through generations. In addition, both the daughters are sharp and have resumes that go beyond having the right last name and lineage.

The tricky and sad part is Bowlen was deteriorating long before 2014, and there’s probably no way to accurately determine now how capable he was when he relinquished day-to-day control of the team and the parameters of how to run the team and how to decide on a chain of succession were formulated. And even which of his children he placed first in the line, if he did so at all. Much of the intrigue, of course, stems from Bowlen’s seven children coming from his marriages to Sally Parker and Annabel Bowlen, who also has announced she is coping with Alzheimer’s.

There are a lot of problems at Dove Valley besides Vance Joseph. But that didn’t save his job.

After the firing was announced, Joseph offered his official reaction in a statement.

“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.”

He won’t be able to try and put all the pieces together again.

Finally, Ellis and Elway appeared at a news conference later Monday.

“”The first thing you do in this situation is look at the guy the mirror,” Elway said .”I am just as responsible for this, if not more than anyone else because it’s my job to win football games,” Elway added: “I hate to lose,. I hate it now more than I ever have and we’re going to do everything we can do to get us back on track.”

Elway said neither fire Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, a former Denver assistant, nor Shanahan were candidates “at this point in time time.” He said the Broncos have “three or four very good candidates and we begin that process today.”

Multiple outlets reported that the Broncos have asked for permission to speak with Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores; Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, a former Tennessee Titans head coach; and Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

Elway was adamant that this still is an attractive job. “I think the right kind of guy wants to come to a situation like this,” he said.