Making history isn’t always a good thing.
The Denver Broncos under coach Vance Joseph have already made some, and are on the verge of making more of the wrong kind of history before the end of the month.
The 6-8 Broncos must win their final two games to avoid becoming the first Pat Bowlen-owned squad to post back-to-back losing seasons.
Even if they pull it off — which they could, considering they’ve already won the first meeting of the season against Oakland and the Los Angeles Chargers, their two remaining opponents — it’s a virtual certainty that a myriad of changes will be taking place in and around the Broncos organization. What will these changes look like?
The most obvious place to start is with Joseph, a man who was hired two years ago with no previous head coaching experience and who has been under a microscope since Day 1. Joseph has proven to be a sub-par NFL head coach at this point, which is not unusual. Many guys who have become top-shelf NFL head coaches did so in their second or third attempt, including the current gold standard, Bill Belichick.
Denver isn’t a great place to cut your teeth as a first time head man. Since Dan Reeves made the jump from Dallas assistant to Denver head man in 1981, he’s the only first -time NFL head coach to post better than a .500 winning percentage in Denver. The one who made it to .500 was Wade Phillips, and that was over two disappointing seasons in 1993 and 1994.
Joseph may become a successful head coach someday. But that day is not today. The Broncos need more. Pretty strong bet that General Manager John Elway makes a change. Who might the next man be? Unemployed Mike McCarthy? Could Elway lure away Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley from the college ranks? Who is the next hot assistant…and would Elway go that route again given the track record of struggles?
Most importantly, Elway can’t try to hire another puppet. Coaches who would want some say so in personnel matters — like Stanford’s David Shaw for example — can’t be dismissed out of hand simply because they might not agree with everything Elway says or wants. Elway must change his methods and accept the viewpoints and opinions of others in the organization. Hire good people and let them do their job. That has not been the Hall of Fame QB’s mantra as an executive.
For those reasons, hopefully head coach is not the only change Elway makes around him. The Broncos front office is currently full of yes men, devoid of “future GM” type talent evaluators. Elway belongs at the helm of the Broncos, but in order to succeed without a Hall of Fame quarterback on the roster, he’s going to need to do what successful CEO’s do and surround himself with better (football) people. Matt Russell and Company haven’t cut the mustard.
Then there’s the high profile quarterback position. Few would argue that Case Keenum has been the biggest reason for Denver’s problems. He hasn’t. But he hasn’t necessarily been the solution, either. Will Elway opt for an immediate change under center, or might he look to the draft for a future QB who could spend a season or two watching Keenum and learning?
This year’s QB draft class does not rival last years, so that could prove more difficult. It is, however, the most prudent thing to do in the circumstances…provided Denver can correctly identify a better than average young QB and find a way to draft and develop him.
Given Elway’s struggles in the quarterback draft and his home run free agent hire of Peyton Manning, is he more likely go the free agent or trade route? The answer to that is probably yes. There’s a former Super Bowl MVP that will be available. He’s a guy Bronco fans have learned to hate, but maybe Baltimore’s Joe Flacco can provide an upgrade? With the emergence of Lamar Jackson in Baltimore, he’s become expendable there.
Elway, who isn’t going anywhere nor should he, needs to decide if he wants to do a full scale rebuild behind a really good 2018 rookie class, or do what he’s always done, try to patch things together and make a play-off run on a year-by-year basis. Unless he’s had a future Hall of Famer at QB, the approach hasn’t worked. And you know what they say about the definition of insanity.
Changes — perhaps big changes — are coming. Some personnel moves are needed. A serious long-term upgrade of the offensive line should be a top priority. Changes are needed in the front office. The current group that works for Elway is substandard. And Elway himself needs to change, and be more open to sharing some of the decision making that impacts the product on the field.
It’s only been three years since the Broncos won the Super Bowl. It feels like 30. Such is the burden of expectation.
Listen to Mark every Monday afternoon at 12:30 with Brady Hull on “The Hull Show” on AM 1310 KFKA Greeley, and Saturday mornings at 8am on AM 1600 ESPN Denver.