To a degree, time has vindicated former Broncos coach Vance Joseph
As it turns out, ending the Vance Joseph era was only the beginning of the Broncos’ woes.
Joseph lasted just two seasons as head coach before the Broncos fired him one day after the 2018 regular season. He left with 5-11 and 6-10 seasons, a tenure that included the Broncos’ longest losing streak in a half-century, and a rabble of four quarterbacks who all failed to launch in orange and blue.
In that moment, Joseph was the coach of record for the Broncos’ first back-to-back losing seasons since the Nixon administration. It was easy to lay much of the blame at his feet.
It was also unfair.
The years that followed vindicated Joseph, to a degree.
For starters, the clear eyes of retrospection reveal that the Broncos’ decline was already well under way when Joseph took their coaching reins in January 2017.
It began in the last days of Gary Kubiak’s reign, when the Broncos closed the season 2-4 after starting 7-3. In that final six-game stretch, the Broncos’ only wins came over a team that finished 3-13 (Jacksonville) and a playoff-bound Raiders side locked into its postseason position and down to its third quarterback — a rookie named Connor Cook who never played another regular-season snap after that season.
With apologies to Billy Joel, Joseph didn’t start the Broncos’ fire of frustrating football. He didn’t light it, and he tried his best to fight it.
But with fire hoses named Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch and Case Keenum, he didn’t have nearly enough water to put it out.
And years later, the fire burns on.
Therefore, when Joseph looked back at his Broncos stewardship on Thursday, he could do so with dignity and without regret.
Time does that. So, too, does the fact that after Joseph’s departure, nothing fundamentally changed. The losing seasons continued accumulating like snowfall in a high-country blizzard, while Joseph moved on to Arizona, rebuilding his reputation as the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive coordinator.
Nearly four years after his final game as Broncos head coach, he’s popped on a few lists of head-coaching candidates. Regrets, enmity and rehashing of the past — these are all gone for Joseph.
“I’m over it. It was never a sore spot,” Joseph said at his weekly press conference Thursday in Tempe, Ariz. “That’s a great opportunity to be a head coach in the NFL. It didn’t work out, but I wasn’t the first guy, and I won’t be the last. It was never any ill feelings.
“For me, I don’t relive it at all. It was a great experience. We had great people and great players to work with there and it was a great experience, and I enjoyed my moments there.”
Unfortunately for Joseph — and for every Broncos coach post-Peyton Manning — the “great players” haven’t included the quarterback.
Eleven months ago, Joseph’s successor, Vic Fangio, pointed to the shortcomings at the position as a reason why the Broncos trailed their AFC West rivals. The next morning, George Paton dismissed him. Fangio received flak in some circles for the remarks. In the eyes of some observers, Fangio’s words were perceived as throwing his passers under the bus.
Vic Fangio’s answer to my question about what separates the other teams in the AFC West from the Broncos.
He opened by saying, “Those other three teams have top-shelf quarterbacks, which is obvious to everybody."pic.twitter.com/MXPq2Mknfo
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) January 9, 2022
But the thing is, Fangio wasn’t wrong.
So, would things have been different for Joseph if he’d had something better than the Siemian-Osweiler-Lynch-Keenum turn of the QB carousel?
“Wow,” Joseph said Thursday, pausing for a knowing laugh.
“I’m assuming I would have won some games, ‘cause defensively, it was right. It was right,” Joseph said, repeating himself for emphasis. “But yeah, that’s been stated numerous times but again, that wasn’t the case.
“It was a fast two years in Denver, and I can’t say [the firing] wasn’t warranted. I mean, we didn’t win. They wanted a change, and I was the guy to change. That’s part of being a head coach.”
And as we know now, the change didn’t do much to change the Broncos’ trajectory. In Vic Fangio’s first two seasons, the Broncos were just one game better than in Joseph’s two seasons — 12-20 to Joseph’s 11-21 ledger. Two losing seasons got Joseph sacked; two sub-.500 campaigns kept Fangio around for a third chance to get it right.
It would be understandable for Joseph to call out the unfairness of the contrast. But digging up old grudges isn’t on his mind.
“It was just a job, and it didn’t get done — and you move on,” he said.
The Broncos didn’t win under Joseph. But the years have shown that on the list of problems that ailed the Broncos, his stewardship is far down the list. He did what he could with what he had — a roster in decline from its Super Bowl apex, a quarterback quandary that persisted for three more seasons before a bold attempt at a solution that has yet to pan out — and a front office reluctant to accept that something more than a “reboot” was necessary.
So, if you go to Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday, leave the boos and insults behind when you see Joseph. Because few of the Broncos’ myriad failings in this six-season abyss are his fault. The issues were deep and profound — and many still remain unfixed.
Joseph was simply a first-time head coach cast into what we now know was a no-win situation.