From the time Pat Bowlen hired Mike Shanahan in 1995, the Broncos have had five head coaches.
The three who won AFC West titles during their tenures -- Shanahan, John Fox and Gary Kubiak -- each had long NFL résumés, with two decades in coaching and Kubiak also having spent nine years as a player -- before the Broncos hired them for the head-coaching job. And the two who did not -- Josh McDaniels and Vance Joseph -- were fired in two or fewer seasons, combining for three years of at least 10 losses of the four on the job.
There are plenty of the next chapters coming, but when John Elway named Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio as the Broncos’ 17th head coach, he chose experience, the benefits of a long résumé and a track record in the NFL that is now into its fourth decade.
After a year as an assistant in the USFL, Fangio was hired as a linebackers coach for the New Orleans Saints in 1986, and he has been on an NFL staff every year since, save for 2010 when he was Stanford’s defensive coordinator.
After the last two seasons, it was clear Elway wanted the same profile in the new head coach that he had when he hired Fox to replace McDaniels in 2011. Elway liked Joseph and met with him almost daily to talk about the roster and where the team stood. The players played hard for Joseph through the struggles of the past two seasons, and many in the Broncos’ complex have repeatedly said they respected how Joseph conducted himself.
However, Elway kept hinting at the need for more leadership, hinting at a presence, of commanding a meeting room. It’s why, after Elway sifted through the injuries of the past season, including seven players who had started multiple games on offense who ended the season on injured reserve, the trades of Demaryius Thomas and Aqib Talib, and the close losses in eight games against teams that made this year’s playoffs, he still fired Joseph.
“The different voice, and we both decided to make the change,” Elway said. “Again, I hope that we can hire a guy that can be here for the next 10 years, 15 years. But it’s a tough league, and this league is about parity. It’s about creating that, and when you’re good at some point in time, it’s going to catch up to you and that’s the great challenge.”
There is also the matter of what so many in the league are chasing. Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and newly hired Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur represent the next-wave profile across the league.
And all three worked on Mike Shanahan’s staff, learning the offensive principles the Broncos already have with Gary Kubiak, who led the Broncos to their third Super Bowl win and will direct the offense for Fangio.
With Kubiak at Fangio’s side, the Broncos want to get back to the offenses that Shanahan and Kubiak ran while still trying to be innovative. With that goal in mind, they went with experience and more than a hint of toughness.
Fangio has never been a head coach at any level. But the Broncos have had too much change in recent years, too many new offenses, too much turnover at the coordinator spots and too much uncertainty at quarterback for a franchise that had prided itself on churning out wins for so long. So they need the Fangio hire to work and Kubiak’s role in the offense to be productive, because the Broncos are in danger of losing much of the luster they’ve worked so hard to create.
“I think the right kind of guy wants to come into a situation like this because he knows what the expectations are and what our expectations have been for a long period of time,” Elway said. “Therefore, I think guys want that opportunity. They want to come into a spot where they know it’s about football and about winning games. Giving that opportunity, the resources behind him that we can give him, I think it’s a great job.”
Fangio certainly hopes so because he’s waited decades to be a head coach and show he can be exactly that guy.