Halfway into his first season as an NFL head coach, Vance Joseph is piloting a team faced with an identity crisis.
“We have to figure out our brand of football to maximize our chances of winning,” Joseph said last week, less than 24 hours after the Broncos had been drubbed 51-23 by the Eagles in a fourth consecutive loss. “That comes from me. I have to figure out what’s our best formula to win as a team.”
Joseph didn’t expect to be in this position when he was hired by John Elway in January to become the head coach of a team that was, at the time, just one year removed from hoisting a Super Bowl championship trophy. Sure, Joseph anticipated having to dodge adversity. He knew he would have to stiff-arm the challenges that would inevitably come, even after an undefeated preseason and a 2-0 start to the regular season.
But this? A four-game losing streak, the franchise’s worst since 2010? The first shutout in 25 years? The most lopsided loss in seven seasons? Instability at the quarterback position? Did he fathom all this?
“No,” Joseph said simply. “It’s a good football team and it’s a good football staff. Obviously, there’s going to be some adversity, but it’s been four (losses) in a row. It’s not so much if you lost to an NFL team, it’s how you lose sometimes.”
The way the Broncos have lost during the past month has been ugly, a stretch unlike anything the vast majority of players on the roster have experienced in Denver — or anywhere else. They have been outscored 124-52 during the losing streak, including a 41-3 deficit in first quarters. Both marks represent the worst in the NFL over that period.
It’s a funk that has further complicated the already tricky waters a first-year head coach must navigate.
“When you’re a new coach and you’re putting your touch or your culture in place, if you’re winning, it helps to kind of spread the culture out because guys believe in it,” Joseph said three days before the loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia. “Players only buy cultures if it’s working and they’re winning. That’s what helps your culture grow. If you’re losing and not winning games, your culture kind of suffers because it speaks to us not working. I think winning games helps your culture grow.”
Now, with Denver’s season on the brink, Joseph faces a potentially defining crisis in his first year as a head coach. The season has been filled with potholes — from dealing with a national anthem controversy to benching a quarterback he believed would carry the Broncos through the season — and the 3-5 team is on the edge of a sinkhole heading into Sunday’s game against the defending champion Patriots.
In the visiting team’s locker room after the Broncos’ blowout loss to the Eagles, Joseph shifted his eyes from player to player and asked them to search their souls. On the plane ride back to Denver, the embattled coach did the same.
“I have to coach better,” Joseph said a day later. “I have to coach better and get our coaches to coach better. Things in the football game that are happening are not by accident. We have to figure out a way to coach our players better and to have better game plans and to manage the games better from my perspective.”
Learning on the job
An internship in crisis came last season for Joseph.
He was in his first year as the defensive coordinator for the Dolphins. His boss was Adam Gase, the former Broncos offensive coordinator who was in his first year as a head coach. The Dolphins began the season 1-4.
Frustration stewed in the South Florida humidity. The fan base loudly voiced its doubts as to whether the new young head coach was the right man for the job. Gase, though, kept panic at bay, and Joseph absorbed those lessons.
“Trust the process,” Joseph said of what he took from Gase last season. “You’re going to have some adversity during the season. You can’t simply stop doing what you believe in. Trusting the process and staying with it. Keep pushing the players and pushing the coaches and you’ll come out of it.”
The Dolphins exploded out of their skid, winning nine of their final 11 games — including six straight after the 1-4 start — to earn a playoff berth.
“He showed great courage in Miami,” Joseph said of Gase, “making some tough moves during the season to put us over the top.”
Still, Joseph didn’t expect to face a similar fate when he arrived in Denver. The task of any first-year head coach is difficult, and blueprints for success vary. They also sway with the expectations, which remain high in Denver. Joseph knew the pressure on his seat would commence with his first day on the job.
“This job won’t be a rebuild,” he said upon being hired in January. “Most jobs that are taken by a first-time head coach or most jobs that are open, it’s a rebuild. This job is not broken. It’s a reboot. It’s my job to find the small tweaks to make this team a winning team again. That’s my call of duty right now and hopefully we can do that quickly.”
Gase began his first season as a head coach with something Joseph didn’t have: an unquestioned starter at the quarterback position.
Joseph, meanwhile, was handed a competition between the incumbent starter, former seventh-round draft pick Trevor Siemian, and the second-year, former first-round pick: Paxton Lynch. He was attempting to plant his own culture and style while also facing a question mark at the most important position.
But when Siemian won the job, then played some of the best football of his brief career during the Broncos’ 2-0 start, Joseph further believed he had the right quarterback in place.
Then the turnovers piled up. Siemian threw a pick-six in a perplexing loss to the Giants at home on national television. He failed to guide the Broncos to a score the following week against the Chargers, the first shutout loss for Denver since 1992. Then he threw three interceptions against the Chiefs — part of a five-turnover night for the Broncos — in a 29-19 loss at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.
Two days later, Joseph announced he was benching Siemian in favor of Brock Osweiler. The decision weighed on the coach.
“When you pick your quarterback — it was a long, tough battle during the summer — we took our time and picked the right guy for our football team,” Joseph said then. “It hasn’t worked out.”
Before he faced the growing quarterback controversy, Joseph was one of 32 NFL head coaches who had to address the national anthem protests that took center stage in the league this season. Thirty-two also was the number of Denver players who knelt during the national anthem before their Week 3 game at Buffalo, part of a wide response to President Donald Trump’s comments two days earlier in which he said players who protested should be fired.
Throughout the following week, Joseph fielded questions about his team’s handling of the protest. After 17 consecutive inquiries related to the topic ahead of the team’s fourth game of the season, against Oakland, Joseph asked: “Does anyone have a question about the Raiders?”
Indeed, the national anthem controversy was consuming. Joseph met with a leadership council of players after the Buffalo game as he attempted to address their concerns, and players ultimately voted — though not unanimously — to stand going forward.
“This issue is behind us, I’m hoping,” Joseph said then. “There’s a football game on Sunday, and that’s what’s important.”
The Broncos won that game, 16-10 over the Raiders, but cracks were beginning to show. More turnovers. Big plays given up in the passing game. Poor pass protection.
Those issues have become magnified over the last four weeks, and the seeds of frustration that were planted in the stunning loss to the Giants have grown. At the heart of the hair-pulling inside the Broncos’ locker room is an unfamiliarity with the misery that losing brings.
The Broncos are like kids who routinely got to enjoy macaroni and cheese for dinner, only to have their parents swap that beloved cuisine for liver and onions.
“We figured out that, before this four-game losing streak, only two other guys in the locker room had been through it,” tight end A.J. Derby said. “It’s new for everyone.”
That unfamiliarity has left the Broncos grasping for answers. Players have echoed Joseph’s claims that practices leading up to increasingly perplexing losses have been productive. They have voiced support of the game plans that they’ve used to prepare for those games. All-pro linebacker Von Miller said Joseph has been “100 percent phenomenal” in dealing with players. And nose tackle Domata Peko said the locker room firmly has the back of its first-year head coach.
It’s important support for a coach dealing with more adversity than he anticipated. But it’s also no substitute for a win that could help lighten the dark clouds hovering over Joseph’s first season with the Broncos.
“Vance is always asking us if there’s something we need to tweak here or there, just to make sure we’re comfortable in our job and make sure we’re on point,” Peko said. “It’s on us, man. We’re the ones playing the games. We’ve got to go out and execute. The coaches can only do so much. They put you in the best spots where they think you can be successful, but it’s up to you to go out there and make those plays.”