ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos stumble to the finish of the 2018 season, the John Elway and Co. face a decision about coach Vance Joseph.
Joseph, who will complete the second year in a four-year contract Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, is assumed by many, especially those who work the drive-time talk circuit, to be on the way out within hours of the season's end.
And if Joseph is fired, the Broncos will be on the hunt for their fourth head coach in the last six years -- not exactly the mark of organizational stability the Broncos have professed to have over the years. When Joseph and Elway sit down Sunday night or Monday morning there will be two sides to the story about Joseph’s future.
Here's a look at the Broncos’ case for making a change and the case for keeping Joseph.
Broncos make a change because …
History and expectations. Hey, everybody knows what they're getting into with the Broncos, even Joseph, as owner Pat Bowlen routinely said "I want to be No. 1 at everything." Elway has consistently said the Broncos have a win “from now on" approach, but the Broncos have just completed their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1971-72. That adds to the enormous public pressure to simply do “something" after three consecutive playoff misses.
Gameday management. No matter the reasons, Joseph is ultimately responsible for how the team functions in games. And while the team's defense has scrapped its way into the top 12 in scoring defense, Joseph has also repeatedly faced some criticism over use of timeouts, when he has, or hasn’t gone for it on fourth downs, replay reviews and substitution issues. The Broncos have been flagged four times this year for too many men on the field, for example and gave up a score on a fake field goal with 10 men on the field.
The offense. Joseph said he learned his lessons about “coaching the coaches," during the 5-11 2017 season when offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was fired in November of that year. And while injuries have certainly played a part, the Broncos' offense continues to be a muddled affair of slow starts and stalled drives on offense with only slight improvements over last season in scoring (they’re 22nd this year, compared to tied for 26th last year) and passing yards per game (they’re 19th this season as compared to 20th last year) -- two areas the team said the highest of offseason priorities last spring.
Preparation. Several opposing personnel executives have privately said this season the Broncos have consistently played hard. But in the public domain, much of that is negated by a Week 5 performance against the Jets and Week 14 against the San Francisco 49ers. In road games when the Broncos actually held the talent advantage, they played somewhat emotion-less, mistake-filled affairs. And both losses have immensely impacted the team’s playoff fate with 323 rushing yards allowed to the Jets that dropped the Broncos to 2-3 and 210 yards receiving -- in a half -- to 49ers tight end George Kittle that dropped them to 6-7. The Broncos offense scored 16 and 14 points respectively in those losses against teams that are currently 28th and 24th respectively in scoring defense.
Broncos keep Joseph because …
The message. Joseph doesn’t control the roster, Elway does. And Elway traded a five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib in the offseason and a five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver in Demaryius Thomas on Oct. 30. The message was future “value" in those trades would clear the way for some younger players to get more opportunities, but neither trade made the Broncos roster better for this season.
Injuries. They are an inescapable fact of NFL life and more than one Super Bowl winner over the years has said relative good health played as big a role in winning as plays made in the biggest moments. Running back Phillip Lindsay will be the eighth player who started multiple games on offense this season who will not be uniform Sunday. The total includes the leading rusher (Lindsay), the leading wide receiver (Emmanuel Sanders), two tight ends (Jake Butt, Jeff Heuerman) and three starters in the offensive line -- Ron Leary, Matt Paradis and Max Garcia. And that’s on offense alone. Toss in a fractured leg for cornerback Chris Harris Jr. -- when the team had just moved to 6-6 -- and the Broncos’ roster was not and is not staffed to overcome all of that.
The schedule. Joseph has actually raised his standing to some in the league, who've crunched the numbers. If the Baltimore Ravens or Pittsburgh Steelers make the postseason, and at least one of them one of them will, the Broncos will have played eight games against playoff teams. They have wins over the Chargers, Steelers and Seahawks to go with a three-point loss to the Rams and a four-point loss to the Chiefs. They’ve shown, when dialed in, they can compete with the league’s best.
The climate. There are many general managers in the league who believe the list of potential head coaching candidates is not particularly deep this year -- “just not good" is how one put it. And Denver still doesn't exactly look like the easiest place to work right now with ownership questions that include a lawsuit and plenty of lawyers exchanging filings to go with the fact if fired it means Joseph would be the third of the Broncos' last four coaches who was on the job two or fewer seasons. And the fourth coach on that list -- Fox -- who made it four years, was let go after four division titles and a Super Bowl trip. So many in the league who want head coaching gigs see a guy fired for success and if Joseph is fired, a guy let go after 32 games on the job. At the moment there is some work to be done on all fronts for the Broncos to restore their standing among the league's great franchises.